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16 September 2021

Sense of Place

Growing our city to fit more people doesn’t just mean more buildings, more infrastructure and more transport. Cities should be places where people thrive.


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Eke Panuku is an Auckland Council-controlled organisation that is all about the softer side of urban regeneration. Its role is to create public spaces that are used and enjoyed by the people who spend time in them. Frith Walker, head of placemaking at Eke Panuku, says the concept of placemaking was first applied 10 years ago to the Wynyard Precinct and Viaduct Harbour on Auckland’s urban waterfront. These are now busy and beautiful places offering multiple layers of heritage, recreation, art, hospitality and business while remaining a working waterfront that accommodates the comings and goings of a variety of vessels.

Since then, Eke Panuku has learned much more about the importance of placemaking. The council’s agency continues to invest time and energy in making the Wynyard Precinct and Viaduct Harbour better, and it is also applying the concepts to many other neighbourhoods across Auckland to support growth in a positive way.

So, what is placemaking exactly?  Frith says it touches on the lived experience of built environments.

“The other piece of the puzzle is working with the people of the place, asking about the outcomes for the end user, making sure we’re hearing from the communities, the local businesses and the iwi about their hopes, dreams and aspirations.”

From her office in Wyndham Street, Frith points towards Nelson Street and says, “It’s not easy to create an environment that’s bad for humans. But it’s surprising how often it’s done.”

Building trusting relationships
Drawing on her background in theatre, Frith behaves like the stage manager, working with a team of specialists located in around 18 priority locations in Auckland. They deploy placemaking when they know they can achieve good public space outcomes. From there, they work to build healthy, trusting relationships with the community to bring about significant changes.

Frith’s vision is to create a place where every single person knows who they are, where they’re from, and how they connect to the stories of their place.

“The great privilege I have is working with manu whenua, learning what it means to know your connection to place and understand your whenua, and how dislocated we’ve become. There’s lots to learn from that. There’s a reason we feel depressed and alone. We’ve dropped some stuff along the way. Maybe it’s time to pick it up.”

Large-scale thinking
She explains that Eke Panuku has 10 placemaking principles, with the first being forethought. Before the team goes in, they try to understand the intent of being in that place.

“We come with ambitions for the vision of that place. On the big scale, that’s the master planning and framework k plans for what the place could be. All the locations for Eke Panuku have been chosen because they have potential and a set of ingredients like transport nodes and the space to build more houses.”

Next, they research to get to know the place – really deeply, from an insider’s perspective. They get to know all the people who work in the place. While doing this, they’re constantly checking that their plans meet their first placemaking principle. They are also guided by the catch phrase ‘do, learn, do’.

“Once you understand that big thinking, you get out and you try a really small-scale version of some of the big things and see if that works. If it doesn’t work, you didn’t spend too much money, and you’ve learned something. If it does work, take it into the next space.”

A good example of this is at 38 Hurstmere Road, Takapuna. A commercial building in the town square wasn’t right for the area anymore, so it was decided to pull it down. To investigate what the area needed and to get feedback from local people, Eke Panuku created a smaller-scale, temporary public space that featured what they thought the larger space might need.

This included a pop-up ice skating rink in the middle of Takapuna. In the process, they heard about an old chap who caught a bus every day from Takapuna to Paradice in Avondale.

Panuku’s senior media advisor, Lisa Franklin, says, “He was like, ‘Oh my god, this is great’ and he was off using the rink in Takapuna every day. He was in his 80s.”

Frith acknowledges they don’t always get it right. But that’s the beauty of Do, Learn, Do. “We can’t make everyone happy. But we want to hear the truths about the situation.”

Talking and listening builds trusting relationships
The team talks to a lot of people in the physical space, and not just the most outspoken voices. By watching who is coming and going, they get to know the people they want to hear from, the leaders and the people with good ideas. And they make a big effort to hear from the quieter ones, too. As they work on building trusting relationships, much is revealed about the places. Relationships start to flourish and bear fruit.

“It’s interesting why, sometimes, some people don’t trust council; we listen and we get why they don’t. Other times, we’re like, ‘oh, please, just give us a chance’ – because we’re OK,” says Frith.

The most visible things are activations, interventions and events – think the painted pianos, the food trucks and astroturf playgrounds, the improvements at Silo Park, and the work done to make sure the waterfront has an ongoing programme of activities alongside major events like Matariki, Christmas and other relevant occasions. For example, Chinese and Korean New Year is fundamentally important to Northcote.

Generally the programmes have a creative bent.

“Hopefully it’s stuff that makes you stop and think about a place, and maybe it makes you smile,” says Frith.

At the other end of the scale, Eke Panuku upgrades the streetscape, and always talks to the community about what that will look and feel like.

Attracting developers
The intention is that by creating attractive public spaces, developers will want to come and build nearby.

Lisa explains that Panuku has land holdings that it sells on behalf of council – and these come with pre-set outcomes.

“We say we’ve got a place – a piece of land on the waterfront. We want to sell it to someone who will create a building that reaches a certain level of sustainability, and we have a requirement for retail opportunities that offer business space and maybe some residential space. Our role is to create all the lovely space around it to join everything up and make it somewhere people want to be.”

Panuku’s zone is the place where people move around and connect, sit and enjoy the sunshine – the public space between the developments.

Says Frith: “In my experience, the development community is absolutely clear about the benefits that brings. We’re taking the responsibility for the public space – it adds value, brings attraction.”

This is already apparent in spaces like Avondale or Onehunga where Panuku has been planning to regenerate the public areas for some time. Suddenly, there are places like Aroha by Ockham Development, and Fabric of Onehunga by Lamont & Co – private developments. Neighbourhoods grow based on the knowledge that Panuku is about to go in and improve the area. Panuku and the developers work closely together to achieve the same goal.

“A developer is coming in and we say, ‘welcome, here are the things we’d like to see from you’. That’s pretty powerful,” says Frith.

Lisa adds: “It’s all about sustainability, lowering the carbon footprint, being kind, making something that’s really futureproofed.

Good things take time
Putting life into an inanimate object takes long-term planning. There’s plenty of talk before you see results. Building healthy communities takes time, but we’re starting to see ribbons being cut.

Auckland is fortunate not to have slums or high-density tenement blocks to upgrade, so there’s a lot of learning Eke Panuku can glean from overseas examples. But they can also learn from manu whenua, says Frith.

“We’re together at the beginning of the process and we ask how we can work alongside them. There’s a real cross-global conversation around how indigenous knowledge can help us live better – people who actually understand what it is to be related to the planet; it’s pretty critical to us right now. We need to think about how we might all move forward together.”

Daylighting streams

Before any development can begin, Eke Panuku also looks at places from an ecological perspective. Sometimes that involves restoring natural streams, which have been hidden underground in culverts, using daylighting – bringing them to the surface again. Sarah Zwart from Panuku has worked with various agencies on Awatahi Stream in Northcote and Puhinui Stream in Manukau. It involves replanting native species using Maori techniques to create attractive reserves.

“The work we’ve done on  daylighting the stream in Northcote is not just about regeneration of the area and bringing the natural flora and fauna back. Part of the land was no use to anybody, so we turned it into a terraced classroom to get the kids involved. They’ve built a plant nursery where they learn how to gather seeds, and sow and grow. It’s a way of getting the community involved and caring for the future; placemaking at its most tangible,” says Lisa.

Lisa says that whether we liked it or not, we were forced to enjoy nature when Covid-19 locked us down last year. That’s when it hit home how important it is to enjoy our neighbourhoods, and how we rely on our communities. In some way, Covid forced us to reset our thinking about where and how we live.

“Do we want to go back to the way we were?” she asks. “This is a good opportunity to take the good bits of what we used to have and the good bits of what we have now, and actually make some real changes.”

Frith says, “There’s a whole lot of people whose lives aren’t that great in the city. We have to start thinking better as a system of interconnected humans. We need to think more about each other and a bit less like, ‘what’s in it for me’. There is too much going wrong right now for us to be playing on the deck of the Titanic.”

Everybody deserves a better place to live. Placemaking is not just a ‘nice to have’, she says.

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