From playgrounds to swimming pools, libraries to community groups, third places are essential for any city to build pockets of thriving community.
In cities all over the world, public spaces and facilities are packed with life. At lunch times benches in parks are filled with workers getting fresh air on their breaks, as school finishes, public pools become havens for kids learning the essentials of staying afloat, and throughout the day libraries swarm with the hushed shuffles of students, retirees, children and their parents.
In the diversity of these spaces, there is both shelter and exposure to the outdoors, places to sit quietly and run freely, and the opportunity to connect with others. These “third places” are central to the building and fostering of communities all over the globe.
Third places are not a new concept. If first and second are home and school/work, third places are the hubs, halls, and hoods where communities go to socialise. Parks, playgrounds, pools, libraries and community centres are all third places for thousands of Aucklanders, and the relationship between the places and their users is a symbiotic one – each helping the other to thrive.
Anisa Haq found her third place at her local library and community centre, Te Manawa. When I call her, Haq scolds me, gently, for not coming to visit in person. “I think everyone from central Auckland should come to this library,” she says. “It is truly world class.”
Te Manawa was funded through Auckland Council’s Long-term Plan, known as the LTP, the 10-year budgeting process that takes the long view for what should be happening for communities. Desley Simpson, Auckland’s deputy mayor, describes the LTP as an opportunity for councillors, who have three-year terms, to think about what the city might need, even if it goes beyond their own political cycle. The LTP is created by the mayor, then councillors and local boards get to have input into what it funds before Aucklanders can submit on decisions in their communities. “For any local board to have an idea in the LTP, they might have to put it up [for funding] again and again – these big projects take a long time to get approval,” Simpson says.
To the deputy mayor, Te Manawa is a perfect example of what can happen when communities speak up, loudly, for the services they want. “There was growth in that area of Auckland, the local board was looking for a library and community centre … and since we opened that, it’s become the busiest children’s library in Auckland and gets at least 250,000 visitors a year.”
Costing $27m to develop, Te Manawa has a Citizens Advice Bureau, a Makerspace filled with tools for sewing and printing and embroidering, meeting and function space, and a commercial kitchen. And it’s beautiful: big glass windows let in heaps of light, but inside it’s toasty, with blonde wooden shelves, curvy beanbags for kids to plop into, long and spacious desks for people who want to do work. In a part of Auckland where the population is growing rapidly, it’s a vital community resource, for now and the future.
A migrant, Haq has lived in New Zealand for 27 years. She enjoyed central Auckland, but since moving out west, she’s discovered Te Manawa through Age Concern. With a library that good, she doesn’t see the need to ever go back.
“You can’t be lonely here,” she says. She comes to the library several times a week – she’s involved in a writing group, a crafting group and a social group – some of whom are going to celebrate Christmas together.
Haq is a writer; her work for children has been published overseas. But she’s had a hard time getting involved in the writing scene in New Zealand. Te Manawa has helped here, too. The writing group she is part of meets in the evenings, meaning people who work 9-5 hours can attend, and for International Women’s day her writing was published in a women’s anthology the group published. “It was a good stepping stone to have my writing in New Zealand,” she says.
From the community events celebrating Pacific languages to the easy access to the community hub from nearby Westgate Mall and lots of bus routes, Haq feels like the place is “always buzzing”. It helps that she lives nearby. “I call it my library, you know, although it’s our library – I feel a sense of ownership over it.”
There are dozens of places like this across Auckland: genuine “third spaces”, places to be that aren’t work or home.
‘Most days, the toddlers play pool is chocka block with little bubbas,” says Brynn Armstrong, describing a day in the life at the Albany Stadium Pool. “The other day a couple came in with a little baby and they looked nervous so I went up to them and they said that it was their first time taking their baby to the swimming pool – and I just thought, what an absolute privilege to be able to provide that.”
The Albany Stadium Pool opened in 2016, and cost $21m to develop. “It took years and years of lobbying and went through four mayors before finally opening,” says Simpson, who is intimately familiar with the questions around where funding goes that get decided at the council table.
Those years of lobbying have left Albany with one of the few pools in Auckland developed especially for learning to swim. There is a pool for doing laps, but it’s shorter and warmer than most – perfect for beginners. Armstrong, the manager at the Albany Stadium Pool, was drawn to it for this reason – as are many families, for whom the pool provides an opportunity to learn and connect with others.
“People want water, and there’s not enough of it,” Armstrong says. She loves the idea that kids and families who are learning to swim and gaining confidence in the water will then be able to take that skill beyond the walls of the pool, to beaches and rivers and lakes. The pool isn’t a place for the hardcore athletes – it’s a place for joy and fun for kids and adults alike.
As a council facility, the pool is much cheaper than other private pools in the area – and the scale of the pool is only possible with public money. It’s the kind of long-term investment in a community space whose benefit reaches far beyond its physical location that the council can provide: not just the basic services or roads and rubbish, but the ability to have fun, too.
In South Auckland, another beloved new community facility soars over Manakau: the Hayman Park playground, which features the tallest play tower in the country at 13 metres high. “You see heaps of families travelling into the area to use the playground, as well as the flying fox and pump tracks,” says community sport play lead Taylor Kamuhemu. The playground has rubber mats and toys like xylophones at a lower level, to make it more accessible for kids with disabilities – or just those who aren’t ready to brave the heights of the tower yet.
“Jumping, hopping, going down slides, that adrenaline rush – there’s not enough facilities for all those experiences in South Auckland,” Kamuhemu says. There’s much less tree cover and green space in South Auckland than in other parts of the city, and families often travelled to go to nicer playgrounds. “We’ve needed it for a long time.”
To create the playground, there was an extensive process of consultation with the community through Eke Panuku Development Auckland and the Ōtara-Papatoetoe Local Board, which included feedback that there should be another basketball half-court, which older kids love. “ We need to have more space for unstructured play, like climbing trees and going on swings, being active,” Kamuhemu says. As a play advisor, a lot of her job is in schools, encouraging there to be space for kids to explore on their own. “This is just the start – there should be more facilities like this.”
Like Te Manawa, Hayman Park is close to a mall, which is already drawing people to the area. South Auckland’s population is also increasing, making it all the more important to have facilities to cater for this growth. The beautiful playground, which includes multiple activities for all ages set in 10 hectares of parkland, is a great addition to all that Manukau offers, and makes it possible for some active, adventurous play along with visits to the shops and food court.
“It’s become a fabulous playground,” Simpson says. To her, these are examples of how important it is for people to speak up for the changes they want to see as the council consults on its LTP. “There’s never a council that isn’t financially challenged,” she explains. “As councillors, we have to have a helicopter view over Auckland to make sure that all parts of the city are well resourced with community facilities. People may look at the LTP as just what rates they’ll have to pay, but just as important is the question of what is being funded – that is why community feedback is so important, so we know what to prioritise.”
For Haq, Armstrong and Kamuhemu, the consultation will be an opportunity to share their love for the spaces that enrich both their communities and their own lives. For the hundreds of other beloved council-owned community spaces in Auckland that provide the same experience to millions of other people, the consultation is just as important.
The LTP process particularly highlights how what the council provides isn’t just services, but spaces for recreation and joy. “A happy, healthy, active Auckland is a prospering Auckland,” Simpson says. “I believe a great city is a city where there are areas for recreation and places for communities to meet and enjoy.”
The community advocates benefitting from the council’s investment in space for people of all ages to play certainly agree. “Pools and rec centres will be something we always need,” Armstrong says. “If there’s anything we need, it’s more investment.”
Consultation on the Long-term Plan runs between 28 Feb and 28 March 2024. Have your say at akhaveyoursay.nz.