Community initiative or commercial enterprise? How a planter box-slash-chair is trying to revolutionise berms around Auckland.
On the corner of Ariki Street and Crummer Road in Grey Lynn is a cafe called Crumb. It’s a good cafe, but that’s by-the-by. It’s the berm next to Crumb that’s controversial; it’s at the centre of a dispute between Auckland Council, Auckland Transport (AT), the Waitematā local board, and the cafe itself.
On top of the berm is a structure of seats that double as planter boxes. They were built in January to encourage pollination and to allow people to sit down. To Crumb and its customers, the berm structure – which is left out overnight – brings lavender, bees, and respite. But to AT, which owns the berm, it’s a commercial enterprise that sets a dangerous precedent for berm use.
In February, someone made a complaint to Auckland Council about the planter box seats. The council (which operates separately from AT) doesn’t own the berm but it does enforce its rules. It knows furniture is not in the berm description and it will not be swayed by delicious coffees.
Miles Harty, one of Crumb’s owners, remembers an early visit from a council staff member as pleasant. He was a street vending inspector and simply confirmed to Harty the area that was licensed, which didn’t include the berm. Crumb is a small cafe, with all its seating outdoors. It has a permit for the footpath outside, so long as there’s space for prams to get past. Usually, bean bags are distributed alongside traditional furniture; they’re easy to move on and off the street.
But the complaint moved up a level when Harty pointed out that actually, he’d like to keep the planter box seats on the berm, arguing that although use of the berm could be considered commercial activity, the seats’ contribution to the community was worth permitting.
He’s not just saying that because – plot twist – the berm furniture was built by a member of the Waitematā local board, TOP candidate Adriana Christie.
In 2017, target outcomes set for the Waitematā local board included the development of community spaces and enhancement of the natural environment. The berm furniture, which is built to house plants that attract pollinating animals, is something Christie feels is strongly in line with these values.
“The seats are loved by everyone on the street,” said Christie. “Even when Crumb closes down at night people are still using it. They’re sitting out there and having hot chocolates and stuff.”
“Crumb’s had a really hard time with council,” she said. “They just don’t let them do things.”
Last week, times with council got rock-hard. Isaac McFarlane, a Crumb staff member, remembers two council staff members turning up.
“They specifically asked for the owner and then they said something to the effect of ‘it looks like you got a lot of stuff out here that’s gonna be more than you’re permitted to have, and anything over the permits will have to be confiscated’,” he recalled.
McFarlane then asked them for evidence they’d been sent by the council to do so. “They started searching their phones for any email or document about that and obviously had nothing.”
After around half an hour Harty turned up to explain the ongoing situation, and they left.
Max Wilde, team manager of compliance response at Auckland Council, said the council officers McFarlane encountered had not been sent to seize the berm furniture. “The council officers you are asking about visited the cafe not to remove anything, but to speak with the business’s staff,” he said. “We have visited on several occasions to talk about how the cafe can meet its obligations and we intend to continue to do so because we think the situation can be resolved to everyone’s benefit.”
According to Wilde, although AT issues berm licences, the council is its delegated authority for enforcing the rules. “The public safety and nuisance bylaw can be enforced by both arms of the council, and applies to quite a wide range of things, including leaving furniture and other property on public land without permission,” he said. He added it was great to see local businesses doing well.
AT owns Auckland’s berms so that both traffic and pedestrians can move safely. Residents are currently not permitted to plant on berms, although guerilla planting of nettles and herbs on another Crummer Road berm has survived unbothered by council, according to Christie.
Yesterday, a meeting between Crumb and the council included a suggestion the berm be concreted over so it becomes a street vending issue rather than a berm issue. Harty was surprised by this and asked if he could pay someone to concrete the berm. The council said no.
Another local board representative, Graeme Gunthorp, and Harty pushed at the meeting for the berm furniture to be considered a guinea pig for future berm developments. Or, in Christie’s words, “guerilla tactical urbanism”, similar to the Crummer Road berm.
Ultimately, it was decided to edit Crumb’s license to allow more seating off the berm, and overnight. “We’re keeping our trading licence the same, and all they said was we just needed to move our [berm furniture] from where they are to where the other seats are,” said Harty. The council would then add to Crumb’s licence that the furniture be allowed to stay out overnight.
Christie said that AT had finally picked up on the case, and this week Harty will apply for a land encroachment license from AT, which would permit the cafe’s use of the berm. “We’ve basically been given a deadline on these seats being there, but we’ve also been given a way out,” said Harty. “Same but different.”
A representative from AT is yet to attend any meetings, but Christie and Harty are hopeful that Crumb will soon be allowed to pollinate and caffeinate on the berm.