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Te Aro Park by night (top left) and Civic Square by day (bottom right) Photos: Getty Images)
Te Aro Park by night (top left) and Civic Square by day (bottom right) Photos: Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyNovember 14, 2023

Hear me out: Wellington should ditch Civic Square and make Te Aro Park its heart

Te Aro Park by night (top left) and Civic Square by day (bottom right) Photos: Getty Images)
Te Aro Park by night (top left) and Civic Square by day (bottom right) Photos: Getty Images)

Wellington’s Civic Square is lifeless and earthquake-damaged. Te Aro Park should be the new heart of the capital, argues Joel MacManus.

The news last week that Wellington City Council won’t fund repair for the City to Sea Bridge or various other repairs in Te Ngākau Civic Square leaves a question hanging: what will happen to the space now?

Te Ngākau has been living a pathetic, neutered existence for several years now, allowed to remain as a mostly abandoned shell of its former self. The square was once busiest as a lunch spot for council staff but they have all moved to The Terrace now. Most of the square’s foot traffic is people heading to and from the waterfront via the bridge, which may now be torn down. Te Matapihi Central Library and the Town Hall are still being repaired, but even when they reopen the square won’t be what it once was.

Civic Square’s most notable purpose in recent years has been as the starting point for every significant protest, but it doesn’t play a part in the everyday life of Wellingtonians the way a great public square should. 

Civic Square in 2021 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The council is currently working on a plan to breathe new life into Te Ngākau Civic Square, but maybe it’s just time to move on. Wellington can continue to cling to the passing memory of a public space that was briefly fun for about a decade, or it can have a real discussion about creating a true city plaza. 

The great city plazas of the world are open spaces that serve as the very heart of the city’s retail and entertainment districts, linked by good transit and surrounding by walkable streets. They create a hub where people want to gather and where retail and hospitality spots wants to set up, offering all-day entertainment and value uplift for the surrounding buildings.

Te Ngākau Civic Square is a convenient clustering of some large council-owned buildings, but it doesn’t have any retail frontage or anything that makes businesses want to locate themselves nearby. It is geographically central, but not well-linked for access; it’s a block away from the Golden Mile and cut off from the waterfront by a highway. Rather than being in the natural centre of town, it’s shunted off to the side and surprisingly hard for tourists to find. 

Te Aro Park (Photo: Maribeth Coleman via Wellington City Libraries/Creative Commons)

But there is somewhere in central Wellington that, if developed into a true city plaza, could be a jewel in the city’s crown: Te Aro Park. 

Te Aro Park is perfectly located at the nexus of Wellington’s two great entertainment streets: Courtenay Place and Cuba St. It’s a direct walk down Taranaki St to the most activated section of the waterfront. It’s extremely central to basically every good bar, theatre and cafe in the city and is immediately serviced by public transport. 

Te Aro Park has historical and cultural significance as the former site of Te Aro Pā; you can see some of the foundations on display on Taranaki St. Waimapihi Stream still bubbles underneath it. 

A 3d model of Te Aro Park from above

The current form of Te Aro Park, which used to be known as Pigeon Park, was developed in 1992 by artist Shona Rapira Davies​. The final outcome is one of Aotearoa’s most striking and impressive pieces of public landscape art, but it falls short in its function as a public space. There isn’t enough flat space to hold events or enough grass to really count as a green space. The seats are cold concrete. It is surrounded by roads on both sides, which make it uninviting and hard to access. 

Te Aro Park today is dingy, creepy and uncool. It is a hotspot for all sorts of dodgy behaviour. Rather than adding vibrancy to the CBD, it drags the whole area down. 

The Pōneke Promise, a council initiative focused on safety in the centre city, has made strides to de-shittify Te Aro Park by improving nighttime visibility. This has helped a bit, but with a few small changes, Te Aro Park could still be so much more. 

At one end of Te Aro Park is the prow, seen here, and at the other end is the Oaks building. Dixon St runs to the left in this image, and Manners St to the right (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

You could start by pedestrianising Dixon St. The council already got halfway there last year by replacing a row of carparks with a wooden walkway and some parklets. Paving over the road would increase the size of the park by 50%, and connect it directly to Eva St and Egmont St, two excellent laneways full of cool bars and eateries. 

Then, you could demolish the Oaks building, which sits on council-owned land Te Aro Park and Cuba St. It’s a dated and half-empty retail strip that former mayor Andy Foster once called “not the greatest of buildings” (in other words, it’s dogshit). These two moves alone would expand the park from 0.23 hectares to 0.78h, and connect it to the rest of Cuba Mall. 

The area of Te Aro Park if the Oaks building was removed.

The existing Civic Square could still serve as a nice courtyard for library visitors and city workers. If the bridge has to be torn down it could become a larger green space. It’s a great public area that shouldn’t been tossed aside, but it won’t ever be the true heart-of-the-city plaza that Te Aro Park could become.

Keep going!