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Tourists at a sidewalk cafe, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain (Photo: Getty)
Tourists at a sidewalk cafe, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain (Photo: Getty)

SocietySeptember 25, 2019

Let’s take a tip from Europe and prioritise plazas over car parks

Tourists at a sidewalk cafe, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain (Photo: Getty)
Tourists at a sidewalk cafe, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain (Photo: Getty)

Having just returned from a trip to Spain, Avondale resident Maria Slade wonders what New Zealand can do to create more spaces for locals to gather and hang out. 

The Spanish have a thing they call la hora de paseo – literally, the hour to walk.

It occurs after the strangely quiet time of the siesta when shops and businesses shut from just after lunch until late afternoon. At around 5 or 6 pm the streets suddenly come to life again with people out shopping, strolling and watching the world go by in local cafes. The smartly dressed Iberians (Spain’s dress code never slips much below smart casual) will sit sipping a leisurely wine or coffee and gossiping to their neighbours, because dinner won’t be for hours. It’s a convivial ritual that’s very easy to get used to (believe me).

It would be culturally barbarous to separate a Spaniard from their right to a daily constitutional. The design of Spanish towns reflects this with a leafy square or colonnade-lined plaza at the heart of every residential area. On a recent trip to Spain, I saw the same evening scene played out from the mountain towns of Asturias to the Madrid suburbs –  old people parked companionably on benches, kids scuffling over a football, dog walkers stopping in streetside cafes. 

And then I arrived home in Avondale, one of Auckland’s shabbier corners thanks to decades of local government bickering and inaction. Although it has huge potential with new apartment developments springing up, great public transport links and a thriving school, the heart of my ‘hood remains a dismal collection of two-dollar shops and money lenders fringing a rubbish-strewn lot that has lain empty for longer than anyone can remember.

There is some reason for optimism at last, however. Auckland Council says the design phase of a new library and community centre is due to begin late this year. The project is part of a 15-year plan by its development arm, Panuku, to rejuvenate Avondale. Panuku now owns the eyesore empty site at the town’s core, although in the two years since the purchase there has been precious little update on what it intends to do with it.

Nevertheless, the overall aim is to “create a new heart for Avondale that integrates a new community facility, town square and open space which reflects its unique identity”. Waiting another 15 years for this to come to pass feels exhausting, but I’m staying positive.

Certainly in the consultation phase of the library/community centre project, Avondaleans sent the message loud and clear that they want meeting spaces, activities for older people, recreational facilities and cultural events. My fervent hope is that local politicians and council design wallahs have spent time hanging out in countries like Spain.

The planned Takapuna car park redevelopment has become a defining issue of the local body election.

It is more than the burghers of Takapuna appear to have done. On the other side of the bridge, Panuku is battling locals over its plans to turn the seaside suburb’s Anzac Street car park into offices, apartments and a new town square, with the long-running stoush now a defining issue of next month’s local body elections. You’d have thought aggressive social media campaigns and a potentially fake petition would be beneath the well-heeled beachside burbs, but there you go.

So let’s just get this straight. These good citizens are lobbying to retain car parks at the expense of more pedestrian-friendly, community spaces. Right-oh.

New Zealand Geographic editor Rebekah White has argued that New Zealanders suffer from the lack of a ‘third place’ – a neutral space such as a local cafe, park or square where they can gather and linger, without pressure. The European experience shows this sense of togetherness is a powerful antidote to loneliness and poor mental health, particularly in old age.

What Avondale currently lacks in flash streetscapes it makes up for in cultural diversity and community spirit. Its long-established Samoan population is particularly community-minded and ripe for making the most of new facilities and spaces.

I’m pinning my hopes on the people of Avondale showing a greater degree of common sense than the political establishment of some of our more affluent suburbs.

Keep going!