Scot Bathgate, as guest editor this week, introduces work by Auckland’s Alan Gray:
My good friend Alan Gray is a Senior Urban Designer for Panuku Development Auckland (a new division created from the merger of Waterfront Auckland and Auckland Council Properties).
I asked him if he would be interested in sharing his knowledge and experiences for developing the amazing new spaces along Auckland’s waterfront and he kindly provided the following on Test space use for Waitemata Plaza. There are great lessons here for all the municipalities in Vancouver looking to develop public urban realm
Effective Engagement Tools: A small case study from Auckland’s Waitemata Plaza
by Alan Gray
Traditionally, design experts have utilised the tried-and-true workshop or charrette formats to engage the public. But many wanting to participate cannot attend, plans can be abstract, and emotionally charged venues can be intimidating.
One of the methods we have been using at Waterfront Auckland has been site trials and testing. I want to share a mini case study on site trials from one of our recently implemented projects, Waitemata Plaza.
Map and images here.
Waterfront Auckland set aside some money (8 percent in this case) from the project budget to gauge feedback prior to any formal design investigation. “Fast-Cheap-Easy” was the idea.
Public work sessions helped develop a list from nearby residents, walking commuters, local office workers, design students and visitors for “softening and greening” the plaza. But what does this mean to inform an actual design? Stakeholder response included fake turf, real lawn, trees, gardens, sand and timber decks – and perhaps a kiosk to help activate the space.
This led to the development of the Waitemata Plaza site trials. We wanted to start very simple and build from that. The trials were set to last through the summer months.
To kick things off, we produced a video where I introduced the trials.
Trial Step 1- The Carpet
The existing plaza was made up of very uneven cobbles that were difficult for walking commuters, so the first step was a 60m length of red synthetic turf over a thick foam pad: the Red Carpet. It was literally an invitation into the space.
Trial Step 2- Urban Beach and Synthetic Turf Lawn
A month after the red carpet, we implemented an urban beach and lawn area very close to the inner harbour. The beach had shade umbrellas and lounge chairs; the turf area had café tables, chairs and umbrellas. The public, so unaccustomed to moveable chairs and tables, initially thought this was built for a private event. They loved that it was for them!
Trial Step 3- Kiosk Activation
The space was a great destination for the lunchtime crowd. We rolled in a local ice-cream company’s kiosk – those really cool stainless steel cubes – and worked out an arrangement whereby in exchange for free rent, the vendor would be responsible for the setup and takedown of all the furniture each day. They also became an invaluable source for getting feedback from users of the trial space.
During the trial period, the space was used to host several events, including a massive Dragonboat Regatta where over 400 participants were based!
Trial Step 4- Trees
To provide additional shade and green, I forklifted in several of the pohutukawa tree planters from Queens Wharf. The native trees made a big change in the scale and comfort of the space.
Trial Step 5- Timber Decks
We modified some shipping palettes to make stacked decks in both the beach and turf areas, and added some sling lounge chairs and bean bags. These were a hit.
Monitoring and Feedback
As important as the trials was feedback that would influence the final design of the space. What were user’s preferences for materials? Where did users linger? How did they move through the space?
Behaviours were recorded through different monitoring techniques (Gehl-style observational and time-lapse camera), direct interviews with users and comment cards.
Social media feedback was extremely valuable. We got loads of feedback. Black Adder’s Sir Tony Robinson even filmed a segment on the Anzac Centenary in the urban beach.
So what did the trials mean for the redesign of the space?
Local residents in multi-million dollar apartments that overlook the space were somewhat critical of the fast-cheap-easy approach. They feared the usual ‘antisocial behaviour breeding ground’ type activities- but these never proved to be the case. The residents were some of the biggest users of the beach. One couple had a ritual of drinks on their balcony, a dip in the pool and lost hours on a lounger in the beach.
People really enjoyed the quiet contemplative space that contrasts with the very active Wynyard Quarter, and loved the colour and quirkiness. I spoke with quite a few visitors from cruise ships who wanted something like this back home.
The close proximity of the beach to the water informed the design about the location of the Jeppe Hein art benches. The lawn and trees became key elements, with landforms that related to the quiet views and solar orientation to the harbour.
All of this was informed by the trials.
Unfortunately the beach did not make the final design. The effects of wind migration gave some of the nearby berthed sailboats a mild sandblasting. However, we have done another version of the urban beach at Queens Wharf where it is better suited.
Palette decking gave way to a hardwood timber deck with a perching seat edge where future kiosks can be located.
And almost all of the kit used in the trials has gone on to be recycled into other spaces and events.
A few shots of the final Waitemata Plaza project with before and after images was posted in PriceTags on 28 July 2015 here.