By David Batchelor, Planner and Heritage Advisor at Harrison Grierson.
Twenty-seven people and three dogs occupied Kelburn Park in Wellington at 5:36 pm last Tuesday.
The lockdown has pushed many people into 'formal' recreational parks for the first time; myself included. These parks have proven essential for people to regain their freedom. But, most importantly, the lockdown is teaching New Zealanders the art of using public space.
During my regular visits to Kelburn Park, I have witnessed New Zealanders becoming accustomed to using public spaces as outdoor living rooms. People are adopting the confidence to occupy public space and the ability to define its use, as seen in European and Asian cultures.
In week one of lockdown, few people lingered long in the park; most users walked in and out without stopping. Week two saw parents bring their children to the park, and a few dogs and owners played fetch. Week three had the young and old reading on benches, strolling couples, and a mother failing to motivate her son to play frisbee.
These are giant steps for New Zealanders who are traditionally private individuals. Perhaps social distancing is encouraging people to try new activities in public without the fear of criticism. Maybe cabin fever has outweighed the desire for privacy.
There is a regular crowd at Kelburn Park who nod to each other from a respectful two-metre distance. At this rate, Kelburn Park risks creating a sophisticated public-life or cité-atmosphere; perhaps an agora-on-the-hill.
I agree with Mark Ashby from 4Sight Consulting Ltd, who noted Wellingtonians are privileged to have many green spaces nearby, and we should enhance and develop these spaces as part of urban densification efforts. I add that we should also maintain our new public life through the continual and collective effort to create, explore, and redefine these spaces as public.
Before lockdown, Wellington City Council engaged the Gehl Institute to study the city's public spaces and inform future interventions to enhance these spaces. I volunteered to take part in the study when it reconvenes later this year, and I hope to see people continuing to occupy public spaces.
To summarise, the lockdown has taught New Zealanders to use public spaces in the manner they were intended. It attests we do not have to travel overseas to find a vibrant public life - it only takes a global pandemic.
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