Recent talk of a stadium on Auckland’s waterfront costing hundreds of millions is all very well, but how about seeing an old treasure through new eyes and planning for the future of Western Springs. With the amount of use the area gets, I can’t think of better bang for the ratepayer buck.
At the moment Western Springs is a collection of disparate elements – but it could be a beautifully-designed whole. It’s crying out for it. Think about what’s currently there.
The Auckland Zoo is in the middle of a $120million overhaul, projected to attract a million visitors per year within the decade – and it’s already pulling in 700,000.
MOTAT has new leadership, great ideas, 250,000 visitors a year and an abundance of prime land. It also has a bold architectural plan, conceived by the late Ian Athfield, awaiting funding and action.
There’s the speedway, the Western Springs soccer club, the Ponsonby Rugby Club, and the Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC) – each one a drawcard in its own right.
Add to that Pasifika, Auckland City Limits and other concerts, not to mention the thousands of families of all ethnicities who stroll around Western Springs Park on weekends, enjoying the special ecological features and Meola Creek.
Taken together, it’s a huge chunk of urban land, possibly the most-used in Auckland. Eden Park gets much more attention and has far fewer people using it.
As Auckland’s population increases, our open spaces will become increasingly more precious. Preparing for that means seeing and treating Western Springs as a destination.
Part of that is understanding the area as an ecological whole. To the west of Meola reef is a volcanic lava flow that extends right out into the harbour. In the other direction it extends across Meola Rd into Western Springs. Its waterways flow through to Chamberlain Park and beyond. Together, it’s a wide greenbelt, an environmental treasure that could do with the kind of design that will help Aucklanders really use and enjoy it from one end to the other.
I’m a fan of living bridges linking our green spaces. A cycle and pedestrian bridge across Meola Road could link these two parts. Another to cross the multiple road lanes of Great North Road and the North-western Motorway into Chamberlain Park would enable an uninterrupted ‘green ride’ through these landscapes.
At the moment, every big event within Western Springs needs a special transport plan. The place buzzes – yet it can be inconvenient and inefficient to get to resulting in congestion and parking chaos.
Surely it qualifies for smart modern infrastructure and transport. In the short term, at the very least, the Great North Rd bus route should be upgraded, with expanded timetables servicing Western Springs, the zoo and MOTAT.
The area is actually handy to trains, though at the moment you wouldn’t know it. Baldwin Ave Station is close and an improved pedestrian/bike route between Western Springs and the golf course would connect people to it and go a long way to addressing the access problems that now exist.
Meanwhile, the Zoo, MOTAT, TAPAC and other parts are currently atomised, focusing on their own individual development, simply because there’s no big-picture plan for them to work within. Could light rail help? What about a pedestrian/cycleway underpass at St Lukes? Could the vintage tram route be expanded to make the trams truly functional and useful?
Our waterways – like Meola Creek – have been taken for granted over decades, parts of them neglected and built-over, but they’re still there, waiting to be rediscovered and cherished by a new generation of Aucklanders.
The waterways are the living link between all these areas: Chamberlain Park, Western Springs and the Harbour. The water runs down from one of our precious maunga, Mt Owairaka to the sea.
I’d like to see urban designers grappling with these issues: pulling the disparate parts together into a modern, user-friendly precinct.
The natural environment is unique and should be preserved and enhanced: cycle ways, pedestrian paths, water flows and thoughtful, effective public transport.
The local communities, and the many using this space are passionate about it and should have a big say in the form of the design. That enthusiasm was able to save the Pohutukawa grove on Great North Road opposite MOTAT last year. It was a lesson in how well-loved the area is, and how invested locals rightly are in it. They are best insurance against lazy design.
With the City Rail Link on its way and a safe network of cycle lanes slowly taking shape, it feels like Auckland is growing up.
But perhaps – in reaching for more big, expensive projects – we’re at risk of overlooking some of the beauty that’s already here.
I think it’s time for Auckland’s planners to look at Western Springs with fresh eyes and deliver us a precinct that will be another jewel in Auckland’s crown.
*This post has also been published on TransportBlog.