The Key to Safe Streets: Five Cities Humanizing Street Design

The Story of a New Zealand Placemaker: The Waitematā is my sea

Frith Walker
Jun 17, 2019
Jun 18, 2019

Frith Walker is Manager Place Making at Panuku Development Auckland, and helps lead annual Placemaking Week New Zealand.

Kia Ora from Aotearoa!

This phrase is understood to mean “Hello from New Zealand,” but actually means something (more) like “well-being to you from the Land of the Long White Cloud.” The thing is, the Indigenous language of our country, te reo Māori (the Māori language), does not translate into English simply. In fact, no languages simply translate into another; something is generally lost (or gained) along the way.

I personally find all of this interesting in my work as a placemaker because of the deep connection that language has to place and how, just maybe, in moving away from Indigenous thinking (and knowledge) in our urban, super-easy-to-monetize-and-measure way of operating, we have lost knowledge that was fundamental to us being healthy humans on a healthy planet.

If this were a speech, and I was introducing myself in the proper way for the traditions of this country in accordance with tikanga, I would recite my pepeha. (Please note at this point that my family is not Indigenous to this country, so I do not have a real right to state connection at this level to these places. The following is a construction to provide an illustration.) The first bit would go something like:

“Ko Waitematā te moana
Ko Rangitoto te maunga
Ko Pakihi tōku turangawaewae
Kotirana tōku ukaipo”

Meaning, roughly…

“The Waitematā is my ocean
Rangitoto is my mountain
Pakihi is the place where I stand (literally, the place of my legs)
Scotland is my origin/where my bones are from”

The next bit of my pepeha would be to name my ancestry—the families/tribes from which I come, and then, finally, I would say my name. This is the way that the first peoples of this land introduce themselves. And interestingly,as I am learning, also how my own mostly Celtic ancestral lines would have introduced themselves. Place and lineage before name, and certainly before job title or place of work. Where you came from, and who you came from, carries more importance than what you do. It helps define you and gives deep clues as to who you are as a person, giving your audience a deep and rich picture of you as a person, connected through genealogy and place.

There is a word in te reo Māori which seems useful at this juncture: Whakapapa. Meaning roughly your genealogy, lineage or descent, it is a concept which embodies the interconnectedness of all things. The understanding of it heals the nature/culture divide, recognizes the relationship between past, present, and future, takes a multigenerational viewpoint and, in turn, relates our actions now to the well-being of future generations. Iwi (Maori nations) here talk about making 500-year plans, understanding that we evolve together, with place, and as part of a continuum that stretches far beyond our own visible horizons. From a biological perspective, this is literally true—the physical parts of the world from which we come play a physical role in defining who we are. The hard part of this conversation is that an awful lot of us are thousands of years (and probably just as many sailing ships) away from our ancestral, indigenous lands and therefore access to this deep knowledge. Which can make for a very tricky conversation when it comes to actually connecting with a place.

But that probably deserves an article of its own—perhaps more than one. So back to “my” ocean!

This is the Waitemata – the island to the left is Rangitoto, the smaller one to the right is Motukorea, and the tiny, barely visible grey triangle right off in the distance in the middle is Pakihi.

I grew up on the shores of this harbor—I learned to swim in it, my dad learned to sail on it, my grandfather learned how to stop its beaches from eroding, and my great-grandfather learned how to ship red jasper shingle from the family island (Pakihi, mentioned above) to the driveways of Remuera. This water body has been central to the evolution of my family for some 155 years, and I am deeply grateful for its daily presence in my life. So in this I am incredibly lucky. Every day I get a reminder of connection to place—of my connection to my family’s history here, and also of my connection to our natural environment. I am even more lucky to be able to sense what all of that means.

I am an Aucklander, born and bred. In my 46 odd years here I have lived in pretty much every part of this city. I spent the first part of my working life in the theatre industry of this town (and country) working as a stage manager/production manager/producer/general manager/one-time actor.

And it was this career (and my amazing first boss) that got me into the role of placemaker for Auckland’s city centre waterfront. It has been, and continues to be, the job of a lifetime supporting that place in its development.

Auckland (original name Tāmaki Makaurau – I’ll come back to that) is New Zealand’s largest city. It has a population of just under 1.6 million and is experiencing rapid growth. We have a housing crisis, a homelessness crisis, terrible child poverty statistics, and equally un-wonderful equity issues and mental health, suicide, and domestic violence rates. Our traffic (and driving) is known to be awful and our water supply is more fragile than we like to admit to ourselves. You’ll note at this point that Tourism NZ has never shoulder tapped me to work for them.

But there are wonderful parts too. We are blessed with incredible and diverse natural landscapes, a creative sector that is known the world over, a hugely rich and broad set of cultures, and one or two quite good yachties. We also have the largest city council in the southern hemisphere, designed to foster joined-up thinking and enable strategies that best benefit the region from a holistic perspective—and that brings me to my day job.

Wynyard Quarter. Image supplied by Panuku Development Auckland.

My present-day job is leading the Placemaking team at Panuku Development Auckland – the Auckland Council’s Regeneration agency. Since 2011, placemaking has been a key strategy for the organisation, which recognizes the need for places that matter to and work for the people of this city. The Wynyard Quarter, and places like Silo Park, were designed, built, delivered, and managed to this day with a clear understanding of the importance of good, place-led design and attention to the human experience of place.

The redevelopment of this key piece of Auckland’s waterfront was, quite deliberately, led by the delivery of new public space. Understanding that water is a natural draw for us humans (we are 60% made of the stuff, after all) and that the making of a good place that attracted people would, in turn, attract commercial development. Funny that. Fundamental, human-scale design decisions were central to the redevelopment of the waterfront, like good view corridors, preservation of heritage and character aspects, positioning of key landmarks and attractors, and retention of authentic, working waterfront activities and industries.

I am pretty sure I don’t need to explain to this audience the fact that we are facing a few issues as a species, let alone as urban citizens, so I will be lazy and quote Professor Stephen Hawking… “We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet”. I, personally, take this quote as a clarion call to wake up, stop polluting, stop the individualism, and start remembering how to live like a cohesive, collaborative and highly adaptive species. We know our systems are not working. And we know we have to change. The question I would now like to answer is - what should we change into?

Back to “my” ocean. I put it to you that it is deeply logical to consider placemaking from an Indigenous mindset. To both recall what it means to be deeply, physically connected to place, and to turn to Indigenous peoples to guide us in how to regain that knowledge. This does not just mean hiring artists, or getting local iwi to bless your project at the groundbreaking. This means working to shift all of our systems to put place ahead of profit and people ahead of process. Our deep, ancestral knowledge—the stuff that we have been developing over the last 200,000-ish years, seems a pretty logical place to look right now. Here in Aotearoa we need to find a way, as represented in our Treaties, to balance our Western practice with mātauranga Māori in a way that respects and honours both, equally. To misquote Albert Einstein, “You cannot solve problems using the same mind set that created them.”

There is a large amount of healing and repair that is badly needed when it comes to the topic of Indigenous people’s rights and roles in our world. This article is not meant to short-change any of that. Rather, I am hoping to suggest that, while we all come from somewhere, it seems to me that place is the one thing that connects us to this bigger thing that we are literally all a part of—the planet on which we live. And whether you find yourself at the JK Rowling or the Richard Dawkins end of this next statement, there is magic to be had in that.

I understand that the role of us placemakers (where I work  at Panuku, at least) is to explore and help build the connection between people and their places, and to ensure that the new places that we are making are ones that people love. And, like I said above, it’s the job of a lifetime. We know that when we are connected to things—places, people, etc—we naturally care for them and their well-being. This is why I care so much about investing in the creation and rebuilding of these connections in a meaningful, lasting way. We need to invest, now, in nurturing resilient, regenerative relationships. Given the future we are wandering into on this planet, I don’t think we have time to entertain any other options.

“Land is the only basis for continuity of identity,” as Gam Shimray of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact has put it.

Image supplied by Panuku Development Auckland.

I know that some people, when faced with the organic and elusive concept that is placemaking, can only see the surface—the activations or the economic benefit or the visitor numbers. But this work is bigger than that. To misquote Carl Sagan, “To focus on that surface layer without making space for the underlying intent and purpose of the work is to accept the products of placemaking but to reject its methods.” We need to remember, or perhaps re-member, what it is to be actually connected to place. We need to be asking how people feel about place—not just what they want to see and do. We need to be working towards an understanding of place that is not based in ownership or control, but based in the idea that it is something you are—we all are—a part of. We need to make space for the humans of a place to develop relationships with their spaces that result in responsibility, care, and custodianship—not just great Instagram posts.

By way of another example of a concept from mātauranga Māori, and to further prove the point that the Indigenous language of my land does a better job of explaining placemaking than English does, consider the word “kaitiakitanga.” Far beyond sustainability, it speaks of the reciprocal relationship between people and land, and the need for care when it comes to handling the earth on which we live. Ka rawe (awesome).

The opportunity here is for us to develop our understanding of public space, and the role of placemaking, to align with an Indigenous understanding of the meaning of land and our relationship to this planet that we call home. To work to respect our Indigenous peoples as rightful custodians of place, and keepers of knowledge that we are badly in need of, now more than ever. To open up our practise to ancient ways of knowing—or as you might say in this country “Ka mua, ka muri”—we walk to the future facing the past. Physically, spiritually, and all the bits in between.

I am so very proud to work for this city that I love, and to help make sure that it continues to grow into a city that all its citizens (including those that haven’t been born yet) love. Like, for real.

Aroha Nui.

Frith Walker
Frith Walker
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