Wellington Scoop

Re-thinking the Square


by Ben Schrader
The imminent removal of Neil Dawson’s fern orb from Te Ngākau Civic Square is the latest of a series of setbacks for the so-called heart of Wellington. These include the closure of the Central Library and Civic Administration Building as earthquake hazards, the extended closure of the Town Hall to make it far less of a hazard, and the possible closure of the City to Sea Bridge due to structural weakness. It seems Wellington’s heart is in need of life-saving surgery.

The focus has been on the future of the buildings encircling the square, but we also need to debate the future of the square itself.

Before its 1992 opening, Mercer Street ran down its middle. There was a lawn outside the Municipal Office Building where city workers would gather to eat their lunch. On sunny days it was packed. This all went with the creation of Civic Square, which was planned to be a focal point for Wellington’s public life

Its designers sought to re-create the piazzas of European cities. Most of the space comprised a paved square: a place for Wellingtonians to socialise in the manner of Venetians. It was thought too that the ground floors of the encircling buildings would be given over to street cafes and crowd-watching. It was all very urbane.

For a time the space was exciting. In early 1992 the avant-garde Russian artists Brodsky and Utkin erected a palazzo-like sculpture in the new space. It famously collapsed in the Wellington wind. My brother and sister-in-law were the first to be married in the square. It seemed the space might indeed become Wellington’s heart.

It never has.

While it has been a site of popular protest and celebration, it’s more often been a thoroughfare than a gathering place. One reason for this is that the promised street cafes never materialised so there less reason to linger. But I think the main reason is that Wellingtonians will choose to sit on the grass before a paving stone. This preference is confirmed on any sunny day when the few strips of lawn in the space are packed with people. In modelling Civic Square on places like Siena and Paris, its designers failed to recognise Wellingtonians weren’t European.

The closure of most of the buildings around Te Ngākau Civic Square is heart-breaking for someone like me who loves and studies urban life. But I also know that its current dismal state will generate ideas for its renewal. This is already happening.


One idea in this blog is for the lawn that once existed outside the Municipal Office Building to be restored. This would require the demolition of the Civic Administration Building, which would open the space to Wakefield and Victoria Streets and make it more inviting.

More ideas are needed and the WCC should encourage them. A revitalised square will only work if it’s what Wellingtonians want.

While such surgery is not without risks and complications, it could finally deliver the heart that Wellington deserves.


  1. Traveller, 11. May 2019, 9:33

    Complicating the issues is this reported quote from Kevin Lavery last August: The civic precinct was on reclaimed land so it was likely to be subject to increased ground deformation in a significant earthquake… and this quote from a report to councillors a year ago: there was a need to address the earthquake risk around settlement and spread towards the Whairepo Lagoon and consideration would be given to the necessary improvements to the seawall along that part of the Quays.

  2. wendy, 11. May 2019, 13:31

    Ben, even as it is, Civic Square is packed in the summer with people eating, reading, playing football etc.
    So why not strengthen or rebuild the Library for the 27,000/week residents who use it, keep the art gallery, Town Hall, and city to sea bridge then convert the rest, including Jack Ilott Green, into a really good sized inner city park (not pocket green space!) with trees, seating, cafes, coffee cart, children’s area etc that Wellingtonians can be proud of, and local residents can use. Particularly as there are now over 20,000 people living in the inner city with very little usable green space available and this number is expected to increase considerably.

  3. Civicious, 11. May 2019, 18:53

    Jack Ilott Green to become the Chinese garden location perhaps?!

  4. Wendy, 11. May 2019, 20:50

    Civicious: I believe Jack Ilott Green was considered but not deemed suitable?

  5. George, 13. May 2019, 21:01

    Wellingtonians have let the council know on many occasions what they want for the waterfront, but the council has never listened. Unlikely they will start listening to public opinion regarding Civic Square. Our Mayor plans to close the city to private cars, increasing the trend to shop, eat and do business anywhere other than central Wellington. Civic Square stands to become even more deserted than it is now.