Wellington Scoop

Activities and open space in Civic Square

civic square another look

The Wellington City Council’s draft framework for redeveloping Te Ngākau Civic Square states that as a significant central public space, Te Ngākau must support the provision of high-quality green public space in the central area. Here’s more from the draft framework:

With 50,000-80,000 more people expected to live in Wellington by 2050, (the majority of whom will live in Te Aro and the central city) it is increasingly important that central city public spaces are green, accessible, safe and functional to support these growing neighbourhoods.

Te Ngākau is located near central Wellington with many important city destinations including the Waterfront, the Golden Mile, Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, Cuba Street, Te Papa, Frank Kitts Park and Courtenay Place all within a 5-10 minute walk. The nearest public transport stop is a 1-minute walk on Willis Street.

However, access to the precinct is restricted and the precinct lacks permeability and clear wayfinding. This is in part because of the arrangement of the buildings, which create a sense of enclosure for the square but prevent easy access to the precinct. Permeability and wayfinding are important because they pertain to the extent to which a place permits or restricts the movement of people, the directness of their journeys and the ease with which people can intuitively find their way.

Current building closures exacerbate this issue and inhibit the use of the laneway between Michael Fowler Centre and the Town Hall, the entrance between CAB and MOB, the accessway between the library and the City Gallery and the ramp to the City to Sea Bridge – which is of particular importance to people in the precinct who are restricted in their mobility. Accessing the precinct by vehicle is also challenging at this time, with closure of the underground car park and the temporary installation of the Royal New Zealand Ballet on the Michael Fowler Centre car park reducing the overall number of car parks in the precinct.

While it is located immediately adjacent to the waterfront, there is no direct ground level access between Te Ngākau and the waterfront because Jervois Quay acts as a physical barrier and no crossings are provided. Direct access between the waterfront and Te Ngākau is limited to the City to Sea Bridge which is currently inaccessible to anyone with restricted mobility due to the closure of the ramp and creates a barrier to direct visual connection between the waterfront and the square. Secondary access at ground level is available from the Harris Street Pedestrian over bridge (also inaccessible to anyone with restricted mobility) or via the pedestrian crossing at the Michael Fowler Centre car park which links to the waterfront.

Te Ngākau is situated between the commercial heart of Wellington and the entertainment and cultural areas, and therefore enjoys close proximity to a diverse range of activities and uses including retail, hospitality, hotel accommodation, commercial, recreational, cultural and community as well as many of the events that are held on the waterfront.

As to be expected, the precinct itself is mainly comprised of civic activities. These include the Central Library, the City Gallery, the Town Hall, and council office buildings MOB and CAB. There are two educational uses, Capital E which is closed and operating from Queens Wharf. There are also two hospitality uses: Nikau Cafe in the City Gallery and Clarks Café which operated from the Library mezzanine. The Michael Fowler Centre is a major events venue, hosting local, national and international events. It is also the location of the Wellington iSite. As explained previously, many of these activities are not currently in operation due to the closure of buildings.

The clustering of similar types of activities has both benefits and drawbacks. There are potential benefits in the sharing of facilities, the maximisation of operational efficiencies, the facilitation of partnerships and service integration. However, the drawbacks of a precinct with a majority of civic activity that only operates during business hours, is that it will restrict the times of day that the precinct is ‘activated’ by people to daytime. Combined with a reduction in 24 hour public access above, the night-time use of the precinct is low.

The facades of buildings define the edges of streets and spaces and are important for creating an active, interesting and engaging space- especially at the ground floor level where the public will experience the buildings. Commercial activity (such as hospitality or retail) at the ground floor level is the greatest contributor to ‘positive edges’ or ‘ground floor activation’ because it draws the most people to a place, making it feel vibrant, interesting and increasing the perception of safety.

Ground floor activation of Te Ngākau is generally poor, with only a small amount of active frontage provided by Nikau cafe which faces away from the square. While not every building facade can be ‘active’ at minimum, the condition of edges should ideally allow people to engage visually with the building either with glazing/windows or architectural detail at eye level.

Climate and resilience

Te Ngākau is vulnerable to complex and long-term resilience challenges. These relate to seismic risk and existing seismic damage to buildings and structures, ground quality and the management of both stormwater and sea level rise.

As identified in the District Plan, Te Ngākau is located on reclaimed land which is vulnerable to liquefaction and ground shaking. The precinct is located in a ‘moderate’ liquefaction potential area and has areas of both ‘high’ and ‘moderate’ ground shaking risk. A number of seismic events both here and around the world could have an impact on Wellington, and Te Ngākau is especially vulnerable to damage from these events. This has already occurred, with the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake damaging and causing the closure of the CAB and Capital E buildings.

The CAB and MOB Buildings as well as the Town Hall, Capital E, City to Sea Bridge and Central Library are all subject to seismic issues. While the Town Hall is being strengthened and the Central Library is to be strengthened, decisions about the remaining buildings and structures are still to be made.

The precinct is also experiencing issues with flooding and the inundation of basement levels which impact on the operation of the basement car park (which is closed due to seismic risk) and the storage and servicing requirements of precinct buildings such as the City Gallery. This is likely to be exacerbated as climate change and sea level rise (SLR) become more advanced and extreme weather events increase in frequency.

The Ministry for the Environment recommends developing flexible adaptation plans. Guidance to local authorities planning for changes to existing coastal developments and assets (like Te Ngākau) is to conduct a risk assessment using all four sea-level rise scenarios and the adaptive pathways planning approach.

civic square sea level rise

The map on the left shows the scale of 1m of sea-level rise could look like for the precinct in the lighter blue shading.

For investments in major new infrastructure, a longer planning horizon of more than 100 years and the highest sea-level rise scenario (called the H+ scenario) should be considered.

Currently, this scenario is for 1.4m of sea level rise (based on current modelling, though this will increase over time if green house gas emissions continue to increase). The need to plan for more than 100 years and the highest sea-level rise scenario (also shown in the left hand image in darker blue shading) reflects the anticipated long life of such new developments in the coastal environment and the requirement in the NZ Coastal Policy Statement to avoid the increasing hazard risk.

With climate change, the severity of flooding and inundation is also likely to increase. The map also shows the extent to which flooding could impact Te Aro, with Te Ngākau indicated.

civic square changes

Three areas of change have been defined that represent significant opportunities for transformation in the precinct. These have been identified because they contain buildings or structures with poor seismic performance that require repair or have existing earthquake damage, poor design and/or they are underutilised parts of the precinct.

Within these spaces there are opportunities for new development, new green open space, improved connectivity and improved access to support the integration of the precinct, the city and the waterfront.

Key Connections

To create clear and legible access between the city, Te Ngākau and the waterfront, the following key pedestrian movement corridors to be established are:

1. Mercer Street, Te Ngākau and the waterfront to enable direct pedestrian access between the Golden Mile, Te Ngākau and cultural destinations such as Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, Odlins Plaza, Te Papa and Tākina Wellington Conference Centre
2. Golden Mile, Chews Lane, Harris Street and the waterfront
3. Cuba Street via Michael Fowler Centre area of change, the waterfront, providing a clear route between Cuba Street, Te Ngākau , and the waterfront.


In order to establish a visual connection between the harbour, the precinct and the central city the following key views should be retained and established.

1. Views from the Mercer Street entrance across the precinct and views from the precinct onto Te Wharewaka o Pōneke and Te Papa
2. Views to Whairepo Lagoon, the waterfront and the
harbour from the precinct
3. Views to Whairepo Lagoon, Star Boating Club and Te Wharewaka o Pōneke and ground level connection between Michael Fowler Area of Change and the waterfront.
4. View from Chews Lane, Harris Street to Whairepo Lagoon and Star Boating Club
5. Cuba street view north to Michael Fowler Centre

Surrounding Streets

Safe, comfortable, attractive and green surrounding streets are essential to support people using the precinct, and to strengthen the network of connected public space in the precinct. The balance of movement and place functions are critical, as there are key movement corridors surrounding the area such as Jervois Quay and Victoria Street which must support people moving through the city and support ‘place’ functions as high-quality public spaces. The surrounding streets should be defined as follows:

• “High place function, medium movement function” – Jervois Quay and Victoria Street are signaled as streets which should balance place and movement by prioritising pedestrian movements and offering high quality streetscapes, while still allowing for slow vehicle movements where these streets border the precinct
• “High place function, high movement function” – Mercer Street, Harris Street and Wakefield Street should provide priority to place function by prioritising pedestrian movement and spill out activity while allowing limited vehicle access and slow vehicle movements.
Surrounding streets should consider the provision of safe crossing points to ensure that pedestrians have frequent opportunities for safe and comfortable ground level crossing points between the precinct, the central city and the waterfront. These crossing points should align with access to the precinct.

Increasing greenery and green space

To increase the quantity and quality of green open space in the precinct, green space should be delivered in the areas of change as part of the overall site redevelopment.

Green spaces are important for connecting people with nature and natural character in urban environments, mental and physical wellbeing, ecosystem services (such as air purification, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, sustainable stormwater water management, habitat for fauna and flora) shade and shelter.

Surrounding streets should also contribute as green streets integrated with sustainable stormwater drainage.

Objectives and policies

Objective 1: Te Ngākau is a place that welcomes and expresses our diverse culture and integrates Mana Whenua values into design and delivery processes

Objective 2: Te Ngākau is a place that respects and incorporates experiences of architecture, design and heritage balanced with ensuring its functional role for the city

Objective 3: Te Ngākau is a place that is vibrant, welcoming and supports a range of uses to locate alongside its core civic role

Objective 4: Te Ngākau is a place that integrates with the city and the waterfront

Objective 5: Te Ngākau is safe, inclusive, comfortable and green

Objective 6: Te Ngākau is a place that is resilient, sustainable, and enduring

Objective 7: Te Ngākau is easily and safely accessible and integrated with the wider transport network


  1. Mickey Mouse, 11. April 2021, 11:30

    These are just more and more words enabling officers and developers to drive a bulldozer through civic square.
    The mayor has already said the MOB is to be demolished and the ‘pink building’ is likely to be too; the future population stats are incorrect; “access to the precinct is restricted” denies the fact that the Council has closed links into it, as if this were a design fault; the underground carpark did not suffer from flooding, there was some water seepage very occasionally, not unmanageable flooding. Water ingress is the case for many buildings in the reclaimed CBD and seepage existed with the Town Hall for a century.

    What is positive? The opening statement that ” Te Ngākau must support the provision of high-quality green public space in the central area.” But will it? Start with a cohesive plan for this quality green open space; and work on some clear agreed underpinning principles for the Framework as already suggested in previous Wellington Scoop posts.

  2. Wendy, 13. April 2021, 9:59

    Absolutely agree Micky Mouse. The vital shortage of high-quality useable sized community green space for the huge number of inner-city residents should underpin the development of Civic Square (and other developments) if Wellington is ever going to have a sustainable living environment for inner-city dwellers and visitors.