No life in Civic Square, Wellington

As with many people, I take quite an interest in my local environment including the natural and man-made architecture that surrounds me. I like to live in a city that has a nice feel to it.

I’m not an architect or a designer. Maybe I don’t even have good taste. But sometimes it’s better to put an opinion out there to see if anyone shares it and hopefully improve things.

I’ve recently moved back to Wellington, New Zealand, and it’s a very nice place to live. It’s a vibrant city sitting on the edge of a beautiful natural harbour, surrounded by hills.

The point of this article isn’t really to gush about how nice Wellington is but to complain about where it is lacking.

Over the past twenty years or so there has been an ongoing project to build and improve the public spaces in the city. One of the early projects was constructing Civic Square. This involved taking the old library and council buildings and creating something more cohesive with them.

The people watching was half the fun here
The people watching was half the fun here

According to Wikipedia, the Civic Square project was started in 1987 and complete in 1992. At the time, it seemed like a very large project to me, especially since the work at Queens Wharf was happening at approximately the same time.

Now, it is twenty years later. And I have travelled the world. I was walking through Civic Square the other day and it just seemed dull and lifeless to me. I don’t think it has ever been a real success but I thought I should try to put into words what is wrong with it, if I can manage that.


On paper, the changes all looked good. Even in pictures it looks pretty good. In a larger city it might even have been successful. However, I think it has been a failure.

Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, Lucca, Italy
One of the many squares in the Italian town of Lucca.

The most obvious symptom of this failure is the lifelessness of the area on anything other than a very sunny day. The area acts as a corridor, taking people between the city and the sea, without anyone stopping along the way.

For most people, there is no reason to stop in Civic Square. There is nothing to do there.

I’m not even sure that having something to do in Civic Square is really the problem. Instead, it’s the lifelessness that causes the lifelessness.

Think about all the places you’ve ever been. The squares, plazas and avenues. The restaurants and cafés. The Eiffel Tower. The Empire State Building. The Leaning Tower.

I think most tourist attractions fit into two categories:

  • you’re looking at an enticing view
  • or you’re looking at an interesting crowd

This includes everything. Gallery: enticing view. Nightclub: interesting crowd. And so on….

And I think that of these two, the second is actually the more important in the end. This might not be the case for something like a gallery or museum but many other experiences it is. The view might get you in the door but the people keep you there.

The main square, Place de la Comèdie, in Montpellier, France.
The main square, Place de la Comèdie, in Montpellier, France.

One of my memories from travelling was going to see the Leaning Tower in Pisa. The Tower and the rest of the Piazza were beautiful but what I remember most was sitting on the grass and watching the crowds of people there, enjoying themselves. They were taking photos of themselves holding the Tower up and just enjoying the area. While the square would’ve equally beautiful if it was empty, it wouldn’t have kept me interested for nearly as long.

We’re social creatures and this involves everything we do.

This also holds for other vibrant public spaces. The Eiffel Tower is great for the view, both of the Tower and from the top of it. I wouldn’t claim that I’ve ever been there to look at the crowd. The queue to get a ticket is pretty tiresome, however, watching the other people at the base of the Tower also queuing helps to keep it interesting.

Two of the best squares I’ve been to were the main squares in Montpellier, France and Siena, Italy. There wasn’t really much reason to go to these places other than for watching the people. The architecture was great but there were only so many times you could look at the buildings in one afternoon. It was much easier to sit at a café there and watch the world go by.

OK. So I’ve got a little off-topic now. Anyway, back to Civic Square. I’m trying to show that the reason it is lifeless is because it’s lifeless. It’s self-perpetuating. People pass through, on their way somewhere, and they never stay long enough to make the people-watching interesting.

I’d like to find a solution to this. Maybe I’ll work on it.


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