Revitalising Courtenay Place starts with safety and diversity of choice

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In August last year, Emily Alleway, urban design lead at Let’s Get Wellington Moving, took part in a night-time hikoi (walk) around Courtenay Place to look and listen to how people felt in the area at night.

In this interview, Emily discusses what the group heard and saw, what problems are contributing to the area’s tired and sometimes unsafe atmosphere, and what can be done to restore Courtenay Place to its place as Wellington’s premier entertainment district, both as part of, and in addition to, LGWM’s Golden Mile revitalisation project.

For more information, you can read about the hikoi on Wellington City Council’s website, as well as more information on the Pōneke Promise, which Emily discusses in the interview. 

I'm here today with Emily Alleway, talking about urban design and the Golden Mile. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Emily. I know you're very busy. First off, could you give me a little bit of background about yourself, your expertise, and what it is you do at Let's Get Wellington Moving? 

I am urban design lead for Let's Get Wellington Moving. That means that I've got oversight of all things in the city design space across the programme. So that's in both the Transformational and the Transitional programme. I'm originally from Whakatū Nelson in Te Wai Pounamu, but I've been living in Te Whanganui-a-Tara for around about ten years now. I've been involved with Let's Get Wellington Moving for around four years in the same role during that time. And I'm an urban designer with around about 20 years experience, in urban design and landscape architecture, both in New Zealand and in Canada and the UK. 
It's my understanding that back in August last year you participated in a hikoi, or walk, around Courtenay Place, looking at the city's entertainment precinct through a safety at night lens. Who did you participate in this hikoi with, and what did you learn or hear on your walk? 
The aim of the hikoi was really to hear from a range of people, and using the sights and sounds and feel of Courtenay Place at night-time at a really busy period for the, for the entertainment district, just to prompt discussion of real-life experiences and perceptions of safety. This was actually a follow-up to a daytime hikoi that I, that I didn't take part on, but which had been run earlier in the year.

It was organised through the Pōneke Promise initiative, which was run by the Wellington City Council Community Services team. There were quite a large number of representatives from the Wellington Alliance Against Sexual Violence, Wellington University, Massey Students’ Association, the National Disabled Students’ Association, Zeal, and a group called Thursdays in Black, which are organized through Vic uni.

So, yeah, quite a, quite a range of people involved, including Wellington City Council staff from the urban design team, and then myself representing Let's Get Wellington Moving.

We visited a number of sites. I think there are about 11 or 12 sites along Courtenay Place that we visited. The conversation topics ranged from how people felt in the spaces at the time, levels of comfort, perceptions of safety, whether people were feeling safe or unsafe. Accessibility considerations, so how easily people were finding it to get around the site. Also, some sort of environmental considerations, like lighting levels, whether they could see easily from between spaces, so line of sight.

Many of the groups had had really negative experiences and had previously felt unsafe in the spaces unless they were traveling with others. Many were actively avoiding certain areas, particularly those that had poor visibility or lighting. Some were choosing to travel by taxi or public transport rather than walking in spaces that they would usually walk through during the daytime. They weren't doing that at night-time. And there was also quite a lot of discussion around, I guess, how, how loved the spaces felt, that things like graffiti and rubbish were contributing to the spaces feeling a bit unloved, uncared for. And that was also contributing to people feeling, feeling unsafe in those spaces.

There was some really good discussion around equity and accessibility, so the fact that quite a few people felt excluded from the area, whether, you know, that was around physical impairments or just because there wasn't an offering there, or they felt that there was not an offering there for them. The...Courtenay Place at certain times of day is very geared towards an age demographic and a drinking culture particularly, so there's that limited diversity of offering. 
Did you hear of any differences between feelings of safety in the area during the day versus at night? 
Most of the discussion I heard was around, was around night-time, but there was some discussion around how people traveled to and from the central city. So some of that was coming in from suburban flats or from student accommodation in the early evening and how, how comfortable otherwise people felt at that time. I know some parts of the city outside Courtenay Place, such as Lambton Quay, lack hospitality offerings and evening activity so they can feel quite deserted and dead.
Courtenay Place tends to have a fairly stable level of activity throughout the day, but there's definitely a time when it transitions from a movement corridor, so people sort of moving from A to B, to that kind of entertainment district in the evening, where the focus shifts to bars and hospitality offerings. Season also plays quite a big part, because obviously in summertime, when the days are a bit longer, that can encourage peoples’ use of laneway connections and the walking network, whereas that’s a bit more limited at night time because of, you know, lack of lighting and things like that.

So there wasn't so much conversation around, around daytime because I think generally people felt quite safe. There are a few pockets that people can feel a bit intimidated. I know Te Aro Park was discussed quite a bit, but there's also these kind of parallel routes, so I guess people would move off onto those if they were feeling too uncomfortable. 
So short of increased policing, what can be done to give the area a more comfortable, safer vibe? 
Well, I know it's been said before, but it's a really, it’s a really complex situation for which there's no, there's no one answer. It’s going to be layers of intervention. And that's why I think initiatives, I'm very supportive of initiatives like Pōneke Promise, that involve a sort of a multi-agency approach, including the police, but also, you know, your councils, community team, social agencies as well, that are then layered up with things like urban design, because that's around behaviour and cultural change alongside physical change that can, that can affect that.

I think the design and the upkeep, I've got a personal interest, but the design and upkeep of urban spaces is really key. As I mentioned before, people notice when spaces start to appear a bit run-down and tired, and that influences the way that they behave in them. No one wants to spend time in spaces that are that are unloved. 
And I think urban design, in terms of how the spaces are connected and interact with surrounding land use, is also, is also really important. You choose where you put certain, certain uses.

We noticed that there was a lot of concern around the limited footpath space along, along Courtney Place and what that was, what that meant for people who were using the bars or walking past, you had what appeared to be quite a lot of aggression that was caused by people accidentally bumping into each other because they had nowhere else to go.

The corridor is quite, quite vehicle-dominated, meaning that there's, there's not much space left over for pedestrians, particularly when you get sort of peak usage like in the evening. So redesigning that corridor to fit to the land use either side, rather than fit to the predominantly daytime use of the vehicle lanes, is a really good example of, of how you can change up, you can re-balance the spatial allocation to support those land uses. 
And from an urban design perspective, what can be done to help bring people back to Courtenay Place? What safety improvements are planned under the Golden Mile revitalisation project, improvements that may help address the area's current reputation? 
So in terms of bringing people back to Courtenay Place, I think this, this really revolves around providing a vibrant and diverse city recreational and entertainment offering throughout a wider portion of the day so that the space is active, it’s fun and it’s vibrant and it’s welcoming, from morning through into night.

The findings of the hikoi, along with other safety data and engagement data that's been generated through initiatives like Pōneke Promise, are being put directly into the Golden Mile, and it's influencing the design work that's happening there, notably in terms of reallocating street space to provide more room for pedestrians.

Also providing things like a consistent, clearway of four metres. So that's alongside businesses. That's a pedestrian through route where there's no furniture, there's no physical barriers, so that people always have this generous space that they can move through, or space at the intersection with side streets where people can step off that thoroughfare and actually gather, meet friends, relax.

I think just making it, making it easier to walk or bike or access PT is really important as well, so that people are less reliant on, less reliant on their cars, and they've got safe access routes that they can get to, to and from bus stops or from taxi ranks or places where they can catch Ubers and things like that.
Well, thanks for your time, Emily, and we look forward to the Golden Mile starting construction in September. 
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