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The 100-year vision for Auckland’s Cornwall Park

How do we protect one of Auckland’s most well-loved open spaces? By looking far, far into the future. We chat with renown landscape architect Thomas Woltz about the masterplan in place for Auckland's Cornwall Park.

As Auckland has grown to become New Zealand’s most densely populated city, Cornwall Park remains one of the last vast green spaces in the centre of it all.

The 425-acre space was gifted to the people of New Zealand by Auckland Merchant Sir John Logan Campbell in 1903, and named after the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, who later became King George V and Queen Mary.  

While the city around it has transitioned from farmlands to residential neighbourhoods, Cornwall Park has remained untouched. This is due to the foresight and guardianship of the Cornwall Park Trust, which has protected it through Auckland’s transformative years.

Now, a team of designers from Auckland-based Boffa Miskell and US-based Nelson Byrd Woltz Architects have put together a 100-year vision for the Park to ensure it remains preserved for future generations – just like park founder, Sir John Logan Campbell, intended it to be.

The idea for the park is to build on its distinctive characteristics and bring the park experience in line with the 21st century, with planners saying a futuristic vision could make it become more like London’s Hyde Park or New York’s Central Park.

The vision involved numerous collaborators, including members of the public who advised on aspects like visitor experience and transport. But most notably, US-based landscape architect Thomas Woltz, who was named Wall Street Journal’s 2013 design innovator of the year, led the plan.

He says what struck him about Cornwall Park is it has a layered, extraordinary and complex history.

“Sir John Logan Campbell commissioned the landscape architect to do a masterplan [in the 1900s] to create this incredible gift to all the people of New Zealand,” Woltz says.

“He acquired land around the park with the intent that the rents and rates would support the maintenance of the park, so it would always be free to the people of New Zealand.”

Woltz’s specialty as a landscape architect is listening to the stories of the land itself, which he says Cornwall Park has no shortage of.

“My line I use all the time is the landscape is not empty,” he says. “The landscape is full. It’s full of stories, it’s full of culture and ecology, so our job is to see those stories that might have gone invisible or been interrupted and help bring those back to visibility.”

There are three distinct stories occurring with Cornwall Park, he says: First, the story of the land itself, as in the park’s volcanic history, the second, its Maori history, the third, its European heritage.

Cornwall Park is located on one of Auckland's most iconic volcanoes, Maungakiekie or One Tree Hill, which last erupted about 67,000 years ago.

It also was the site of a pre-European pā, with 13 different iwi from the Tamaki Collective laying claim to the site.  An obelisk built during the 1940 Centennial as a memorial to Māori is still present at the park.

Woltz says while the European history of the park is well known, its other two histories haven’t been quite as well highlighted.

“We want to respect and tell those histories more clearly and allow there to be room for understanding the ecological history. We want people to know that it’s not just a European pleasure ground – the edges of the lava flow are evident, you can really understand the way New Zealand was made geologically in this park,” he says.

“Then with Acacia Cottage and Huia Lodge, we’ve wanted to bring some sort of gateway to the maunga (mountain) there, so we’ve imagined a waharoa – a welcome gate – to bring the Maori story right to this cultural terrace and give equal time to Maori and European history.”

But it isn’t just unique for its rich history, either. Woltz says the park has already demonstrated world-leading sustainable agriculture through its farm.

The park is home to more than 600 sheep and 60 cows whose grazing eliminates the need for a lawnmower, as well as two-full time farmers.

“I don’t know how many cities of 1.6 million people have a big working farm as their central park,” Woltz says. “That’s pretty cool and something that’s inspired us in our public park work back in the United States to dissuade park managers from using mowing equipment for everything and to use sheep and cattle as maintenance tools.”

Possibilities for the park outlined in the plan are bold and forward thinking. They include relocating the car parks in the park to make way for a shuttle – and possibly even a driverless one, Woltz says – which will be able to ship people in and out of the park, freeing up the roads to become pedestrian walks, or areas to plant more trees.

There’s also the idea of an air bridge put forward that connects Green Lane Road to Campbell Crescent, the relocation of the maintenance yards, a new farm and history centre, and a ‘farm to table’ food system could be used for Cornwall Park’s café.

The timeline and funding for the project is still being decided, Woltz says, but it’s up to the trustees.

“Some of the projects, like the land bridge, would be major constructions, but the great thing about the master plan that people have agreed to is now we know where things could go in the future so we won’t make the mistake of building something in the wrong place,” he says.

“It stills serve as a guide, so even if you’re not building the land bridge right now, you won’t put something right in its way that means it could never happen. The planning is really useful, even if the project isn’t imminent.”

Woltz has since returned to the US to work on other projects, but says he learnt a lot from studying the landscape of Aotearoa and Cornwall Park.

“I feel like we’ve brought a lot to Cornwall Park and I’ve taken things away from this project, such as the deep dive into multiculturalism, using grazing as management for open spaces. That’s when you know a project is really successful – you’re bringing a lot to it, and you’re learning a lot from it.”

And in terms of looking at the bigger picture, he says working off a 100-year timeline is extremely valuable in terms of creative thinking in urban or landscape design.

“If you say to yourself you’re only designing for 2018, well you have a budget and staffing and you might resurface the parking area and do a small project. If you’re told to think 100 years from now – how do you want the park to feel? You think audaciously and you can really dream.”

It’s hoped the plan will chart a course for Cornwall Park as a space for recreation, cultural expression, learning, a deeper connection to the land and nature and the strengthening of community in the century to come.

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