An elevated tidal shelf: making space for human and coastal ecologies

One of Auckland’s most important stretches of downtown waterfront will soon be a place for people and coastal ecologies, says Isthmus Group’s Sarah Bishop and Nada Stanish.

Sarah Bishop (left), Nada Stanish (right)

If not by exact definition but certainly by implication, transformation requires a conscious move away from the orthodox to the application of new ideas and thinking.

Around the world, from Vancouver to Barcelona and Wuhan to London, new, high-quality public spaces that hope to give cities identity, appeal to existing populations and attract talent are being created. However, not all are created equally – and not all can be said to be transformative.

There’s a difference between transformation and beautification. Beautification is shuffling the deck chairs, while transformation is the result of an exceptional vision that eventuates into democratic spaces that can mean more things to more people. Truly transformational spaces are an interweaving of landscape and architecture, culture and society. They reference the past and look to the future and, in increasing cases, include successful environmental and ecological initiatives that improve a city’s biodiversity health when diminishment is the norm.

If you’ve recently visited Quay Street, the area between Queens and Princes Wharfs in downtown Auckland, you’ll have seen preparatory works underway for a city changing civic project. Mature Pōhutukawa are being carefully unearthed, their roots wrapped in hessian. Pipes and services are being carefully consolidated into new trenches.

This is just the start. Here, where the Waitematā is held back by an old sea wall, where the most people walk and work and where tourists throng, Ki uta, Ki tai, a vision developed with mana whenua is providing the framework for a new, co-designed public space as part of the wider Downtown Infrastructure Development Programme. It refers to a holistic Māori worldview about the movement of water through the landscape, from mountain to sea, and all the intricacies of ecology and biology in between. It’s especially important at the coast, and especially important to Tāmaki Makaurau, where we cherish the coast as a place of arrival and departure, of industry and recreation.

While our coasts are rich with life, our urban coasts could be much richer. Equally, our coasts are rich with stories from the past that can inform and differentiate new approaches to making space. Such narratives sit behind the concept of the tidal shelf that will soon extend out from the shoreline between the Ferry Building and Princes Wharf. It’s a piece of public architecture that is the result of a shift in thinking – can Auckland become Tāmaki? A place with its own identity rather than one conferred? And, believing that to be possible, where do we find inspiration? What aspirations do we have? What does it mean to be ‘here’ now and into the future?

The process of co-design – collaboration and inquisition alongside knowledge-holders from mana whenua, manaakitanga and mīharo, an ambition for extraordinary process – can shape our responses to these questions. The design approach for the tidal shelf recognises the evolving nature of the working waterfront environment and its former coastline (the result of 150-plus years of sequential reclamation) and acknowledges the past though the integration of important and appropriate heritage elements. It looks to the future by drawing people in to Auckland’s front door and making spaces for wānanga, gatherings of people large and small, and coastal flora and fauna.

This tidal shelf has an ‘eroded’ edge. It’s an abstraction of the organic edges of the Waitematā’s sandstone geology, the layered, pocked and pitted tidal shelves found between headlands, extending out to the deeper harbour. It is a conscious move away from the ever-extending orthogonal city grid and responds to a question about how we form cities today that reference where we are in the world. In built form, the shelf will have a layered concrete surface, rich in shells and local aggregates, supported on piles that span the quay diagonally to Queens Wharf. It is spatially generous, an accommodating place for people to move through or linger in, or to walk out to an outer edge that nips and tucks in and out beside a timber leaner rail inlaid with references to maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar and the tides. This kupu, gifted by artist by Rereata Makiha, shows culture and language coming to life.

The shelf really is all about tides. It sits over water and through a series of apertures like tidal pools allows people to safely connect with ebb and flow of the sea. The tidal pools are not uniform; some have balustrades that extend down to the water, a surface for waves to interact with. Others are covered with a woven kupenga – a net or fishing net – designed with artist Tessa Harris (Ngāpuhi/Ngāi Tai) for people to sit or lie on, to feel the cool of the water on a hot day, or a splash of spray at high tide when ferries stir the water. Others still are edged with seating and filled with native planting, re-establishing a terrestrial ecology at the water’s edge – a coastal grove of pōhutukawa, the iron-heart myrtle, able to bind land and sea, sheltering people and other species within and beneath their branches.

Design of the tidal shelf began with observations of the personality and peculiarities of the coast and with shells gathered from a nearby beach. The design is inspired by Te Tangaroa, the breath between low and high tides, tai pari and tai timu, while the shells represent a ‘nested ecology’ that hosts life, just as this project makes space for sea snails, seaweeds, sponges, crabs, bivalves, barnacles and sea squirts. New and existing piles have the can simulate a ‘hard shore’ environment – an intertidal and sub-tidal habitat with perches for seabirds, textured surfaces and crevices for barnacles, periwinkles and seaweeds. An evolution of existing work at Ōkahu Bay by Ngāti Whātua and Richelle Kahui-McConnell (Ngāti Maniapoto), will feature taura (rope), woven from flax and filled with mussel spat, wrapped around piles to re-establish native ecologies.

This highly visible site can draw attention to Auckland’s seawater quality issues and asks the question around advocacy. One project won’t fix the problem, but it can highlight it and show solutions. Suspended marine ecology lines, technology borrowed from the mussel farming industry will illustrate the role mussels play in water filtration (a single mussel filters 380 litres of water a day – and mussel reefs once covered much of the Hauraki Gulf, but the natural filter for storm water runoff had collapsed from dredging by the mid-1900s, finished off by contaminated storm water, sediment and maritime industry side effects soon after).

Concrete pontoons can be coastal research stations, grafted with kelp they continue the language of the tidal shelf into the ferry basin, and contain baskets for shellfish and kelp propagation.

Will the tidal shelf be transformative? We think so – it’s unlike anything else, a special co-designed project for Tāmaki that woven through with mātauranga Māori. It’s an invitation to the water’s edge, a place of respite and refuge for people and for coastal life, a place to learn relax, walk, a knowledge basket for all who visit, and a breathing point for everyone and everything who filters through this busy part of the city.

Isthmus team: David Irwin, Sarah Bishop, Nada Stanish, Travis Wooller, Alex Foxon, Sophie Fisher.

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