Coast |

Under the wharf.
Wynyard Playspace.


Enrique Peñalosa, the visionary former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, once said, “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.” Auckland’s Wynyard Playspace takes this to heart. From its carpet of sand up, it is a fully playable way of connecting children with the environment.

Left and below Seascape materials and organisms associated with the Waitematā ocean floor – sand, bedrock, kina, seashells and a ‘kelp forest’ – are illustrated with their landscaped counterparts. Materials and life forms, as might be found under the wharf, were brought to the surface and, in the time-honoured traditions of Alice in Wonderland, exploded in scale.

Amid Wynyard Quarter’s vast industrial and maritime spaces, where concrete, heavy timber and steel are robust materials of necessity, sits a sand-carpeted playground: a place of tactility and texture that has captured the public’s imagination.

The 2010 ‘Auckland Public Life Survey’ declaimed the Queen City’s centre as “almost devoid of children”. A partial remedy was sought through the events and activity strategy for Wynyard Quarter, and a site for young people was planned. The brief called for an “innovative temporary playspace of high quality that would be thought provoking, challenging and accessible”. A “standard” playground was not the goal –but a design to engage in the broader placemaking of the Wynyard Quarter was.

Left The site layout is linear and aligned with North Wharf Promenade. Through careful use of levels and sight lines, the playspace visually integrates with the wider, industrial landscape and significant landmarks, such as Silo 5, in the distance.

 Seashell types were researched, sketched to scale and explored for potential play-ability, before the prototyping process, with long-term design collaborator Cicada Works, began.


Right The ‘kelp forest’ was one of the last features to be added to the playground. The custom-made columns with branches of various hues of green offer precious shelter from the sun in what is otherwise an open and exposed location. The traffic cones weren’t part of the original design.

Wynyard Quarter’s success is built on principles of respectful regeneration best characterised by criss-crossing old railway tracks, repurposed silos, fishing boats and other marine industries. The playground’s design shows an equivalent respect for heritage and careful use of resources. The design ties found and existing materials to a conceptual theme, an abstraction of the Waitematā sea floor, and the playspace is constructed using materials associated with the ocean floor (sand, shells and bedrock) and interwoven with a conceptual deconstruction of a wharf (a ‘kelp forest’, providing summer shade for those playing underneath).

“I think of this project like the movie Shrek; kids really get it but it also works on other levels so that adults enjoy it too.”

— Alan Gray, Waterfront Auckland

To avoid potential contamination issues, the playground was built up from the existing ground level (which will allow elements to be relocated easily in future). An existing concrete pad, once a building’s footing, provides the base, and reclaimed concrete pontoons, salvaged wharf timbers and large chunks of basalt sea wall provide the framework for the playground and create the spaces for play. These authentic materials complement the surrounding redevelopment and generate a strong sense of place that speaks of the coastal edge.

Left Reuse, recycle: the large concrete blocks, once pontoons, bear the marks of their former maritime lives. The oyster-shell marks and water lines complement the character of the wider site. Wynyard Quarter sits on land reclaimed for industrial and ports usage, with the last components of the reclamation completed in 1930.

The playspace is a layered experience suitable for young people of all ages. There is potential for imaginative and creative play, accentuated through materials that encourage exploration, and experiential physical play, such as balancing, climbing, spinning and swinging on customised off-the-shelf play elements and bespoke play structures such as the giant kina spinners, and a super-scaled Corten shell developed in collaboration with Cicada Works.

Designed in collaboration with
Cicada Works

Consultant Team
Thornburn Consultants

Dempsey Wood

Waterfront Auckland