by Nancy Mitchelson*
Deep in the Auckland City Council archives, direct democracy of a bygone era has been wholly preserved in fountain pen and typewriter ink. This takes the form of copious amounts of letters to the mayor and planning committee, reacting to one of the most controversial and, dare I say, tantalising issues of the time: the pedestrianisation of Queen Street.
From some of the earliest letters, it was suggested that planners think globally about pedestrianisation, as Auckland struggled to keep up with overseas trends. A letter from Gerhard Rosenberg of the School of Architecture to the mayor in 1974 commends the network of pedestrian underpasses in his recent travels to “four Scandi capitals.” Raymond Thorpe of architectural firm Raymond Thorpe and Associates wanted to see colonnades like those in pedestrian squares in Italy developed in Auckland. Closer to home, Mrs M. Christy offered her wholehearted support to the mayor’s mall plans after experiencing the sights and sounds of Rundle Mall while holidaying in Perth.
The positivity surrounding potential mall plans did not stop there. A Mr Beehag of Mt Albert in a 1977 letter lamented the pollution in the CBD, which he experienced as an ex-assistant of a store on Karangahape Road. He praised pedestrian plans as a step in the right direction. In the same year, W.G Caughey of Smith and Caugheys wrote in to say that the Queen Street mall ”should promote a relaxed city environment which could be a worthwhile attraction,” and even suggested the futuristic concept of a moving ‘speed-walk’ to assist pedestrians. Writing after the Queen Street trial mall in May 1979, a Mrs. A. Lamb of Northcote said she felt she was speaking for the majority in enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and reduced noise that the trial offered.
But, evidently, Mrs A. Lamb of Northcote was not speaking for the majority. Public reaction was as sour as it was sweet. A confidential writer from One Tree Hill worried in 1977 that “the mall will attract undesirables and religious cultists… Hare Krishna monks, Moonists and Children of God… I don’t like being pestered by strange little bald men, wearing strange robes and suffering from foot odor.” Mr C.W Bright, writing from Remuera, said he worked in a Queen Street office late at night and wondered about the lack of vehicles in the area increasing crime, and reducing safety. Also writing from Remuera, Miss E. Morton bemoaned that “no one in their right mind would wish to prolong the unpleasantness that is Queen Street… will visiting royalty have to take an enforced walkabout while the Royal Daimler nips up to Albert Street and around the block? What about that annual cottonwool hero, Santa, and his parade?”
Perhaps this contingent of writers is best summed up by Mrs. S. Moore of Babyland Ladieswear: Tots to Teens who simply stated,“say no to any kind of stupid mall’ and signed the letter off: ‘yours disgustedly.”
Where it wasn’t strictly positive or negative, some suggestions for Queen Street bordered on the downright absurd. Mrs. F. Watt, writing to Deputy Mayor Jolyon Firth in 1977, enthused “Holland has its tulips, London has the queen and double decker buses so why can’t New Zealand become known as a land of window gates and lace trims. It could start on Queen Street!” In another letter, she helpfully attached an article from the Australian Women’s Weekly titled ‘trade increases, crime drops, people are happier, THAT’S FLOWER POWER!’ A letter from Fanny Allen, representing the ‘Eureka Jazz Gentlemen’ wrote specifically to the Mayor to offer “full support, and we remain at your disposal.”
However, some of the most interesting responses to the pedestrian mall didn’t come from lettersbut were instead published by a group of innovative architects in the Auckland Architectural Association Bulletin (AAA). The Association had many members who were long-time supporters of the mall but were openly critical of overdue council efforts. Cei Richardson was one of them, writing:
All these years of shelving and deferring says little for the decisiveness or the political will of Auckland’s elected representatives. Perhaps the new council will be able to make a better record of humanising the downtown environment. People deserve better than they have in the past.
Contrastingly, Pete Bossley, now a renowned New Zealand architect, wrote against the mall in the AAA Bulletin at the time. In a few brief sentences, he simultaneously illustrated both the importance and unimportance of Auckland’s main street, that elicited such emotional response expressed in the letters mentioned in this article. Bossley wrote,
It’s a street dammit. Archetypal. Street, Ditch, Canyon. Powerfully walled, it pours down the valley. Look upwards, it climbs out of the chasm and soars over the K Road ridge, going for broke, unstoppable into the sky.
In a way, Pete Bossley sums up the ridiculousness of the Queen Street Mall debate. After all, it is just a street, with its sole purpose to make sure people get where they need to go. But even Bossley cared enough to write a long-winded rejection in the AAA Bulletin. So too cared the many writers whose letters can be found in the council archives. Maybe this proves suggests that Queen Street is not just a street, but instead a touchstone for the kind of Auckland that its citizens would like to live in.
*Nancy Mitchelson was awarded first-class honours in History at The University of Auckland, having completed a Bachelor of Arts. She was one of four students awarded a 2019 Summer Scholarship at The University of Auckland out of a highly competitive field and her award was funded by a Jonathan and Mary Mason Scholarship in Auckland History. Her research project focused on the efforts to Pedestrianise Queen Street in May of 1979.
 “Queen Street Malls Up,” AAA Bulletin, No. 88, 1978.
 “Queen Street Mall,” AAA Bulletin, No. 83, 1977.