New Plymouth District Council last year announced it’s updating its management plan for Pukekura Park. Included in the discussions are the possibility of a dedicated cycleway, improving the cricket facilities and grounds, upgrading the tea house area, improving the main entrance and enabling more capacity for the Bowl of Brooklands.
Pukekura Park was Sue Matehaere Patten’s backyard growing up. She remembers playing Tarzan with her friends and neighbours, swinging on the supplejacks between trees.
A friend of hers was once tied up against a tree in a game of Cowboys and Indians. Unfortunately, she ended up being there for hours when she was forgotten about and everyone went home for dinner.
Many years on, Sue is now President of the Friends of Pukekura Park interest group, and that friend still comes on a lot of the walks they host for locals and visitors alike.
Pukekura Park is many things to many people. A big part of that comes from how much variety it has across its 52 hectare site, with bush, gardens, playgrounds, a cafe and much more. It hosts thousands of people every day, particularly in summer, and as a result, makes a key contribution to the lifestyle on offer in New Plymouth.
Everyday park use is made easy with free car parking all around. The narrow shape of the park and multiple entry points mean it doesn’t take long to get to where you’re going.
Sue recalls no less than Sir David Attenborough being amazed at how an ancient relic forest still remained in the middle of town.
New Plymouth District Council estimates Pukekura Park hosted around a million visitors last year (on par with previous years) with more than 150,000 people visiting for the five weeks during the Festival of Lights alone.
The cricket ground hosted nine first class matches during the 2022/23 summer, including three double-headers featuring both the Central Stags and Hinds, our local men’s and women’s domestic T20 teams.
WOMAD returned in March of this year after two years of Covid cancellations. With its eight stages including the iconic Bowl of Brooklands, global food and art and crafts villages, and plenty of green space among the trees, gardens and bush, WOMAD highlights the uniqueness of the park.
“WOMAD wouldn’t be what it is without Pukekura Park,” TAFT CEO Suzanne Porter says. “It sometimes feels like the area was tailor-made for WOMAD – it has all the space for performers and festival goers, as well as all the event infrastructure, and it’s within such a perfect natural setting, overlooked by Mt Taranaki.
“You can have an intimate performance at one stage at the same time as a big, loud act on another close by, without being disturbed. It’s amazing.”
The Bowl of Brooklands was named New Zealand’s best large event venue at the annual Entertainment Venues Association of New Zealand awards in 2021. It is perhaps the only Taranaki venue that has the ability to attract international superstar acts, such as Fleetwood Mac, Sting and Sir Elton John.
“The unique venue at Bowl of Brooklands really helps Taranaki to punch above its weight in the events space,” Suzanne Porter says of the Bowl’s 15,000 capacity. “Yes, it’s smaller than other venues around New Zealand, but the atmosphere it creates and the setting it’s in is second to none. Artists and performers often talk about how amazing the Bowl is, and we’re really lucky to have it.”
When Pukekura Park first opened on May 29, 1876, it was known as the Recreation Ground, or simply ‘The Rec’. Lawyer Robert Clinton Hughes persuaded the provincial government of the time to purchase 12 hectares of “wasteland” near central New Plymouth, and it was steadily added to over time, becoming the 52 hectare site it is today.
The name Pukekura was bestowed upon the park in 1907, after the stream that was dammed to form the lake. It translates to ‘red hill’.
Speaking of the lake, its formation in 1878 was considered a major step forward. It was initially conceived as a place for competitive swimming and water sports – a thought that strikes as a little gross today.
In a sign of the times, it was considered inappropriate for men and women to swim alongside each other. Women and girls could bathe only between 8am and 1pm (except on Sundays), and a red flag would be hoisted on top of nearby Cannon Hill to signal that men and boys were to stay away.
Of the historical highlights for the park, it’s hard to top the 1955 visit of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen Elizabeth II fountain was installed to commemorate the occasion, amid criticism from some that its 228 jets shooting streams of water 15 metres into the air would spoil the natural beauty of its surroundings.
Pukekura Park has been awarded multiple international Green Flags, which recognise the world’s leading parks and green spaces. It’s one of New Zealand’s Gardens of National Significance, and even had the honour of occupying the most valuable Mayfair position on New Zealand’s Monopoly board in 2007.
The same year, cricket’s encyclopedia, the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac, named Pukekura Park one of the six great cricket grounds in the world. No other ground in New Zealand has received this accolade, either before or since.
NPDC Group Manager Planning & Infrastructure Kevin Strongman says “it’s still early days” when it comes to deciding what the future of the park will look like.
“It’s a balancing act to ensure we preserve its unique characteristics that everyone loves while also planning for the future and it being affordable given the current economic challenges,” he says.
Any upgrades are still in the discussion phase, with nothing set in stone.
The possibility for a new pavilion and a larger field at the cricket ground will be welcome among fans, with New Zealand Cricket threatening not to host any games at Pukekura Park beyond the recently completed season. It reportedly identified its ageing, unsuitable facilities and notoriously small boundaries as key reasons why, and sought commitment from NPDC to improve these aspects if it’s to host games in the future.
The Bowl of Brooklands could also be set for a mini makeover. The possibility of increasing its capacity to around 20,000 people is being looked at, as it’s something of a threshold that defines a large venue in this country. That could involve terracing the steeper parts of the bank that are harder to sit on, and perhaps more controversially, rethinking the lake at the front of the stage.
The lake not only separates the crowd from the performer, but erecting temporary staging to cover it comes with a cost, and there’s also a health and safety element. While there has been chatter around town, the idea of filling in the lake altogether is not being considered.
NPDC’s discussion document says “we have investigated options to increase the Bowl capacity, and to provide a more cost-effective solution for the lake staging while retaining the essential character of the Bowl.”
The council is also looking at how it should accommodate cycling in the park, if at all.
The council is considering dedicated bike tracks running north-south and east-west, and how it could accommodate cycling while minimising conflict with walkers and other park users.
Local cycling enthusiast Grant Wilson says he’s one of a number of people who bike through the park already, despite it not being allowed. He says if you sat at the kiosk for an hour in the morning, you’d probably count 100 cyclists going past.
“I know you’re not supposed to but there’s hardly any people walking there at 7 at night. During the peak times; mid-afternoon or early morning when you have elderly people walking there I definitely wouldn’t do it, but early morning and late evening – no problem.”
Wilson says it’s too convenient not to use the park, and with cyclists in there anyway, they should have dedicated cycle tracks.
“It’ll avoid the us-vs-them culture you get on shared pathways,” he says. “At the foreshore, you have people walking 3-4 abreast, and if you bike past them you can often get abused.”
Wilson believes cyclists and walkers just don’t go well together, and NPDC appears to agree. Its Discussion Document states “the predominance of narrow pathways with multiple routes and intersections does not lend itself to safe use of the park by both pedestrians and cyclists.”
NPDC’s Discussion Document looks at possibilities for a range of other parts of Pukekura Park.
Popular paths could be upgraded to be more durable surfaces and prevent gravel and sediment from entering walkways.
One proposal could see vehicles no longer permitted to use the Fillis Street entrance. The council says “as a primary entrance to the park it is felt that it could be better presented than as a carpark”, and it would also reduce conflict with pedestrians.
In this scenario, more car parks would be created along Fillis Street, and Friends of Pukekura Park could run a shuttle to provide disability access.
An upgrade to the Fillis Street entrance could flow through to a reimagined Tea House Plaza, including better utilising Cannon Hill. Upgrades to the facilities including an all-weather dining option and widening the dock to make it more secure and welcoming.
“Given the location’s importance to the park experience, we want to see if there are opportunities to enhance the area while retaining the essential character of this space,” the council says.
The plaza dock upgrade is just one aspect of a range of other potential water body improvements. The council says most waterways are man-made, and stormwater from surrounding neighbourhoods often contaminates the water.
Plans to aerate the lake, upgrade water outflows, construct a spillway for the Main Lake and improve stream areas are all options to help manage adverse weather events and cope with higher water flow now than when water infrastructure was first built.
Brooklands Zoo is also being looked at for enhancement. The council says “the current zoo needs a refreshed purpose”, and it’s proposing to review the zoo design and species makeup “to better meet modern zoo education and conservation outcomes…to maximise animal welfare, and provide an even better visitor experience.”
Next door to the zoo, the old curator’s house is being looked at as a potential Enviro-hub, where local groups can have a space dedicated to sustainability and the environment. It’s being run on a trial basis currently, as a shared place of learning and appreciating a range of environmental initiatives.
There are many other plans and areas being considered. Whatever the final outcomes, Sue Matehaere Patton wants to see the park maintain its natural character.
Friends of Pukekura Park mixes a hands-on volunteer role in developing and maintaining the Park with its own development initiatives. It’s raised $50,000 to go towards the erection of a new gate at the Brookland Road entrance to honour Newton King, who donated some of the original land.
A further round of public consultation will take place in the middle of this year. Any decisions will then need to be budgeted for and approved as part of the council’s 10 year plan, which suggests it’ll be some time before we see any proverbial spades in the ground.