The crater lake of Rotorua is a taonga (a highly prized natural resource) for those that live in the city that has grown along its shore. The nation of Aotearoa New Zealand has always treasured the lake—it’s been a key destination for tourists since the town of Rotorua was built by the government in the early 1880s to serve visitors exploring the culturally rich geothermal lakes and landscapes of the region. The recent revitalisation project respects and celebrates the cultural, spiritual and physical experience of this remarkable place where volcanic activity, land, lake, and culture merge, returning economic value to the local community.

Māori have a long history of occupation on the islands and shores of Lake Rotorua—the lake provided food, in particular freshwater crayfish (kōura) and the boiling hot pools and thermal vents around the shore were used for cooking. Through a co-design process with Ngāti Whakaue, the people of the land, an ambitious masterplan was developed to reconnect with the lake by reducing the dominance of car parking, telling Rotorua’s stories and representing its unique cultural identity. Beginning with a hikoi (walk) across the site, the history of the land and the deep respect and meaning that it holds to local Māori informed an overarching cultural narrative.

Ngāti Whakaue referred to the movement of kōura below the lake surface as they migrated and gathered from one end of the bay to the other—traditional knowledge that was used for harvesting this valuable food source. Like the movement of kōura, the lake edge would become a gathering place for people, joining together, connecting and creating community. Isthmus’ design role was to listen carefully and “give form to” cultural narratives, acknowledging ‘mana taonga’, the authority residing in the tangible and intangible elements which hold intrinsic and extrinsic cultural value.

The experience of walking along the boardwalk alternates between a connection with the land and the lake—a series of bridges physically bind the boardwalk to the land, and reference traditional Māori tukutuku weaving techniques while carved markers stand on land that once was water. Traces of the original shoreline have been revealed by declaiming the land and clearing away the clutter to establish terraces and a softer ephemeral edge to the lake by abstracting the forms, colours and textures that are unique to Rotorua. Echoing the world-famous pink and white sinter terraces of nearby Lake Tarawera, lost in the 1886 volcanic eruption, a series of shallow concrete plates cascade into the lake.

The 5-metre-wide boardwalk follows the natural arc of bay and reveals the connection with, and significance of, the legendary Mokoia Island. At each end, the arc of the boardwalk sweeps out into the lake—at the eastern extent of the boardwalk is a carved seat for contemplation, a quiet and exposed position to view Mokoia Island and reflect of the many layers of history of this unique cultural landscape.
In addition to allowing people to engage with the water, the boardwalk also works for the ecology of the lake. Below the structure, habitat has been created that supports the re-establishment of kōura—cantilevered edges provide shade and riprap hidden below the lake surface provide protected space for kourā to move between rocky habitat areas in a design move that has engaged local people in caring for their ongoing wellbeing. The project team engaged with students from the local primary schools to help them learn about the cultural narrative, the design process and construction. These students are now part of the creation story of the redevelopment and have a much stronger attachment to place.

Innovative construction techniques were required to found the boardwalk in the soft geothermal material on the lake bed. Locally grown timber was used as a key element in the boardwalk, furniture and lighting. Limechip and grass areas were used to reduce permeable surface and carbon associated with concrete, significant native planting was undertaken to support a xeriscaping approach, and levels were raised to respond to expected rainfall increases with climate change. Local biodiversity has been enhanced with the planting of 540 native trees and 25,000 native plants that restore the ecology of the lake edge.

The design features a destination play space which acts as a social edge that connects lake and city. Building on the cultural narrative, the circular form of the bike/scooter track is based on the korapa, a woven net used to collect kōura, the play tower is inspired by traditional woven traps and supporting features such as the ‘fallen log’ seats reflect habitat found below the lake surface. The energy and movement of tamariki through the space brings life like that of the habitat created below the water.

Local history, ecology, culture and ancestry are embedded throughout all aspects of the design at the lakefront, revitalising a sense of place and belonging for the local community. Over each stage of development, new layers of meaning and cultural identity have been revealed, leading to a richly layered and proud expression of Lake Rotorua as taonga. Each aspect of the design from landscape and built structures through to the artwork contribute to this expression, using cultural and environmental histories as guidelines for how best to enjoy, respect and protect the water and whenua. Through these design decisions and most significantly through co-design with mana whenua, the wairua and mauri of the Rotorua Lakefront is not only enriched but maintained for future generations to experience.

Location: Rotorua. Aotearoa New Zealand.

Design year: 2019-2022

Year Completed: 2023


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