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Te Māra Hūpara Playground

Case study, October 2023

Te Māra Hūpara Playground

Case study, October 2023

Image credit: Jay Farnworth Image Search Ltd
Image credit: Jay Farnworth Image Search Ltd
  • Owner: Auckland Council
  • Operator: Auckland Council
  • Type: New development
  • Hierarchy: Local
  • Primary Function: Playground
  • Planning Commenced: 2015 (as part of the Te Auaunga Oakley Creek restoration project)
  • Construction Completed: 2019
  • Opening: July 2019
  • Total Cost: under $150,000

The vision

To integrate mātauranga Māori and environmentally sustainable practices to restore the mauri of Te Auaunga, so it becomes a thriving, flowing creek in a green corridor that is treasured and respected for generations to come.

[From the Te Auaunga Oakley Creek Vision and Restoration Strategy]

The challenge

The initial need for the Oakley Creek project was to manage stormwater and reduce flooding. Water quality improvement was also identified, as well as the need to restore the mauri of Oakley Creek and recognise its significance to mana whenua in that area.

The need for a playground was identified early on in planning. Mana whenua suggested that the project team look at the opportunity for māra hūpara (traditional Māori play) in line with the wetland restoration and natural play elements proposed for the project.

Project team

Auckland Council’s Healthy Waters team, in collaboration with Boffa Miskell and Fulton Hogan, led the project.

Te Māra Hūpara Playground project company logo's

Harko Brown, Māori Play expert and author, brought his knowledge and expertise to the project, with Boffa Miskell landscape architects adapting the designs to fit the landscape. In this video Harko Brown talks about māra hūpara and the different aspects of the playground, and how children might use it.

AECOM, WEC, and Park Central were also involved with the project.

Project timeline

Date Activity
2015 Project team established

Engagement focused on three key stakeholder groups established by Auckland Council:

  • Mana whenua
  • Local boards
Community (via Community Advisory Group set up for the project and feeding into the Operations team)
  Mana whenua suggested to project team that they consider integrating traditional Māori play features into the park (ideally having guidance from Harko Brown)
2016 Construction on Te Auaunga started

Workshops with schools

Public meetings

Other consultation
2017-2018 Design/construction of māra hūpara began
2019 Construction on Te Auaunga and māra hūpara completed
2019 Formal Opening


Hūpara: a definition
I think the term hūpara (Brown, 2016) refers to places built or selected for physical play, learning, and exercise, but more than this, they are spiritual, physical and social nodes. Commonly made out of rākau that are permanently dug, stacked, or hung in place, they are designated as hūpara and thereupon take on special relationships and qualities in aid of tribal resilience.

So, what are māra hūpara?

Utilising Te Taiao (the natural world) – streams, trees, logs, and rocks – to create physical challenges through climbing, balancing and jumping is a timeless and universal activity. Adding meaning to play through imagination and storytelling is equally ubiquitous. Children around the world have been doing this for millennia.

In Aotearoa, acknowledging ngā kōrero tuku iho o ngā tangata whenua (the stories of the people of the land) and the wairua (spiritual) component of Te Ao Māori (the Māori worldview) brings deeper meaning to both the activity and the object itself.

Learning the pūrākau (cultural narratives) of the place and the people, can only happen through meaningful engagement with tangata whenua / mana whenua. It starts with listening and learning as landscape architectsmana whenua work collaboratively through the kaupapa (process) and pūrākau to find the appropriate hūpara related to each place.[1]

Design and construction

With drawings and sketches by Boffa Miskell landscape architects, and on-site collaboration between Council, Māori play expert Harko Brown, the Boffa Miskell design team, Fulton Hogan staff and others, the playground emerged.  A key element in this process was integrating the landscape elements into the playground design, and a focus on play. While there were several potential approaches to the design of the playground the final design occurred on-site, as a response to the place and the available materials.

Design by Boffa Miskell


The 10-tonne swamp kauri used to connect the kōpapa was retrieved from another council project [identified by a Fulton Hogan staff member, and originally being destined for landfill] and shifted to the site. Rocks used in the design were excavated from the site during the widening of the channel. [1] Repurposing the swamp kauri for use in the playground was an appropriate ethical use for these precious materials.

The team also utilised materials from the site, which are integrated into the existing landscape, and were specifically chosen for their relevance to the values of Te Auaunga and to the mana whenua group. Some of māra hūpara’s areas are hidden to encourage exploration, but also legible – associated with ‘islands’ of mature tree-groups and signalled by informal paths and kohatu (mauri and stepping stones). Massive swamp kauri, some as large as 12 tonnes, peek above low vegetation to reveal play areas.[2]

Play audit

On completion, the māra hūpara project was signed off by an external play specialist to ensure the safety of fall heights, accessibility and cushioned falls were compliant with standard regulations.



In initial plans, $700,000 had been budgeted for a traditional playground but this funding was no longer available. This meant working with what remained of the landscaping budget from the restoration project and being creative with what was available. The project was realised at a cost of less than $150,000.


The playground – until it was actually finished – had no formal council authorisation but did have a social mandate from the community it serves.

The playground was called an ‘outdoor area’ until it was officially signed off as such by Council. But we had the backing of mana whenua, the local Boards, we had momentum, and no-one was about to challenge what we were doing. Social license [to act] is very powerful. This was the project of the community, not ‘our’ project, and it gave me confidence to keep going,”

Tom Mansell from the Healthy Waters team at Auckland Council.

Although not officially called a playground, the play auditor was involved during the design-build (construction) to make sure these taiao tākaro met the requirements of safety. Towards the end of the project, Auckland Council Community Facilities team certified the playground.

Unknown factors

It is also difficult to say how long the materials will last because they are natural, non-specified materials.  For example, the swamp kauri will need to be monitored and checked to ensure it is still safe. Boffa Miskell are currently undertaking independent research on the durability and resulting safety of māra hūpara based on Te Auaunga and other projects recently constructed.

Key success factors

  • A creation with almost no budget that is enjoyed by the local community.
  • Cultural narrative: the story behind the different elements in the playground and its link to te ao Mā This works on two levels: children and adults can be there and play and can also choose to learn and understand the story of the place, and the stories relating to how Māori lived in pre-European times. Everything around the playground has a link to the past, in one way or another.
  • Natural elements and planting relevant to the place, selected by mana whenua and grown by Te Whangai Trust’s plant nursery in a nearby school.
  • Collaboration in action: "This has been a unique community collaboration bringing together a diverse range of natural resources to re-establish important cultural spaces for fun, contemplation, and education." (Harko Brown)
  • Community driven and mandated, with engagement with mana whenua from the start.
  • Local residents and community groups such as Migrant Action Trust, local boards, cycle action groups, as well as mata waka were included in the Community Advisory Group and advocated for community needs and aspirations.
  • In the context of 2023 and the impact of flooding in Auckland, the restoration project and the playground form a potential blueprint for future interventions, as part of the Auckland’s “Making Space for Water” programme, which includes stream rehabilitation.

The project won the 2019 New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects (NZILA) Award of Excellence.This project challenges the traditional model of playground design by looking at the landscape as an interactive canvas where subtle but conscious interventions have created an integrated and highly valued space, reflecting the wider aspirations of the Te Auaunga project, within tight budget constraints.” (NZILA Awards).

What would you say to others wishing to undertake something similar to this?

  • This project is unique to a specific place and group of people, but the principles of māra hūpara can be applied in other places if approached in the right way. Be respectful, some tākaro are taonga and we need to be aware of that.
  • Talk with mana whenua, and with experts on Māori play.
  • The playground must be appropriate to the place: build ‘the right thing, in the right place’.
  • Recognise that there is cross-over between māra hūpara and nature play; not all mana whenua will use the term ‘māra hūpara ’

(From Boffa Miskell)

Utilisation rates

No utilisation rates specifically for the playground are available, however increased use of Walmsley Park has been recorded.

Surveys undertaken between 2016 and 2019 included questions focused on perceptions of the changes to Walmsley Park (which included māra hūpara). When asked whether the park was better or worse than before the upgrades, responses were overwhelmingly positive, with key themes including the generation of positive effects and feelings and a more attractive environment to be in. For the residents who had used the park prior to the work being undertaken, nearly 90 percent stated that they considered the park ‘much better’.  Sixty-five percent of respondents rated satisfaction with the children’s play areas.

There was significant increase in use, both in numbers of hours of use and types of users.


The mana whenua, local board, and community engagement conducted for Te Auaunga Awa contributed to a wide range of realised and anticipated benefits across social, environmental, and cultural domains. The engagement was not all smooth sailing, however, and the project team experienced a number of challenges establishing and maintaining relationships.

Image credit: Jay Farnworth Image Search Ltd 


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