The Octagonal Heart
In the 2014 Annual Plan deliberations a proposal to create part of the Octagon and lower Stuart Street into a pedestrian precinct was submitted by two Otago University students . That plan has gained momentum within the City Council, with the announcement of an investigation into developing the idea as a trial. Now in July Councillors have requested Council staff report back on October 28, with public consultation to follow and a final decision to be made in January 2015. The development of the Octagon as a pedestrian precinct is not a new proposal and has been debated in Dunedin on a number of occasions.
The Octagon lies at the heart of Dunedin and its physical shape and central location make it an important civic open space within the central city. As an open space it has been the subject to considerable change since its initial layout during Charles Kettle’s survey of the city in 1846. The importance of the central location of the site was recognised very early in Dunedin’s development and in 1854 the Dunedin Public Lands Ordinance proclaimed that it “shall not be lawful to erect any building whatever within or upon the centre area of the Square called Moray Place, …except a parapet wall and railing, or fence, for enclosing the said area, which shall for ever remain otherwise an open area.” While the name Octagon was never formalised it became part of popular use in Dunedin probably because of the shape of the adjacent formation of Moray Place and its thoroughfares in Kettle’s original layout.
In 1864 the first monument was erected in the Octagon with the construction of Cargill’s monument to commemorate William Cargill the first Superintendent of Otago. Built by Australian John Young in Melbourne some of the stone for the monument was from a quarry opened up in the Town Belt for the Exhibition building. The monument was later moved to its current position in the Exchange in 1872 to allow for better road access to connect George and Princes streets. In 1887 the current statue of the poet Robert Burns was unveiled in the upper Octagon.
During the nineteenth century economic pressures on provincial and local government meant there was little funding for public spaces and the Octagon remained somewhat derelict for many years. Its condition was a source of regular comment by residents through the media from the 1860’s – 1890’s, particularly over the need for pedestrian and vehicle access and the condition that these routes were in during wet weather. In 1864 a writer to the Otago Daily Times wrote that the Octagon was “so abominably slippery as to be unsafe for male pedestrians and dangerous to females, who alas are not allowed to by etiquette carry walking sticks.” The debate continued with another 1873 letter to the Otago Daily Times exclaiming “What is this bleak and deserted place in the heart of our city meant for?“
With the foundation of the Dunedin Amenities Society in 1888 a plan for improving the Octagon was developed and implemented by the Society from 1890-1892. Through public subscription and fundraising the Society completed the planting of the London Plane trees seen in the Octagon today. Ornamental fencing, seating and further planting was also undertaken as part of the Society’s development of the space. The completed improvements by the Society coincided with the construction of the Thomas Burns memorial as a gift to the city by Robert Chapman in 1892. However, the memorial was generally unpopular and was later removed from the Octagon in the 1940’s.
1966 saw the completion of the Star fountain in the Octagon after the Evening Star newspaper donated £5,000 to the City Council. The fountain was a popular attraction in the city, but by the 1980’s it had become unsightly and during the refurbishment of the Octagon in the early 1990’s it was removed. There was significant public outcry about its removal and the new design initiated by the City Council.
The Octagon has evolved into a much-loved public space in Dunedin that has combined civic pride, local identity and a strong sense of public ownership. The public’s collective ownership of the Octagon as an open space is deeply entwined in personal and civic history that defines both the identity of individuals but also the city. The legal protection of the Octagon and its links to Kettle’s survey also makes it central to the historic and heritage narrative of Dunedin. That makes any future development of the Octagon an issue that will have high public expectations on a physical, aesthetic and historical level. With its impressive architectural backdrop and linkages to the wider heritage values of the city its importance cannot be understated. The Octagon has largely become an identifiable symbol of the city and a defining structural element in the built landscape of Dunedin. The City Council needs to make careful and considered decisions about the nature of the public space in the area that recognises the affection that residents have for the Octagon. As a major contributor to the historical and aesthetic values of the Octagon the Society will watch with a keen interest as this proposal develops.