Choreography of Place

‘Choreography of Place’ reminds us of the practice, and beauty of design as a poetic art, with a precious care, an inherent connectedness and pragmatic purpose.

This is the fourth piece in a series of articles by WSP exploring issues and opportunities for the future design and development of regions across Aotearoa New Zealand. Read on to hear about the vision and ideas behind ‘Choreography of Place’ and what it asks of us in our relationships to place.

Choreography of Place,

Place Woven

Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini
– My strength is not the strength of one, it is the strength of many

What is the future choreography of ‘people’ together with ‘place’ in our ever-changing world? How do we all contribute to and care for the places we find ourselves in, looking after them and leaving them better for those who are yet to come? What really is ‘livability’ in Aotearoa? What is the role of design, story, collective composition and creativity? What is the role of respect and reciprocity? How do different places and environments shape us through various periods of our lives – teaching us, nurturing us, creating memories ‘over-one, under-one’ woven, interlaced threads of the fibre that we each came from, forming a tapestry of time, people and place that is carried with us, henceforward wherever we may go.

Dance can be broken into the following five elements of choreography; Body, Action, Space, Time, Energy. A choreographer uses these elements to create, to represent ideas and tell stories through movements and expression in relation to space, sequence and perhaps music/rhythms.

Above: Kandinsky’s line drawings, Dance Curves: On The Dances of Palucca,(1926) in which he did an extraordinary analysis of the movements, dynamism and space created by Gret Palucca dancer and choreographer and one of the main exponents of expressionist dance.

‘Dance is a language of movement’ and ‘Place’ is a language of movement, environment and relationships. The ‘place-dynamic’ could be a variety of things such as living, learning, working, playing, growing, protecting, comforting, creating. Places house these dynamics and provide space, shape, solace and shelter to the comings and goings of our lives. If places are not healthy, they can equally have damaging effects on all relationality.

Aotearoa has evolved through long histories; including many challenges, sacrifices and deep commitments made to this whenua, and we are also intrinsically connected to Te Moana-nui-a-kiwa (the Pacific) through our everyday lives, and through genealogy, culture, skies after skies of voyaging and our ocean oneness in this big sea family of peoples and islands, from Tahiti to Rapa Nui, from Samoa to Hawaii, from Tonga to Rarotonga and more between. The cultural landscapes of Aotearoa have been looked after by the hands, minds and spirits of many, guided by tikanga (practices) passed on from one generation to the next.

Iti noa, he pito mata
(this whakatauki refers to a kumara that will produce a harvest if attended to with plenty of care).

We seek to understand how important acknowledgment is for mana whenua, iwi and hapū, and all indigenous communities. We know there are different versions of histories, and we look to recognise the impact and inter-generational challenges and struggles that exist, the long-awaited actions towards reconciliation, we encourage conversations about decolonisation of place, and what that may mean, and we create greater space for the support of indigenous equity and rights. We learn to understand alternative world views and listen to ideas generously shared while we all grow a deeper respect for environment, land and nature, connection and caring for place.

Māori values like whakaiti (humility), manaakitanga (generousity of welcome and spirit), whanaungatanga (depth of relations), kaitiakitanga (guardianship), kotahitanga (working together) are transforming ‘how’ we in Aotearoa understand and conceptualise working with place. The incorporation of Māori values is influencing most aspects of policy, incorporating values based ideologies that look for long-term intergenerational outcomes for whanau (family), whenua (land) and whakapapa (legacy).

In the above image, the typical mapping perspective of Aotearoa at the bottom of the world is recentred to highlight the expansiveness of the Pacific ocean.  Aotearoa is inverted from the usual framing (with Aotearoa situated to the upper right and Antartica at the top of the world) perhaps how we may also conceptualise Aotearoa, as a web of interconnections and navigational directions that cover continuity of time, place, journey and relationship, arriving at Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island) and Te Waka-a-Māui (South Island). This lens asks us to question the conventions, spatial orientations and relationships from which we become accustomed to seeing as our position in the world today (often due to particular, recurrent and predominant narratives of place).

Through working together in our contemporary contexts, we can raise the wero (the challenges) and aspire to the maunga teitei (highest pursuits, ideas and opportunities) of bringing world views together and our collective responsibilities to providing manaakitanga (welcomeness) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) for our whenua (lands), our many peoples, places and environments.

Through various projects, relationships and partnerships – top-down and bottom-up, we may bring about changes to how we work with environments, communities and economies, creating opportunities for social, cultural and ecological reconciliation, restoration and regeneration. Conservation and regeneration of precious natural taonga such as moana (seas), awa (rivers), maunga tupuna (mountains), ngāi kīrehe (fauna) and ngahere (forests) is at the centre of how we can design more sensitively for our eco-systems, healing places that have been degraded, and moving towards much needed and ongoing sustainability for our future communities. Ka-tipu, toitū te whenua.

As we step into 2024, the following concepts are some nurturing place-dynamics we can consider


The intergenerational fabric that connects us through time, generations, and a tapestry of experiences, informing our collective legacy, and our part in crafting and caring for place. Pūrākau (cultural frameworks/stories of place) gifted by Māori are re-indigenising places, and being interwoven into place, projects and communities, sharing and resharing ideologies and long held identities of cultural significance through collaborative design and engagement.


A celebration of the narratives of our special places, our unique bonds, and our reciprocal relationships and responsibilities to the land and our environments. Places where we feel ‘at-home’. Places that we feel a part-of. Places where we can share and participate in an active, safe and uplifting community life. Places that are universally accessible and work harder to be inclusive.


A holistic approach that encourages first principles response to priority-need including environmental restoration, social equity and vibrance, community and economic well-being, enhancing the overall  qualities, functionality, mauri and essential vitality of place.


Our futures require comprehensive environmental strategies that prioritise nature and biodiversity, whilst working towards social, cultural and ecological resilience, restoration, and regeneration. It is more and more necessary to collaboratively support our complex and enduring ecosystems and advocate for the central importance of biodiversity in our projects, lands and across the world. Pursuing nature-based systems, and implementing a bio-sensitive urban design (BSUD) approach to future development (that works to stop the degradation and loss of natural habitats and eco-systems) results in more sensitive and responsive built environment outcomes.


The intentional design and care of our spaces, nurturing personal, community, and environmental stewardship, and healthy cycles of life.  A commitment to whakawhanaungatanga, manaakitanga and collaborative partnerships with iwi/hapū and community, rethinking our methods, fostering open conversations and enhancing strong ongoing relationships to place; people to people, people to space, people to place/environment. Designing for [re]connection.


Great places are welcoming, inspire and spark wonder, and connect people lovingly to place. These places are in themselves celebrations of communities and their features, senses (sights, smells, tastes, sounds) histories, treasures and stories. Great places support well-being, encourage expression and innovation, and offer joy and delight enamoring us from the young through to the old.

Above: Some of the WSP team out and about sharing and enjoying time in our local places.

Here are some of the most imperative place-dynamics we need to focus on and try to resolve;

Distributive infrastructure across local, regional and national scales must be provided for with immediacy addressing demands, future resilience and capacity issues. This requires high levels of strategic planning, technical coordination and integration to inform resilient outcomes for water, transport, energy, waste, built environment, communications, logistics, health and education.


Housing is one of the fundamental needs of humanity, to provide people shelter, security and a place to call home.  Encouraging strategic density and stopping sprawl, is an important part of solving the housing conundrum. Housing feasibility, implementation and delivery is nested within the provision of adequate infrastructure, and infrastructure delivery mechanisms and regional/local planning, one must be established before the next can follow.

Place-priority investment

Determining where investment is most needed is a critical question for 2024. New hybrid funding models could be sought, to unlock capital required across various budgets, sectors or partnerships. Evaluating return-on-investment outcomes using multi-criteria analysis, cross-disciplinary decision making, equitable and sustainable development goals, that is flexible enough to respond to immediate as well as long-term contexts and can project returns that relate to wider value i.e. better environmental outcomes, more resilience i.e. less risk profile in the case of extreme weather events, more equitable housing/transport, greater community health benefits.


Assessing current states of place, conditions and variable factors, likelihoods and more frequently notable occurrences and planning mitigation to manage these factors enables us to choose to implement methods and interventions that reduce the degrees of likely risk prior to the fact. Strategic visioning can also help to make long-term decisions that respond proactively providing better integrated solutions for current and future circumstances.

Place-climate response

Place-climate response is not negotiable. It is more than urgent to reduce our human impact across-the-board, locally, regionally, nationally, geographically, globally.

The recent Helen Clark Foundation Report published in partnership with WSP in New Zealand; Sponge Cities, proposes multiple strategies for adopting a nature-based flood management models. The report advocates for a holistic, nature-based approach to ensure we also capture benefits for biodiversity and human health and wellbeing and coordinated ecological planning at national and local levels. It also recommends initiating small-scale incremental integration of green infrastructure as a pragmatic starting point and response method for all neighbourhoods and towns.

Above: Comic created for The Helen Clark Foundation by Alex Scott.

Whakaaro from WSP Te Whanganui-a-tara ropu

Our WSP Te Whanganui-a-tara ropu put pen to paper to share some whakaaro (reflections and ideas) on what’s important in our worlds as we start-out into 2024;

He aha te meanui o te ao? (He tāngata, He tāngata, He tāngata)
~ What is the most important thing in the world?

The whakapapa we share between Te Ao Kikokiko the physical world and Te Ao Wairua the spiritual world is the most important thing. Our whakapapa connects us, grounds us and humbles us all to the inherent nature of being. Our whakapapa is layer upon layer of multi-generational story and growth. Whakapapa connects us to our tīpuna who are in our past worlds been, in this world now and in the worlds beyond us. Whakapapa is physical and tangible, is visible, and hidden. Whakapapa is you, me and all things, everything has a whakapapa. Our landscape, our urban landscape the materials that make up the buildings we inhabit all have a whakapapa, we are one with all that surrounds us. Our whakapapa is who we are as Indigenous people of this place.

~ Ashleigh Ward, [Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Rongowhakaata, Ruapani], Principal Indigenous Designer

As the whakatuaki goes, he tangata, he tangata, he tangata. For me, the most important thing in the world is the people. For iwi Māori, this also applies through the collective strength of our people, the relationships with one another and being able to see ourselves and our whakapapa in our surroundings. In the choreography of place, the reflection and representation of our people in the cultural landscape is paramount to creating an environment that feels inclusive, welcoming and representative.

~ Akira McTavish-Huriwai, [Waikato Tainui, Te Arawa] Graduate GIS Analyst


He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.
In the context of place making here in Aotearoa, for me, it is massively important that our people, tāngata Māori, can see themselves, their identity and their culture reflected in urban spaces.

~ Amy Te Maro, [Ngāti Porou] kaimahi in the architectural + design studio at WSP

Āe, he tāngata, engari, we can’t have ngā tāngata without ora o te taiao, ora o te wai hoki. We must work with the priority of the wellbeing of the taiao and then we will be in a better place to positively create space for people to connect to.  

~ Alyce Lysaght, [Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāpuhi] Water Engineer


One of the most important things in the world is wellness, for me. Piki te ora. Ka ora te whenua, Ka ora te tangata. Whai ora, health and well-being are at the centre of our connections, relationships, experiences and knowledge.

~ Haley Hooper, [Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Te Rangi,] Principal Urban Designer

Place seems to be the thing that connects us to the larger picture, that we are all part of the one planet that we live with and for. One of the roles of design is to facilitate the connection between people and place to co-create spaces and places that are loved. It is these places that bring us together, then shape us, shape our lives and create reciprocity and livability. When we feel connected to people or places, we naturally care about them and their well-being. Rebuilding and supporting these connections in a meaningful way creates a sense of pride and stewardship for spaces and places and helps form a community, grow a strength of identity and create a sense of belonging, imbued with memories, rituals, practices and narratives of place. Growing re-understandings of place that are not centred on ownership or control, but based in the idea that it is something we are all a part of, is an important behavioral shift. With this lens our relationship to place becomes more about nurturing resilient, regenerative outcomes and actions and protecting place, just as you might support a seedling needing a good start to grow, look after it and help it along on its way, stake it after its weathered a storm and water it when its dry, watching what it needs to survive and then, helping it towards what it means to thrive.

A place speaks of its own choreography, of its own nature, of all its own lyrics and composition, we just need to learn to listen better. Perhaps we might look to try to become more at one ‘with’ our places, place-woven, and led by a deep sense of care and sensitivity for that which we call ‘place’. Are we the penholders designing, or is nature the true choreographer? Pianissimo, pianissimo (go lightly, lightly).

E rere kau mai te awa nui mai te Kāhui Maunga ki Tangaroa, ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au
The river flows from the mountain to the sea, I am the river, and the river is me.
~ Nga iwi o Whanganui


  • Co-written by WSP Urban Design Leaders, Haley Hooper, Alan Whiteley and key members of the WSP Te Whanganui-a-tara team; Ashleigh Ward, Amy Te Maro, Akira McTavish-Huriwai and Alyce Lysaght


In the final edition of our five part series exploring topics related to our region’s spatial planning and growth, we will discuss ‘Secret Wellington’ The Emergent City, and talk about catalytic and tactical urbanism and interventions.

Wellington Regional Leadership Committee

100 Cuba Street, Wellington
New Zealand

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