When you’re a high-powered entrepreneurial couple, quality leisure time is priceless. For Cecilia and James Robinson, co-founders of My Food Bag and Au Pair Link, this means spending time with their family and friends in a three-tiered marvel of a modern, family-focused garden.

But they haven’t always found their inner-city Auckland patch so accommodating. When they first moved in, their outdoor spaces, though promising, were underdeveloped and the amount of time they could spend in them with their two young children, Thomas (5 and a half), and Leila (20-months), was limited. Enter Ben Shearer of Shearer Landscape Design with a purposeful design that has doubled social value, maximising the time they spend outdoors. 


The Robinson’s renovated bungalow sits at the top of a sloping site and the outside space had been terraced into three levels when they bought it.  There was an existing pool but the fencing obstructed views through to the water, as well as a large north-west-facing deck that lacked shade. 

“The third tier was also completely overgrown,” says Ben. “Access was challenging as you could only get to the garden areas through the garage. As it is a sunny site, creating shade for play and socialising was important. And privacy was also an essential consideration.”


The Robinson’s wanted the various outdoor spaces in their garden to feel more purposeful, all year-round, so they could enjoy more time outside with their friends and family.  “We wanted a paradise for young kids. A place for them to explore, be imaginative – be kids. We also wanted something attractive and in keeping with the lush, largely native, outlook. Lastly, we wanted something low maintenance to work with our busy lives.”

To achieve this, Shearer spent time honing in on how the family saw themselves spending time together and with others, then specifically zoned each area of the garden to support these interactions.

“In this garden I addressed each space individually to maximise the different areas. Some spaces are for the children and their friends only (towards the bottom of the property), some spaces are perfect for children playing with adults (an astro-turfed strip of green on the second tier) and some spaces (closer to the house) are for adults and their guests to socialise.”


To improve the areas where the Robinson’s like to entertain friends and family, the designer created more shade and shelter. Zip-track blinds were added to the outdoor dining area on the deck. “These can be flicked down easily mid-dinner service if the weather changes, or brought up to let in a cool breeze,” Ben explains. “ With the addition of a hanging lamp, the room can now be used day or night as either an indoor or outdoor dining space depending on the weather and time of year.”

A secondary area for relaxed socialising was created in a previously dis-used corner of the deck by adding bench seating and a cantilevered umbrella for shade. A floating, cantilevered  barbecue offers up stylish solution with easy access. Cedar screening on the boundary gives the family privacy from neighbours. “The Cedar timber makes the screens feel highly organic and natural,” he points out. “The result is a ‘privacy screen’ – not a towering fence which can make occupants feel hemmed in.”

An area where both adults and children can have fun together, the swimming pool needed to feel more connected to the outdoor living areas. “Replacing the existing fencing with wrap-around glass allowed the spaces to move fluidly into one another without compromising the safety of small children,” says Shearer. 

The second tier is another shared space for parents and play-makers alike: fully covered in no-maintenance, highly quality artificial grass from Urban Turf Solutions, crawling around on the ground doesn’t require hosing off.  “The playhouse mimics the main house but the children have a few extras. We put in a black-board paint wall for chalk drawings and a secret escape hatch exits, via a slide, to the third tier of the garden. We lined the walls of the playhouse with artificial grass too to make for tactile play.”

Ben’s aim was to ensure the bottom level of the garden, “where children rule the roost”, felt like a real escape. “An enchanted garden fit for fairies,” the designer used moss-like plantings, the delicate flowering groundcover Fuchsia procumbens and lots of child-friendly edibles including strawberries and feijoas. A stepping stone path, slide from the playhouse and a whimsical sign post add to the child-like enchantment of the space.  


The piece de resistance of this garden is undoubtedly the Flox mural on the wall of the outdoor dining area. “I wanted to bring the rich green of the garden into the outdoor dining area and the single white wall in this space naturally had great potential to be a feature wall. A mural has the advantage of being no-maintenance while still hugely impactful. I thought Flox’s stencil work would be a great fit.”

Flox loved James’s idea of incorporating some of the native birds they could hear in the garden and its many trees, into the mural. Wood pigeon, tui and native plants are a key feature of the vibrant image. “The feature wall came together in a day, quickly and fluidly,” says Ben, “and marked the end of another great project.”

And as for the Robinsons, they couldn’t be happier. It works “wonderfully well” for them as a family they enthuse. “When Tom has play dates – the kids disappear outside and explore for hours. Leila enjoys her playground (loves the slide) and plays in the playhouse kitchen for hours – pretending to make mum and dad ice-cream (her favourite)!”