The Comfort Pursuit

Sustainability and higher density vs cultural identity in New Zealand

Photo by P Stalder, sourced from Wikipedia
Christchurch seen from the Port Hills. (Photo by P Stalder, sourced from Wikipedia)

Density has been seen as a good solution for cities. We know higher density saves distances. More people living in the same place implies more environmental, social and economic sustainability. There is also the need to preserve land, and therefore save space. The more the cities grow horizontally, the larger the impact on natural systems. But does this also take into account cultural sustainability? And what is the importance of urban culture after all?

Since the earthquakes, the main intention behind the proposals for rebuilding the Central City has been to make Christchurch a ‘model’ of sustainable city. This sustainability is imagined in many ways, including green roofs, urban vibrancy, effective transportation, ‘liveable’ environments – you can pick your concept of liveability, there are many different ones out there – and so forth.

If you have been in New Zealand you have probably noticed that the streets here, including in some central areas but especially outside of it, are not necessarily defined by buildings. Rather they are defined by the landscape. While in European cities, for example, the urban environment is largely defined by building façades which are adjacent to each other, in New Zealand the buildings are usually plotted on a larger section, and the gardens permeate these properties. This makes the ground more prominent than the figure, in a figure-ground diagram. The urban landscape is therefore defined by the landscape (or space between buildings) to the same extent, if not more, than it is defined by the buildings themselves.

There is a cultural issue here. I have heard many locals saying that is rare to see people coming all the way to New Zealand to see cities. New Zealand is famous for its amazing and peaceful landscapes, and this atmosphere is expected to a certain extent in the cities. Moreover, when the pioneers came to NZ what they were looking for was the restorative spaces that had been lost in England in the mid-19th Century. They came to the New World and wanted their ‘quarter-acre section’ (Mitchell, 1972). What they found here reinforced the importance of the land as the indigenous Maori culture has many symbols and meanings attached to the natural landscape, so being in contact with nature is part of ‘who we are’ (Bell & Matthewman, 2004). This connection to nature has always been part of ‘being in New Zealand’.

Justin Westgate has also written about ideas recently presented by Gehl Architects to revitalize the central city in Wollongong, Australia. The main action was ‘based on people’, implying fewer cars and more ‘people-friendly’ urban spaces. He writes: “perhaps unsurprisingly if you understand Australia’s car culture [some people in the audience] interpreted the discussion as primarily an anti-car drive” which is not seen as a good outcome.

Similarly, in the 86 in-depth interviews I did for my doctoral research it became clear that people “do not want to share walls” as an interviewee said. New Zealanders, and especially people from Christchurch, like their space and gardens. They are part of the Garden City and so is their identity. If you ask locals to choose between more efficient public transportation – implying shorter distances and higher density – or gardens, they clearly choose gardens (or ‘space’) and put pressure on the government to find efficient public transportation systems that could fit their preferred lifestyle.

It seems that if density is indeed the only solution we need first of all a huge cultural shift in New Zealand, and part of ‘who we are’ might be lost. Sustainability has many dimensions, environmental is not the only one. Climate change will also cause a lot of disruption in cultural systems and adaptation (including cultural adaptation) is the big call of the moment. So should we try to preserve the cultural aspects of place as well?

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References

Bell, C., & Matthewman, S. (2004). Cultural studies in Aotearoa New Zealand: Identity, space and place. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, A. (1972). The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise. Christchurch, New Zealand: Whitcombe & Tombs, Propriety, Limited.

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