Wellington Scoop

The battle for Wellington


by Michael C Barnett
The NZ International Film Festival got underway in Wellington at the weekend with a showing of ‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.’ It is an excellent film about Jane Jacobs, writer and political activist, who challenged New York City Hall and won – a victory which has immediate relevance for Wellington.

During the 1950s, in an effort to modernise New York and speed up traffic, power broker and developer Robert Moses set out to demolish great swathes of housing, build new high-rise accommodation and construct superhighways the length and breadth of Manhattan. Amongst his plans was a proposal for the construction of a limited access expressway through Washington Square, a community park in Greenwich Village, a community in which Jacobs lived and her children and others thrived. Angered by what she saw as high handed and commercially driven development, Jacobs led a successful grass roots campaign to prevent construction. In the David versus Goliath battle that ensued, her tenacity and courage eventually won through and the proposal was dropped.

Several decades later and living in Toronto, Jacobs described her observations when travelling by taxi to a downtown destination. in Toronto. On a trip from the airport, part of the trip was along an elevated limited access highway, with on and off ramps feeding to and from the city’s grid of one-way streets.

“On the expressway stretch the meter is ticking over, the trip seems economical and I am getting good distance for my money. Then I hit a choke point at the exit ramp and from then on everything changes. Considering what it is costing me, I am getting very little distance. I am not complaining about this. As research it is economical. What worries me rather, is the expensive burden on the city and the planet of air pollution and urban road congestion that the expensive part of my trip is registering.

“The driver must weave circuitously around the block, then around another block and so on to reach the correct side of the street on which to deposit me. All the way to my micro-destination, from the moment we enter the street grid, we are surrounded by delivery vans, other taxis, and private cars whose drivers also are attempting to reach their micro-destinations. ….. Our joint circuitous congestion hampers all others attempting to make use of the streets: public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicycle couriers.”

I mention these actions and observations of Jacobs because they have much relevance to Wellington in its effort to develop transport solutions to take us through the 21st century. It is clear that the current governments intentions for Wellington transport infrastructure remain roads of national significance including ‘four lanes to the planes’ through the heart of our city.

Already we have seen the impact of the Kapiti Expressway. Communities split by a highway passing through them and noise problems that are upsetting the locals. The trip from Peka Peka to Raumati may be quicker, but this is countered by increased congestion and longer travel time where the new road merges with the old at Mackay’s Crossing. This has been acknowledged by the Transport Agency, which admits that little can be done to solve this problem until the Transmission Gully motorway is completed sometime in 2020.

Then a new problem – a choke point where the new expressway links to the existing motorway at Tawa. All things being equal, congestion and slower travel times into Wellington City will remain. What is not so clear is how the city is expected to cope with the estimated 11,000 additional vehicles per day that will be generated. On this, the Transport Agency, Greater Wellington and the Wellington City Council are remarkably silent. Perhaps they have yet to figure it out.

We can learn much from movie ‘Citizen Jane: The Battle for a City.’ Four-lanes-to –the-planes looks uncannily like the 40 year-old US plans to build urban motorways that would destroy a city’s livability and would not solve the problem of road congestion. Wellington’s current plan includes tunneling Mt Victoria and land adjacent to the Terrace, bull-dozing the town belt and destroying housing down Wellington Road.

Let’s Get Wellington Moving planners, politicians, policy makers and the public should see this fine documentary. The film festival has scheduled repeat screenings at theatres around Wellington:

Tuesday 6:15 PM
Light House Petone

Thursday 10:30 AM
Embassy Theatre

Saturday 6:15 PM
Penthouse Cinema

Tuesday (8th) 6:30 PM
Penthouse Cinema


  1. Ben Schrader, 1. August 2017, 14:47

    I saw the film on Saturday and loved it. The main message I took away from it was that if we want to learn how to build better cities then we have to stop viewing them from some vantage point in the sky – leading to the creation of Master plans – and get down to the street level where people actually live out their lives. A bird’s eye vision of cities might look good in the abstract, but what the film showed us was that vision and reality are often worlds apart.

    I then thought about Wellington’s version of the ‘Cross Bronx Expressway’: the Wellington Urban Motorway. I realised that Wellingtonians have been fighting against this monstrosity for over 50 years and it’s still not over. Just as Jane Jacobs was penning her famous 1962 book, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, planners were running lines through Thorndon, the Bolton Street Cemetery and the Basin Reserve in their initial attempt to get four lanes to the planes.

    Wellingtonians failed to stop the motorway severing Thorndon and the cemetery, but they did manage to stop the trenching of Te Aro and the Basin Reserve flyover, proving that Jane Jacobs-like activism can work here too. The current plan to complete the motorway to the airport shows that the planning mentality that privileges private cars over other transport remains ascendant in official circles. The film clearly shows that this mid-20th century mind-set is no way to build livable cities in the 21st century. I agree that it is a must-see for all those invested in Wellington’s future.

  2. David Bond, 22. August 2017, 9:45

    The alternative would have been – and still is – “Trains to the Planes”. Extending our highly-effective, fully-electric regional heavy-rail system to the southern CBD, Newtown, Kilbirnie and the Airport.

    Making a start on this was strongly recommended in the 1960s but only the motorway got the go-ahead. We have reaped the adverse consequences of this decision ever since.

    And while more-difficult to change tack now, it is never too late as Auckland is now demonstrating. All we need is a political regime with new ideas.