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Left against left – but there’s common ground

Angus view from [1]
Rita Angus: View from Tinakori Road (1967) from Hocken Library

by Ben Schrader
The other day on RNZ, Mt Cook resident and political commentator Richard Harman made the observation that the Wellington Draft District Plan (DSP) debate had pitched the ‘Boomer Left against the Millenial Left.’ [2] He saw it as a battle between Boomer NIMBYs wanting to protect their picturesque villas from six-storey apartments and Millenial YIMBYs wanting modern and affordable central city housing.

It’s true that the media and some participants hold this view – conflict is always energising – but framing it this way obscures much common ground.

The Millenial (and Generation Z) Left argue it’s unfair that their generation have been priced out of inner city living or else are forced to live in over-priced and mouldy dumps, to the detriment of their health and finances. What is needed is new and affordable housing that will enable more people to live closer to inner city workplaces and prized urban amenities. They want a more compact city where residents are less reliant on motorcars. Being able to walk, cycle or bus would cut carbon emissions and make Wellington the sustainable city it needs to become to mitigate the climate emergency.

The Millenial/Gen Z Lefties therefore support the demolition of large swathes of old inner city housing in the existing character areas. They see it as no great loss because they believe:

new apartments would use the land more efficiently;

much of the existing housing is materially poor, even squalid, and

the colonial houses are painful reminders for some Māori of the city’s settler origins and the dispossession of their whenua.

The Boomer Left (I just scrape in) would support the tenor of the above. All Lefties want a socially-just city that all generations can afford to live in.

But many of us baulk at the prospect that developers could have free reign to put up six-storey apartment blocks almost anywhere in the character areas. This is particularly confronting for those of us who toiled to protect places like Thorndon and Upper Cuba Street from multi-storey developments and motorway encroachment from the 1960s through to the 1990s, including city councillors Iona Pannett and Laurie Foon. Without these efforts, places like the heritage-listed Thistle Hall – where the lobby group City for People [3] held its pro-DSP meeting last Friday – would have long been demolished.

It needs to pointed out that retaining old buildings is also a sustainable option.

Nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gases are produced in the construction, demolition and operations of buildings. Preserving older buildings contributes to climate change solutions by storing energy and becoming carbon reservoirs.

We get exercised about saving 600 year-old trees in our indigenous forests, but barely blink when heart native timbers from Victorian cottages get dumped in landfills. Adaptive re-use of old buildings rather than demolition should be our first impulse.

I fully accept that some Millenial/GenZ Lefties see no or little value in built heritage – Councillor Teri O’Neill reportedly called for ‘less character and less heritage’ at Friday’s meeting – but I also know many young people who prize the city’s old housing and don’t want to see it largely obliterated. Harman’s generational divide is by no means clear cut.

So what’s the solution?

We need to seek a middle ground. Rather than being NIMBYs or YIMBYs we need to be QIMBYs (Quality In My Back Yard). This means carefully managing growth so that densification creates environments that are of high quality and not slums-in-the-making.

Rebuilding should begin along existing transport corridors – as exemplified in the Newtown Residents’ plan [4] – and then move selectively into the character areas as growth pressures demand it. It also means retaining more of the character areas than presently proposed and directing property owners to bring squalid housing up to standard. And it means pursuing a korero or dialogue with mana whenua about collectively shaping a decolonised city.

Finally, it’s increasingly clear that the DSP process is a mess.

The Council blames the government’s prescriptive urban National Policy Statement (NPS) for the debacle; the government blames the Council for taking the document too literally. Councillors are urging their constituents for and against the DSP to put in submissions because it’s numbers that count, not the quality of what’s in them.

This doesn’t seem like the right approach to make decisions that will affect the city’s future for the next 50 years. I agree it would be better to delay the process [5] to clarify muddy points and identify more common ground. I think this is something the Millenial Left and the Boomer Left (and others besides) could fully agree on.