Wellington Scoop

Heritage advocates defend importance of saving our history

felicity wong

Report from RNZ by Harry Lock
Heritage advocates say proposed changes to building regulations in Wellington will destroy the capital’s architectural feel. With the city’s population expected to expand by tens of thousands over the next few decades, the City Council’s spatial plan sets out where the city can grow, and what new buildings are allowed.

The solution it proposes is to allow taller and denser housing throughout the capital, particularly clustered around the urban centres of each suburb, including for suburbs currently enjoying special protection for their “character areas”.

Walking around Mount Victoria, Felicity Wong (above), the Chair of Historic Places Wellington, stopped on the corner of Queen Street and Brougham Street.

“Each corner of this street has these two large, two-storeyed late Victorian, wooden buildings,” she said. “Under the proposed draft spatial plan, these buildings could be demolished and replaced by three to four storey town houses.”

It does still provide some protection for these areas – while reduced in size, there will still be character sub-areas, which will still require a resource consent if the owner wishes to demolish. There are also height restrictions for new builds. But despite these provisions, it’s not enough for heritage advocates.

To fight for the continued protection of such areas, Wong has created the group Keep Wellington’s Character.

“In this suburb, in Mount Victoria, 65 percent of the houses could then be demolished without a resource consent,” Wong said.

ben schrader

Dr Ben Schrader, another member of Historic Places Wellington, and an urban historian teaching at Victoria University of Wellington, highlighted why maintaining, and preserving character, is important.

“It tells the stories of our city, both from pre-colonial, and Māori times, through to the 1900s, and up to the present. So you can read the history of the story in the built environment, and through the historic buildings which comprises the city.”

The new plan, in significantly reducing the size of the character areas, is a concern to him.

“It’s based on which streets look pretty, and which ones can be let go because they’re more ugly, and as a historian, even the ugly buildings tell really important stories about the city.”

That doesn’t mean Wellington should become a city just looking at the past, he said. “We’re very much aware cities need to grow, and they need to accommodate new growth, and they need new buildings. But I think the way they’re going about it, in terms of the draft spatial plan, it’s not taking account enough, of the existing fabric.”

So why have these arguments provoked the ire of others?

The inception of the group Keep Wellington’s Character has incited debate around Wellington’s housing stock. A lot of it centres around the quality of housing in the capital, and in particular, the quality of heritage housing. Areas like Mount Victoria, Mount Cook and Thorndon are crammed with students, who often live in a historic house.

Youth Council deputy chairperson Laura Jackson said: “For a lot of young people, the only experience they have with heritage, is much older buildings which haven’t been maintained well, which are draughty and cold, they’re lacking in appropriate insulation, they’re mouldy.

“[It] means young people get a really negative view on housing.”

Not only young people were having trouble. She said she had heard from other members of the community who were in the rental market and still struggling.

While rules coming in will see landlords forced to provide healthy homes for renters, fellow youth councillor Brad Olsen said that was only half the story.

“It’s abundantly clear in Wellington, that we need more houses, and we just don’t cut the mustard if we continue with our current housing stock without regard for additional housing. We have to allow for denser development to house the additional people who will live in Wellington over the next 10, 20, 30 years, and that will require a change in our housing mix.”

If not in character areas, then where?

“There’s plenty of places in Wellington that you can upzone, and you can create denser housing, without biting into the heritage suburbs of Thorndon, Mount Victoria, Aro Valley, Mount Cook, [and] parts of Newtown and Berhampore,” Wong said.

Heritage advocates said they were not against more housing, but just want the new housing to be in targeted areas where it does not threaten historic areas, or blight them with six-storey apartment blocks.

They argued for more emphasis on redeveloping one storey offices in Te Aro, utilising the space in the outer suburbs, and making the most of Kent and Cambridge Terraces, and Adelaide Road.

Olsen said that should not be how it works out. “Wellington is a city of many different parts, and many different people, and I think we need to realise the entire city needs to move, and change with this, rather than pinpointing any one area to become the next housing development.”

But with limited options for places to expand, Robert Whitakker from the group Renters United said there was not much other choice.

“The city needs to grow, it needs to grow up, because we can’t grow out, because we’re a harbour, with hills around it. So we need to find ways to keep the character of our city but we need to grow as well, and I think this plan balances those things as well.

Consultation on the plan remains open until 5 October.


  1. Rebecca Matthews, 11. September 2020, 16:46

    I’m sorry, but the core function of housing is not to tell stories or preserve history, it’s to give people places to live. Our plan already protects heritage and important character areas. It’s a city, not a museum. [via twitter]

  2. James Macbeth Dann, 11. September 2020, 16:47

    I get that there are very real issues with heritage protections in Wellington, but some of it is for good reason. The barbarians at CERA used the quakes to knock down huge amounts of our heritage, now we have gravel carparks and a soulless CBD that could be from any failing city. [via twitter]

  3. Jenny, 11. September 2020, 18:33

    We need homes but we need beauty and peace and space too. Some ticky tacky boxes of close packed apartments are ugly and so crowded they encourage anti-social behaviour. Wellington can do without UK style housing estates.

    Hearts starve as well as bodies
    Give us bread, but give us roses
    As we go marching, marching
    Unnumbered women dead
    Go crying through our singing
    Their ancient call for bread
    Smart art and love, and beauty
    Their drudging spirits knew
    Yes, it is bread we fight for
    But we fight for roses, too ….

    Can we find a good balance between more housing but not overcrowding or characterless buildings?

  4. Toni, 11. September 2020, 23:09

    Jenny, absolutely agree. The council is so focussed on cramming thousands of people into high rises in the inner-city, it has lost the plot where green space, community areas and healthy environments are concerned. Take a walk along Victoria Street from Dixon Street and it is wall to wall high-rises looking out over a gray concrete landscape. The WCC actually has the cheek to officially call the huge expanse of grey concrete tiles with a few trees stuck in it – Te Niho Park!! And the density in that area is frightening.
    So far WCC is not doing well with “inclusion of planned open space within individual neighbourhoods” or “development that contribute to producing cohesive ‘neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods’ to increase social resilience”. The list goes on and is ignored, while developers continue to slap up buildings built for profit not people.

  5. Albert Ross, 12. September 2020, 12:39

    You can have any two of housing affordability, conservation of heritage and protection of open spaces. You cannot have all three. Proponents of heritage conservation need to explain which of the other two they think less important

  6. Kay, 18. September 2020, 0:45

    You could have housing affordability, conservation of heritage and protection of open spaces, if you also have fast efficient and cheap public transport. Housing developments above Karori haven’t taken off because people can’t get there by public transport except during peak hour times.