Wellington Scoop

Left against left – but there’s common ground

Angus view from
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.’ 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 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 – 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 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.


  1. Jon Terry, 30. September 2020, 10:05

    It breaks my heart to see “heart” rimu and matai (“heart” is the stronger core of the tree that resists borer) splintered and stuffed into a skip, ready for landfill. I would love to see this wood repurposed, as I do myself.

    Yes – adaptive re-use rather than demolition!

  2. Homer, 30. September 2020, 10:36

    Sounds like we need Mayor Qimby

  3. Claire, 30. September 2020, 11:35

    The real problem is the lack of action by the Key Govt. This Govt is scrambling to fix it with six storey buildings aided by the NPS. This plan is poor and should never have been put out, let alone before an election. It is designed to fix the affordable housing problem, so it is nothing to do with people living in older houses in Wellington. By the way Gen Z those houses are owned by your mothers fathers and aunties – they have loved them and done them up. And they don’t want a six storey block bang up next to them.
    Alternative plans by the Newtown Residents Association are not alternative, they are still six storeys. I for one don’t want to look up at them when I am at the Newtown Fair on the main strip of Newtown. It would be a canyon. Look at the demolition of the George Porter Tower, a large social housing block. It only lasted forty years. To be replaced by much lower accommodation. Reason given is to alleviate isolation!!
    So WCC please start again. Make lower brilliant design a priority. And talk to the community and stand up to the Govt.

  4. Jonathan Coppard, 30. September 2020, 14:18

    This article makes a good attempt to find common ground but fails in two areas.

    Firstly, by not recognising that the spatial plan as it stands today is a middle-ground. As Jenny Condie stated at the city for people meeting, her and many of us in the “millennial left” would prefer that character protections are removed completely and heritage be the only instrument used to protect old buildings of value. I recognise that this is not a view shared by all Wellingtonians, which is why I support the compromise put forward in the draft spatial plan, despite having doubts about whether the broad-stroke character protections are even legally permissible under the NPS.

    Secondly, if the author thinks that anyone in the pro-housing left would support a delay on this issue he is much mistaken.

  5. Wellington Inc, 30. September 2020, 16:18

    How about removing some of the town belt protections. I’m a fan of increased residential population growth in the CBD and inner suburbs and I’m more than happy with six-storey plus apartment buildings but at the same time I want to retain character and heritage buildings in these areas and would strongly oppose their destruction. What is the solution, other than to send people beyond the city fringes and add to urban sprawl? How about accepting that some of the lesser-used parks and reserves in inner Wellington should be developed and built on. Wellington has a plentiful supply relative to its population. If people are willing to remove heritage protections on houses, they should be willing to do the same for areas of the town belt.

  6. TrevorH, 30. September 2020, 16:19

    “Colonial” houses are now the new oppressors? For goodness sake. Wellington is sclerotic and moribund, choking in its own congestion which is aggravated by the absence of political will to do anything about it. Intensification of the inner city and suburbs makes little sense, especially as the very idea of the CBD passes into history. The future is in devolution, enabled by better transport connections, cheaper land to build on, ever faster broadband and 5G. It’s time to stop applying 19th century “solutions” to the 21st century and beyond.

  7. Marko, 30. September 2020, 17:05

    Ben I agree that there is more common ground than the media lets on. But if you look at the Spatial Plan (and City for People website) no one is arguing for heritage listed buildings like Thistle Hall to be bowled. It is about getting the balance right – I think that 7 entire suburbs with 100% demolition controls in a small city has the balance terribly wrong. It is about being sensible about heritage – or leaving a legacy of regret. Character and heritage is created every day, and I would love to see what new creative buildings our talented local designers will come up with in the coming years.

    Also your analysis on emissions ignores that instead of building close to existing jobs, infra and schools – we are sprawling north creating more emissions than if we densified.

    Finally, if the Newtown proposal is applied, i would love to own one of those sections. Land banking would be rife! We need experts on heritage no doubt, but we also experts on housing.

  8. Lucy Telfar Barnard, 30. September 2020, 18:03

    Great piece Ben.
    @Jonathan Coppard, you’re also taking the approach of polarising, by describing (presumably) those people who support the DSP as “pro-housing”, and thus implying that anyone who doesn’t support it in toto is “anti-housing”? I don’t know whether it needs delay, but it certainly needs improvement.
    – It has no higher rise (6+ stories) in Kelburn or the main part of Mt Victoria suburb, although they’re far closer to the CBD than Newtown. It’s easy to see this as a poorer suburb getting dumped on to protect the privileges of wealthier suburbs.
    – There’s clumsy wording, implying a 6-story minimum height in 4 areas: even if that’s not what’s intended, it leaves those areas vulnerable to an easy, consultation-free change to a 6-story minimum at some not-so-later date.
    – The plan isn’t a Spatial Plan, it’s a height plan. There is no discussion of site coverage, or sunlight access, or public green space (which overseas examples show is vital for happy living in higher-density areas).
    – There is no guarantee of affordability. Australian research shows that unless mandated otherwise, developers build higher decile housing, because there’s more profit in it, not affordable housing. More housing in inner suburbs might perhaps stifle some price growth in more closer outer suburbs, but doesn’t necessarily bring affordable housing to those inner suburbs, any more than new higher-density housing developments in Ponsonby have made Ponsonby more affordable.

  9. Robin Campbell, 1. October 2020, 8:52

    We pay more rent in Berhampore (20-30 min bus to CBD) than we did last year in New York (20-30 min train to Times Square)[via twitter]

  10. Brandon Harre, 1. October 2020, 9:16

    Rents in Wellington are more expensive than Tokyo – a city over hundred times its size. [via twitter]