The common ‘sense of place’.

Monday, July 4th, 2011

Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done

…so writes C E Stowe. I made a comment in my last post on highway flyover designs, noting that it would take a high quality of design to avoid the community severance that such overpasses are know to create. I made the point (or tried to), that the severance that a basin flyover will potentially create is also one of a larger scale – creating a north/south Wellington divide at the psychological level:

The site is a key one in terms of being a the main acces route to Newtown, and South Wellington more generally. If we were to create some kind of visual ‘gateway’ through poorly thought through design, we would be effectively dividing Wellington city into a much more visually defined/severed south and north cities. Do we want that? Should such a move be the result of transportation improvements, rather than an outcome of a considered debate of our ‘sense of place’ (which would be irrevocably altered by such a move)?


Which has got me thinking about that old chestnut: ‘sense of place’…

The term itself is a rather slippery one, having been bandied about willy-nilly in urban-design-speak for quite some time now. It vaguely refers to the particular identity or character of a place, as distinct from the identity or character of any other place, and has some relation to the term genius loci – the genius of place – a much older term:

Consult the genius of the place in all;

That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;

Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,

Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;

Calls in the country, catches opening glades,

Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,

Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;

Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

…waxes lyrically Alexander Pope in “Epistle IV – To Richard Boyle, Earl of Huntingdon” (c1890), helping to implant the idea as an important tenet of 19th century landscape design theory. Whether or not the particular identity/character is a product of perceptual experience, or the physical qualities of the place (or some combination of the two), could be happily argued about all day – not so in this post however.

What I am interested in, in terms of ‘sense of place’ and the NZTA Basin proposals, is who gets to shape a community’s sense of place, and on what mandate? It is clear that the proposed traffic ‘improvements’ will have a huge effect on the character and identity of a key historic site – the Basin Reserve. It will also effect Buckle Street, The southern end of Kent and Cambridge Terraces, and the historic residential area of Mt Vic between The Mt Vic tunnel and the Basin. And then there is all the havoc to be wreaked on Wellington Road and the Town Belt on the other side of Mt Vic.

So, this project is a huge one in terms of the sense of place for a large swath of this city. Which means, in my opinion, and that of the City Council if their constant valorisation of the concept is to be taken at face-value, is that we need to consider it from that point of view, as well as the many others (traffic efficiency, health, ecology, social impacts, and so on).

So just what is Wellington’s ‘sense of place”, and how do we arrive at it? WCC undertook a study of this back in 2004, and although it is rather broad, it at least gives us a useful starting point”. Basically, sense of place is defined as the unique combination of the City’s qualities of place: its setting in a landscape of dramatic beauty, its mid-sized city status, its role as the capital of NZ, and the high quality of life of its citizens [statistically that is]; And of its distinctiveness: smart city/village atmosphere, compact people-place, centre of the nation, ‘hill-crowded harbour city’, and as a city on the ‘edge’ (here the ‘unique’ weather gets a mention). There appear to be some overlaps.

A City Character Study is mentioned on the WCC website as an ongoing project to map the sense of place that is unique on a smaller scale to the various areas and suburbs that make up Wellington City. However, there is no further evidence of such work. Perhaps more useful then, is the 2006 Urban Development Strategy – especially as it is oft-cited in the NZTA documentation to rationalise the local effect of its proposed works. Yet, despite the heavy emphasis on the sense of place of the city in the Urban Development Strategy (see below), there is a complete absence of its consideration in the NZTA material. While the NZTA commissioned urban design assessments do make note of some of the aspects that are considered to be part of our sense of place, it does this in a highly selective way – e.g. topography and conformation to the city grid are in, the residential/street patterns of Wellington Road and Paterson Street are not mentioned.

The 2006 Urban Development Strategy gave quite some prominence to our sense of place however.  It recorded aspirations for achieving 5 long-term outcomes over the 10 years from 2006 – a stronger sense of place being one of these. Here is what it has to say on that matter:

Wellington’s success as a city relates closely to its sense of place. Wellington has a dramatic setting, is compact, and has good public transport. It is at the centre of the nation and is the national capital. It will have distinctive and beautiful buildings connected by high-quality public spaces and recognise the legacy of the past through the protection and conservation of its natural and cultural heritage. Building on Wellington’s distinctiveness will mean:

• protecting and enhancing the elements of the city’s sense of place, including the compact walkable nature of the city, its series of urban villages, its heritage buildings and objects, notable trees, heritage areas, Maori heritage sites, national capital uses, landmark natural and built features

• having more distinctive high quality buildings and increasing the focus on the quality of urban design, by integrating the planning of buildings and spaces, and the networks that connect them, at all scales across the city.

The sense of place identified above, and the aspiration to strengthen it,  must form part of the core criteria for assessing the NZTA proposals. We can’t let it slip from our aspirations for the city, and let it be watered-down and pulled apart into a selected few ‘urban design’ elements. This part of the city has a strong sense of place, which involves the Basin as a key focal element, the Kent/Cambridge axis,  the historic nature of the Paterson/Ellice Street precinct and so on.

It could be argued that you cannot make an intervention of this size into an area of urban fabric without changing the local sense of place – which therefore prevents any major work from occurring. Anywhere.

Perhaps there is an element of that form of ‘nimby’ism about, but I really think the issues are larger than that. And it is not that I’m against progress either, or even the notion of an evolving sense of place. But, if it is something that we value, and the above suggests that it is, then we should not make significant interventions into our urban fabric without considering what effects it will have on our sense of place – if only to effect conscious (and positive) changes to it. The Basin in particular is a node that addresses the coming together of southern, eastern, and central Wellington. It does that in a fairly ‘democratic’ manner currently, but what will the proposed changes do to this? Will it create a perceptual and/or psychological barrier to the south? Will it signal a prioritisation of our Eastern suburbs? And what does it do for that ‘grand’ axis  to the waterfront? These questions must be thought of, addressed, and resolved.

So, by all means, if the Ellice/Paterson Street precinct doesn’t feature largely within our collective sense of place, then let it be ramped over (of course, the most signification heritage buildings can be shifted about in the best of NZTA/Karo Drive fashion). If much of the walk from Ellice Street to Taranaki Street must be undertaken in the shadows of said expressway, and that is seen as a positive experience – an asset for the local sense of place, then so be it too. If an 8m elevated expressway is an appropriate visual termination of the Kent/Cambridge Terrace axis, or at least one that is in accordance or has a positive effect on the desired sense of place, then there is a stronger argument for it (although there are many other factors to consider as well).

But let’s not have all that by default, by silently accepting the dictates of for a future sense of place imposed upon the local community by the heavy hand of the state. Let the sense of place that we value be both identified and determined by us. This is the rel key to sense of place, and the associated civic pride that citizens might derive from it. The Urban Development Strategy goes on to say:

To assess whether the city is developing a stronger sense of place, we will survey residents to find out whether they see heritage buildings and other features as contributing to the city’s unique character and their local community’s unique character, and to find out how proud they feel about how Wellington looks and feels. We will survey New Zealanders to find out their views on Wellington’s attractiveness as a city.

It is the people of Wellington then, who both identify and assess the sense of place – which makes active engagement with this consultation process vital. It has taken a long time  to get a chance to have a say, so we must take advantage of it. However, the consultation questions that are posed present the overpass as fait accompli – there are no other options. Likewise, the only space provided for other comments are the 2 lines at question 6 of the feedback form. It is important then, not fall into the trap of selecting one of the two options over the other – this will be read as support (unless, of course, that is what you really want). If you intend to submit (and we encourage this), then you must ignore the feedback form, and draft your own submission – please! Do not let NZTA dictate the shape of the feedback that they receive. You really want tunnels – then tell them. No works at all – put it in writing. Let us know what you think too – especially if you don’t intend to make your own submission. We are your voice, so get involved, and help us to know your mind…

Oh, and don’t forget the rally.

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Posted under: Basin Reserve issues, Comment, RANTING, Transport, urban design | 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “The common ‘sense of place’.”

  1. tomek Says:

    Another well written, balanced and non-sensationalist post. Thank you!

    From my perspective, as someone who has once lived on the “wrong side of the railway tracks” I am quite freaked out by the idea of a literal concrete barrier splitting Wellington into “South Side” and “North Side”. What will be the emotional, on the individual scale, and social, on the city-wide scale, repercussions of such a barrier?

    Furthermore, if the full scheme goes ahead the separation of Hataitai from town belt, along Ruahine Rd, will become even more aggressive than it already is.

    We keep thinking about the Basin but the implications of the scheme are so much more wide reaching. And what’s worse, the scheme proposed by NZTA is not undoable—it will have a permanent effect (most likely until the end of my life which is as good as permanent).

    I hope that whatever committee is in the driving seat that they are not too proud or stubborn to admit that perhaps we need to take another look at the possible and viable alternatives because I want that permanent effect to be a positive one that enhances not only my life but also my children’s.


  2. m-d Says:

    Thanks tomek, flattery is much appreciated!

  3. Spencer Says:

    I second Tomek’s comments.
    There are some open days coming up that should be fun.

    Visit our information centre in the RA Vance Stand at the Basin Reserve (entry from Sussex Street). The information centre is open Monday to Friday from 10am to 3pm except on Thursdays when it is open from 3pm to 8pm.

    Come to a project open day. Open days give you the opportunity to talk to some of the specialists who developed the proposals. Open days will also be held in the RA Vance Stand at the Basin Reserve and will be held on:

    * Saturday 9 July from 10am to 4pm
    * Saturday 16 July from 10am to 4pm
    * Sunday 17 July from 10am to 4pm


  4. m-d Says:

    Note that NZTA are open that their benefit/cost ratio (BCR) doesn’t consider the social, community and environmental impacts of each option, or the benefits of things like landscaping and new parks. They see this round of consultation as standing in for that kind of evaluation – which makes it even more important that you/we have an input.

    NZTA also state: “Engagement is not a vote for a preferred option. It aims to identify issues and generate
    ideas that help us to decide on alternatives and develop our proposals.”*
    While that might sound a little like a Tui billboard, there is even less chance of being heard if we don’t sound forth now…


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