How to solve a problem like Napier

Opinion: Many struggle to understand that Napier is going to be inundated, and that implementing a solution will never be cheaper than it is today, says Amanda Bulman.

View over Napier, including foreshoe and Art Deco buildings in foreground.

In our relentless pursuit of individual freedom, we seem comfortable compromising the freedom of others. The gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate, bringing for many a resultant evaporation of hope, evidenced nowhere more clearly than in the state of our housing.

We can continue to do the same as we have always done and we will perpetuate the outcomes we are already living with, or we can choose to be bold and re-think the way we approach housing and property ownership. After all, it’s not as though we don’t have a precedent, another model for communal ownership here, one not driven by the subdivision of land into the smallest lot size for the greatest individual profit.

Ahuriri Napier is perhaps the most climate-change vulnerable provincial city in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is low-lying, at risk from sea-level rise and storm surge, as well as from the increasing incidence of significant rain events. From earliest occupation this landscape was altered, engineered to allow settlement, and support access to food. First a trench (ahuriri) was dug into the estuary to alleviate silting, then later the island (Scinde Island, now Bluff hill) was grafted to the hills by the draining of swamp land and the re-routing of a river.

River quarrying took the gravel that would have been donated to the littoral zone, taking the protection it could have afforded the city with it. We have constructed this landscape. We now irrigate the drought-prone land we drained to grow food. The water in the rivers is being diverted to the vineyards and orchards, the aquifer is at risk from hundreds of bores threatening contamination. The coastal edge is eroding, and the quake-prone land is sinking, all the while the water is rising.

If we build the landscape we prevented from forming naturally we would deposit gravel into the littoral zone, and cleave the city from the surrounding silt flats by re-swamping the wetland, allowing the water back in, working with the underlying patterns of this place.

While we are concerned with our individual property rights, and quibbling over whether another layer of bureaucracy is needed to determine good ground after Cyclone Gabrielle, we are forgetting that people died, and things are only going to get worse.

The way we have colonised this land has compromised its resilience. We need to acknowledge the genealogy of this place, and provide an urban form that recognises its underlying structure. We also need to engineer protection, with gentle hands, constructing an uncommon ground to share.

Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua. I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past.

I am a Pākehā architect, with Scottish and Welsh ancestry, and I wear the privilege of colonisation. I also have a strong connection to Napier, I was born there, and my children and husband whakapapa to this area (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga). I am studying towards a Master of Urban Design and earlier this year I investigated an alternative way of occupying this landscape.

When overlaying maps of historical landform and swamps, geology, and water bodies, with current irrigation, land use, and flooding hazard maps, and tracing the patterns it suggested a way forward – one aligned with the underlying geology and ecology, working to support natural processes, to find a common ground to occupy based on reciprocity between the natural world and city-building.

It is a hopeful future. It is also an achievable one, although getting there requires bold action now.

If we build the landscape we prevented from forming naturally we would deposit gravel into the littoral zone, and cleave the city from the surrounding silt flats by re-swamping the wetland, allowing the water back in, working with the underlying patterns of this place. Our altered urban form would be dense, a vibrant island-city, a citadel from the assault of climate change.

It would be a city in which land-use was collective, focused on a small footprint, dense provision of housing, services, amenity and commerce. It would be an approach to managed retreat as a series of careful steps along an agile strategy.

Perhaps the swampland would be used as a solar farm, and water pumped to the hills for reuse (irrigation) and power storage. There is no one simple answer, and this is difficult territory. However, there are existing models of partnership between infrastructure suppliers and communities that can be applied here. This community could be made more resilient. The buyback of land would be an investment in a collective future, arguably the only viable future, one that without a bold plan is looking damp.

We have evidence of what breaks when climate change visits. What happens when it settles in to stay? Niwa predictive modelling released in May 2023 shows significant flooding impacts on Napier with a 20cm sea-level rise, which is predicted in the next 20-30 years. This difficult reality does afford an opportunity to change the model for how we do housing provision and urban form, and with it to redress the ecological harm we have caused.

We will need to make changes to how we live. Though the dominant narrative may be the mourning of individual fortunes (for an ever-decreasing privileged few), there is another possibility … the future could provide a place that is so much better, more exciting, more equitable and more sustainable than what we have.

This future is not based on property ownership, capital gains, and a demonstrably broken economic model of unsustainable growth. Instead, it would be about developing a reciprocal relationship with the environment, and understanding that individually we are pretty unimportant, but collectively we can achieve the seemingly impossible.

Inaction is not viable here, the longer we wait the fewer the options. What do we have to lose?

Amanda Bulman is a registered architect with an architecture practice in Wellington, Three Line Studio, and is studying for a Master of Urban Design in the School of Architecture and Planning.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, How to solve a problem like Napier, 13 September, 2023 

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