Meditating on Nelson and Population Growth

The city’s motto is 'Palmam qui meruit ferat'. (Let him, who has earned it, bear the palm.) Not sure that reflects a modern New Zealand city. Why does Nelson deserve a palm?

In terms of ambience and style, Nelson City reminds me of the New Zealand I grew up in half a century and more ago. I do not mean that it is not a modern city. The shops reflect today’s customers – gone are butchers, haberdasheries and milk bars – and there is a steady increase of good quality restaurants. Sadly, despite the city centre being graced by many charming old and new buildings, there are the odd ugly-modernist few; there should be a special corner of hell reserved for their developers and architects (if any were involved). As you might expect, the suburbs beyond the city centre are as straggly as in my childhood. (Not a bad place to grow up in though.)

Community facilities have steadily developed. Among my interests, I notice the expanded Suter Art Gallery (and there are dealer galleries), a much better museum on Trafalgar St, while the refurbished Nelson Centre for the Musical Arts has a splendid acoustic even if it was a little small for the crowds attending the Adam Chamber Music Festival.

Nelson’s climate and ambience has attracted retirees from elsewhere in New Zealand who have added to its cultural depth. Close to the centre there is sea and hills for those with an outdoors bent. Younger professionals of above average quality, pursuing the lifestyle Nelson offers, staff schools and health facilities to give the province a higher standard of education and healthcare than is normal for such districts.

It is partly that there is a good integration between town and country – many of our provincial centres are like that, although sadly our main cities have become isolated. The region has especially benefited from labour-intensive horticulture and vineyards in a way other places have not. Tourism is another key industry. All are affected by capacity constraints.

On the other hand, Nelson is a bit isolated from the rest of New Zealand by land and sea; the airport is not too bad. Connectivity between regions may be key to regional development.

This is not to be complacent. Projections suggest that much of the city centre could be inundated as sea levels rise. On average they have risen 30cms in the last century (‘average’, because earthquakes shift land up and down). I suppose Nelson could cope with another 30cms, although there would be less protection from storm surges and tsunamis. But if the ice caps melt faster than in the past, parts of coastal Nelson may be in trouble. Perhaps they should import some Dutch workers to build dykes on the Boulder Bank.

More immediate is the pressure of population. The two road routes to the south can be almost as congested as is taken for granted in the main centres. (On the other hand in the weekend I was jaywalking across inner city streets as I did as a child.)

There is a proposal to put in a third southern route. It may seem obvious to relieve the Waimea and Coast Roads although the congestion will be just shifted south, and any relief will be temporary if population pressures continue with more suburbs straggling further to the south.

But wait a minute. Is not the ambience of Nelson, comparable to that of the places we grew up in, a consequence of the relatively low population pressure? Is Nelson doomed to be as busy as our main centres already are?

The population of the Nelson-Tasman region is projected to grow by between 11,000 and 25,000 residents by 2043 to reach as high 130,000. That is about the same increase as occurred over the last twenty years. Can the region cope with it and maintain its ambience? Let me make two points.

First, coping will partly depend upon the sensitivity of the leadership to preserving the values I have just described. From the reports I have seen, there is a focus on the need for population growth with no attention to its human and environmental impact. I am reminded of Jim McAloon’s Nelson: A Regional History, which describes Nelson’s political development as ‘boosterism’, the not always ethical scramble to attract business to the region so that some inhabitants benefit commercially at the expense of the many and their living environment. (As an aside, Jim has just been appointed to a full chair in history; the Victoria University of Wellington is to be congratulated on its appointment.)

Second, the official population projections are largely mechanical. There is no thoughtful process in government concerned with population policy and its regional dispersion.

Once I thought gradual population growth was a good thing for New Zealand, particularly as a small contribution to the relief of the rest of the world. (And I celebrate the diversity it generates so evident on the streets of Nelson.) I am less sure today as I see the pressures population and economic growth has placed on the environment.

I certainly never supported the laissez faire policy of the last decade in which anyone has been welcome if they are rich enough or added to someone else’s riches. Perhaps the reconciliation is the first point; it is not population growth that matters but how it is handled. I’m afraid our recent record has been to ignore the living and natural environment. If we are going to continue that incompetence, perhaps we should aim for minimum population growth until we learn to manage better. Especially in Nelson.

(Other readers may have other favourite provincial centres. Fair enough. They are probably not doing as well as Nelson. Hopefully some of the lessons sketched above are relevant. If we can get them functioning better, their population growth will ease population pressures elsewhere in the country. It is a pity that a tiny portion of the Provincial Growth Fund has not been put aside to think about such issues.)