Notes on a New Zealand City: Wellington

On the evening of Friday November 26, 1971, viewers of the sole Wellington television channel, then called “Central Television”, could watch the 40-minute film “Notes on a New Zealand City”.

Everything about this film is spot on and, especially with the passage of time, extremely moving. The opening scenes show commuters clogging the brand new Wellington Urban Motorway to the sounds of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”) Thanks to Youtube, which seems to dissolve historical distance, Joni Mitchell sounds brand new and modern. But the cars look like some kind of retro-futurist nightmare, closer to the personal transporters in the movie Brazil than actual cars.

Virtually everything said in this film about suburban sprawl, traffic, motorways, suburban shopping malls, public transport, and the decentralization of employment, could be repeated today, 48 years later.

Director Paul Maunder, then aged 26 and fresh from the London Film School, was clearly something of an auteur – without appearing in the film, he comprehensively shapes its message that, in his words, “he was depressed to find that in urban planning Wellington was pursuing the American pattern of events, 20 or 30 years behind”. He later directed Sons for the Return Home before focussing on community theatre. He visited Grotowski at his “poor theatre” in Poland. He now lives in Blackball, where he writes and produces plays (currently Waiting for Greta, a version of Godot updated to the climate change era) and curates Mahi Tupuna – the Blackball Museum of Working Class History.

A young Ian Athfield shows off a model of the Pearce Apartments as originally envisaged. After continuous redesign for five years, a version was built and now stands at the top of Marjoribanks Street. Athfield’s vision of medium density housing bringing a greater diversity of people to the inner city? Still waiting.

There are scenes of the brand new Cuba Mall, successful then and now, and children watching the splash buckets just as they do today.

John Roberts, Professor of Public Administration and later a founder of Victoria University’s Institute of Policy Studies: “People are not progressive and they don’t like to disturb the status quo, because there’s too many interlocking agreements in it.” He argues for a regional authority for Wellington, and for reform “along the Auckland lines” while allowing Wellington City to stay in existence. Big tick, John.

The original and thoughtful Bill Sutch: “If you hack your environment about, if you cut down trees and put through rough roads,and then you make rough cuttings, and this is your pioneer way of life, you begin to think this is what the environment is like, and you begin to be numb about it, you don’t appreciate the fact that it is ugly. Now many New Zealanders look at their environment as something that is null or nil. Whether it is ugly or not ugly they don’t even notice… we should have much more understanding of the emotional aspects that our environment has on us as people.”

A few points are missed. In 1971 petrol was $0.09/l ($1.29 today), as it had been for decades. They didn’t know that very soon two oil crises would take the price to $0.60/l in mid-1982 ($3.65 today, and real incomes were half as much then). However, that didn’t stop the love affair with the car. Vehicle ownership went from about 0.30 vehicles per person in 1971 to 0.69 per person in 2000; after a short breather during the global financial crisis, it ramped up further to 0.86 per person today, about the highest in the world. We are now in the middle of the biggest splurge on cars and motorways that we have ever seen.

Pollution, already surely a concern in 1971, is not mentioned, nor road fatalities as a cost of car use. The 677 road deaths in 1971 rose to a peak of 843 in 1973.

The film closes with a voiceover, shot against a montage of city life:

“The city awakes. Another day, another cycle begins. Endlessly repeated week after week, year after year. At the same time, we evolve. We build homes, we construct roads, we fill our harbours. We create our environment. We in New Zealand are in a unique position. Being twenty or even thirty years behind the most advanced western societies, we can predict the future. We can see the pattern evolving. We are in a position to choose. But will we?”

By Robert McLachlan. This post originally appeared at Greater Auckland. See the original post.

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