A Place to Live, Whanganui 2014

A Place to Live, Whanganui 2014

In November 2014 The MacDiarmid Institute and Victoria University of Wellington hosted A Place to Live – a national forum held in Whanganui, building on themes from the 2012 Transit of Venus Forum. The forum we discussed improving the environments and economies of our regions and smaller centres, places which offer wonderful lifestyles and also contribute significantly to national wealth.  Whanganui-born journalist Nicola Young attended the forum, and contributes the following story:

The inspirational A Place to Live conference opened in the historic surrounds of the Wanganui Opera House on Sunday night with a thought-provoking speech from 2013 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond.

Dame Anne Salmond

Entitled Give Me the Water of Life, the fourth in the Royal Society Rutherford lecture series, Salmond traversed her personal connections to the Whanganui River, challenged the separation of the arts and sciences, and critiqued the commodification of our natural world as both risky and undervaluing the complex interconnections.

Whanganui River Maori Trust Board’s Gerrard Albert added insights that evening, and throughout the conference, giving delegates an understanding of the recent Treaty of Waitangi settlement giving the river its own legal personality, Te Awa Tupua.

Koriniti Marae

Koriniti Marae

The next day, two busloads of us travelled up the Whanganui River Road, stopping first at Hiruharama (Jerusalem). The village is well known for two incongruous communities – the 1970s commune led by poet James K Baxter and the Sisters of Compassion congregation established by Suzanne Aubert in 1892. Then to Koriniti Marae where all conference delegates had the unique opportunity to individually introduce ourselves within the meeting house.

The Reimagining Water workshop was abbreviated in length but got us thinking thanks to Associate Professor Jacinta Ruru who spoke further about the Whanganui River settlement.

The MacDiarmid Institute has a strategic relationship with Whanganui’s Nga Hononga Marae (Charitable) Trust,  to help indentify and support science and innovation opportunities for businesses in the Whanganui region. Read more about that initiative.

MacDiarmid Institute Board Member Dr Wayne Ngata with Ngā Hononga (Charitable) Trust's Nihi Houia

MacDiarmid Institute Board Member Dr Wayne Ngata with Ngā Hononga (Charitable) Trust’s Nihi Houia

Tuesday evening saw local government discussion of the topic Small is Beautiful delivered to a packed house. A collection of provincial current and former mayors were joined by comedian Ginette McDonald with Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill, the conference facilitator, doing her best to keep them all in line.

Tuesday morning kicked-off with keynote speaker American author Richard Louv. His book The Nature Principle has been translated into 13 languages and remains on the New York Times’ best sellers list 10 years after being first published. Louv made it clear that having a sense of your special place in the universe – in nature – was a fundamental part of wellbeing. Others went on to call it an essential human right. Louv prodded the current trend in dystopian fiction and warned that we need a positive picture of the world we are seeking or will risk failure.

Richard Louv

American author Richard Louv

Panellists Nancy Tuaine, Dr Justine Cornwall, Gayle Souter-Brown and Felicity Lawrence added their views to Louv’s analysis with Cornwall noting that despite the appearance of nature on our doorstep, NZ had serious challenges.

Next up was a panel featuring Rod Oram, Dr Lin Roberts, Professor Caroline Saunders and Dr Suzie Greenhalgh on the concept of our natural capital. Oram reinforced Salmond’s concerns around monetising ecosystem services and the constant and unsustainable focus on growth. The use of GDP as a measure was disconnected from happiness and wellbeing, with Oram suggesting an alternative “scooter index”, inspired by seeing students safely and joyfully scootering down the main street of Whanganui.
ΩThe afternoon session Here Not Elsewhere started with demographic data from Dr Tahu Kukutai. It painted an interesting picture of the differences within NZ and made it clear that this is not a situation of “Auckland versus the zombie towns”.

A collection of regional leaders then reflected on their place in the provinces and their successful enterprises outside the major centres. Bryan Cadogan, David Trubridge, Glenn Schaeffer, Georgina Langdale and Davey Hughes all clearly demonstrated a passion for both place and people.

Schaeffer said it best when he said we need to have “confidence, purpose and passion” – there was no point being the fastest driver on a road to nowhere.

Former Otorohanga mayor Dale Williams kicked off The Power of One session talking about the local employment scheme that morphed into the mayors’ job task force. He emphasised simplicity worked – link jobs with people and build esteem in that way. A range of wonderful Whanganui champions then shared their stories – Martin Visser, Shelley Harkness, Ken Mair and Shane Middlemiss.

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Predator Free New Zealand launched at A Place To Live

The conference was then honoured to be the venue for the launch of the Predator Free New Zealand Trust by chair Devon McLean. Audience members discovered surprises under their seats – rat traps, unset of course – emphasising the need for all to be part of this “crazy ambitious” goal, with conference inspiration the late Sir Paul Callaghan one of the original champions.

On Wednesday morning, Keynote speaker David Mules led the way on the final day with a presentation from Reconnecting Northland. He noted that a nature connection was a “prerequisite for human wellbeing” but that our compartmentalised lives meant we shouldn’t assume everyone shared this view.

The Power of Many featured Fenton Wilson presenting the thinking behind the Ruataniwha dam proposal, then Hamish Spencer and Dr Wayne Ngata shared their achievements with the Uawanui sustainability project. Next up Robyn Moore presented statistics on volunteer involvement – including the financial value of NZ volunteers as being nearly $7b, close to the value of our tourism industry.

And we may have saved the best for last with outstanding presentations from two community leaders – Guy Ryan of Inspiring Stories and Sam Judd of Sustainable Coastlines.

The wrap up started with Alistair Bisley sharing highlights before an open mike session had delegates making commitments to take action. A Skype session with the young delegates from the McGuinness Institute, now in Wellington, rounded out proceedings before Hon Tariana Turia closed the conference with a heartfelt speech. As she put it, “home is more than a postcard or decile rating… home is where the heart is”.

Overall, it was an incredible conference, filled with challenge, inspiration and hope and grounded in reality with a lovely streak of Kiwi humour throughout, whether it was an amorous kakapo or a Flight of the Conchords clip. One concept I expect many of us to repeat is the “mokopuna clause”, where we think about our grandchildren in the decisions we make today for a life worth living…