The drawn out debate over the use of John Wilson Drive has been centred around people’s rights to access, or more accurately their right to use that access by vehicle. The political debate disintegrated into a blatant popularity contest without any reasoned argument on what actually would provide the greatest benefit to the city. Councillors wanting the drive reopened to vehicles that spoke at the recent council meeting, only discussed their own embarrassment over the continuing issue. Not one councillor offered any clear vision for the reserve and this was the real reason that such a poor decision was made. It was never about making the right choice, it was always about councillors extricating themselves from their own lack of vision for the reserve. That speaks volumes for the people who are governing this city.
Ratepayers are now faced with a $160,000 speedway that is being masqueraded as a scenic drive. Yet with the failure of the Councillors to decide on the speed limit of John Wilson Drive means there is a likelihood that those costs may balloon out even further. Once again in Dunedin we see a fundamental lack of political understanding for the need to create value from environmental and landscape spaces using appropriate capital investment. Instead we are presented with an ephemeral populist decision based on individual political need rather than the real needs of the community. The important questions that councillors should have been asking, but failed to ask were;
As a reserve John Wilson Drive has been set aside within the greater Ocean Beach Domain reserve for the purposes of Coastal Protection. That reserve status sets it aside with a weather eye on the protection of the city areas immediately behind the remaining dunes. In the last 20 years (and realistically for the last 120 years) Ocean Beach Domain has been under considerable environmental pressure along with the much maligned St Clair sea wall. During the last public consultation on the reserve the physical and financial recommendations to keep the reserve in a holding pattern were $4-8 million over ten years and a possible $8-19 million for retreat and further wall construction. Those estimates only include the area from adjacent to Moana Rua Road to the St Clair sea wall, which means there has been little wider consideration given to the dunes eastwards to Lawyers Head. This raises the issue that the ratepayer will invest $160,000 to keep John Wilson Drive open, but has no certainty over its long-term stability. Worse, the road development continues to narrow the opportunity to repair and strengthen the dune environment for the very purpose that the reserve was created for in the first place. Given the instability and uncertainty of Ocean Beach Domain is this really the best option for the expenditure of $160,000?
John Wilson Drive is an anachronism to a time when men thought they could tame nature and make it submit to the collared will of an engineers ruler. Watching the Ocean Beach dunes washed into the Pacific Ocean is proof that nature has certainly slipped its collar and the waves are barking at our heels.
So what are the alternatives for John Wilson Drive? The Dunedin Amenities Society have consistently advocated that a change of use is required to ensure that the reserves dune environment can become sustainable for the future protection of our city. That change of use can provide more effective recreational, economic and environmental outcomes that will provide for the city and its community in the face of the many challenges to our city’s future. That requires innovative thinking and a deeper understanding of those future challenges, something that the Council in its “bite the bullet” mentality has failed to deliver in its recent decision.
The Dunedin Amenities Society believes that by reintegrating the road back into the natural landscape with planned revegetation and removing the intrusiveness of vehicles the reserve could recover its natural form and function. By bringing people back into this area and using creative recreational and ecological restoration the city would create a coastal space that could provide a potentially lucrative alternative link with the coast, urban centre and the Otago Peninsula. It’s not just about banning vehicles, but undertaking innovative change and development that creates opportunities for our community in a wide variety of ways. That means promoting and developing our biodiversity and landscape assets in a coherent way that adds value to the ratepayer’s investment. It also means understanding change, being brave and having a vision for the reserve that extends past the wish list for today and actually planning for tomorrow.