Dunes in the Hourglass

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.

Read the Society’s Coastal Vision

Read John Wilson Drive – the Beaten Track

Read John Wilson Drive Revisited

Read Ocean Beach Domain Environmental History


8 thoughts on “Dunes in the Hourglass

  1. It is timely as you do here to put this issue in the proper context of Ocean Beach Reserve as a whole – in fact that of the whole Dunedin City coastal environment. The myopia displayed by our ‘leaders’ in this matter is’ too put it mildly, disappointing. They are completely out of touch with the bigger picture with their focus upon the motorist. I would have liked them to provide a lead on the future development and use of this valuable resource. A lead that took into account those natural forces that are shaping it and the changing recreational needs and interests of the people. How we might fit in with these elements and make the most of it. Maybe this might give some of them the stimulus to take a look at the value of the ‘heads up’ you provide. But I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.

    • I believe that since the Drive was closed temporarily for a specific purpose it should have been opened as soon as that need no longer applied, with no changes whatsoever. Not to do so was in effect a broken contract with those who use it, no matter how pleasant (or how many) people found it was more enjoyable when traffic was absent. Having restored the position regarding its TEMPORARY closure, the DCC could – should – have gone through the usual processes involving community input and discussion, reports from engineers and environmentalists and mental health professionals and spokespeople for the disabled, and come to a rational decision. Of course it would not please everyone, but it would have had a fair chance of being done with the least silliness possible considering the personnel involved. (Abridged)

      • Unfortunately the issue was a complex one where mental health, recreation, the coastal environment and the access issue was beyond some councillors to understand the full implications of what they were doing. You’re quite right it’s never going to please everyone and the degree of silliness that has gone on with the issue.

  2. Always at the heart of this debate was what was the best environmental outcome for the coastal landscape and how can we ensure their protection for the future. That meant changing the existing use and adpopting a new approach to the management of the reserve. Sadly, the Society was a lone voice in that area of the debate and one that Council found too difficult to confront.

  3. I totally agree with your arguments. Sea-level rise means that the money will simply be thrown away. An equally compelling reason to close the Drive to cars is that the suicide rate at Lawyer’s Head drops significantly when the access is a little harder.

    • Which is why the Society have advocated for a change in use that would meet the environmental and community needs. Thanks Jocelyn

    • While the Lawyer’s Head suicides are fewer I have seen no data on total suicide numbers in the Dunedin area. Does the total reduce when access to that place is difficult, or do people who wish to kill themselves do so by other methods?

      • The international study undertaken and reported by the University of Otago’s Christchurch campus and Yale University in 2009 looked at data from a range of areas including Lawyers Head and Grafton Fridge in Auckland. The Grafton Bridge example showed that when barriers that had been place for 60 years were removed there was a five-fold increase in suicides. When the barriers were returned in 2003 there no suicides from the bridge. Similar research on the accessibility to areas was also carried out in Sweden and on the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Senior lecturer Dr Skegg of the Psychological Medicine Department at Otago University showed that in the first 16 months of the John Wilson Ocean Dr closure, no-one died by jumping from Lawyers Head. That was compared with 10 deaths off Lawyers Head in the previous five years. Dr Skeggs resaerch also showed that people who were prevented from jumping in such places did not jump elsewhere, and remained alive.

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