The Sand Cycle

The Dunedin City Council is presently consulting on the next stage of its cycle network for South Dunedin in Victoria Road. The project has raised the ire of residents in the area because of a loss of parking, dangers to pedestrians due to the shared design of the proposal, a loss of business and the timeframe of the consultation process. The City Council has already changed the proposed route away from the sand dune area of St Clair/St Kilda because of the stability and safety of the foreshore due to on-going erosion concerns. Despite that, the notion of a cycle track in the dune area seems etched in the public’s mind to allay other effects of the proposal. For the Society, the protection of the dune areas of St Clair and St Kilda remains paramount to the long-term protection of the city, its coastal environment and its associated landscape. As a city Dunedin and its residents have been fortunate to be able to enjoy the recreational opportunities that the sand dunes have afforded them over the years. This, despite the continued pressure being placed upon dune and beach health due to pressures from land use, mixed management practices and continued erosional forces over the last 150 years.

St Clair 1939

St Clair 1939

Infrastructural development, such as the proposed cycleway must be mindful of the need to protect and promote the sustainable management of dune health for the welfare of the city and its residents. This is particularly pertinent in the face of recent erosion events along the Dunedin coastline and in the predicted sea level rise scenario’s promoted by various bodies including the City Council. From both perspectives and within the historical context the sand dunes are under extreme pressure that has continued with widespread human modification and destruction of dune habitat. The Society has repeatedly requested the City Council undertake major initiatives such as change in land use and restorative management to ensure the dunes are protected and nurtured into a productive ecological and landscape entity. The cycleway issue means that the City Council must find appropriate measures that allay the community fears over the management and design of the project. However, to achieve this it must utilise good design, consultation and common sense so as not to impose expensive infrastructure on a precarious and fragile dune habitat that protects and provides for the benefit of our city.

St Clair Emergency Repairs

St Clair Emergency Repairs

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St Clair Esplanade – When History Repeats

St Clair 1880'sThe recent damage of the sea wall at St Clair Esplanade is a pertinent reminder of the power and ferocity of the ocean and the continuation of an issue that has been prominent in Dunedin since the beginnings of colonial settlement. The extension of physical occupation of coastal areas by people and the development of infrastructure around that occupation has been fraught with problems. Worse still has been the undermining of the important protection afforded to the city by the St Clair and St Kilda beach areas.

The first sea wall built at St Clair was in the early 1870’s and appears to have been privately built, eventually being transferred to the ownership of the Caversham Borough Council. In 1885 the wall was badly damaged during a period of high seas and the Caversham Borough Council began rebuilding the wall in 1888. As with today there was considerable debate over the merits of the construction by amateur and professional engineers alike. So problematic was the rebuilding of the wall that the Minister of Public Works inspected the works himself. The Caversham Mayor Mr Bragg appears to have had a hand in the design and construction supervision himself which was described as “a sloping bank, terminating in a wall six feet wide at the base, which is sunk in the hard sand to the depth of five feet, being quite four feet lower than the foundation of the old wall. This wall has a facing of very large and weighty stones on both sides. The centre built up of smaller ones tightly wedged and closed in with rubble. At the foot of the embankment this solid wall is backed up with rotten reef, which gives the whole structure great solidity.”

However that solidity did not last and by 1890 it was reported that the 630 feet wall built for £800 ” has all but been demolished by the sea, with the exception of 80 feet at its west, and even this portion is considerably disturbed and undermined.”Several design flaws were reported by marine engineer CY O’Connor , notably that it had been placed too far out to sea and that its foundations were “too low.” Worse was to come, when in 1891 a significant storm did considerable damage to the whole Ocean Beach area. Further storms occurred in May 1898 when the dunes themselves were breached and there was 3 feet of water in Larkworthy Street. By May 11th 1898 much  of St Kilda between Ocean Beach and Cargill’s Road were inundated and houses could only be accessed by wading through water. In July 1898 the sea breached the dunes again and St Kilda was saturated with the Pacific Ocean.

Public acrimony and outrage was vitriolic and both the Otago Daily Times and Otago Witness were inundated with letters between 1890-1900 regarding the erosion and management of the Esplanade and Ocean Beach Domain. One of the central problems lay in determining the responsibility for management of the issues between the various local councils and central government. A deputation by Mayor and Councillors of Caversham Borough Council to the Minister of Public Works in 1890 requesting government assistance was made. Caversham was particularly concerned at the level of borrowing it had been forced to undertake in dealing with the Esplanade issues. In 1891 Richard Seddon also visited the area and if the Caversham Borough Councillors were hoping for government assistance they were to be sadly disappointed. Seddon told the deputation “If you think for a moment that this Government are going in for extravagant expenditure, all I can say is that you will be disappointed. We are going to govern this country on commercial lines, and be very careful of the people’s cash.”

The passing of the Ocean Beach Public Domain Act in 1892 provided for the protection and conservation of the area known as the “sand hills”. However, this was a period of deep public acrimony and recrimination and coupled with a lack of funding was largely ineffectual. In 1894 the Board were allowed to raise funding through levying rates of a halfpenny in the pound for rateable properties in all of the city’s boroughs. However, there was catch, and the rates could only be levied by a public referendum. The Ocean Beach Domain Board largely took extensive steps to re-vegetate the sand dunes and construct sand trap fences to repair the dune barrier and protect the city. However, the problematic issue of the St Kilda Esplanade remained.

By 1910-1911 both the Domain Board and the City Council had received advice on options for the reconstruction of the esplanade. The Domain Board had not been able to reconstruct the esplanade because of a shortage of funds and had been too afraid to levy higher rates on ratepayers in fear of the reception they would have received, However, the Dunedin city Council received £1000 from the government to proceed with reconstruction and utilised a further £1000 from the Tramways Department and £1000 from the municipal account. The rebuilt esplanade was officially opened in 1913 and the construction was described as having “333 reinforced’ concrete piles 2ft wide, 44 piles 1 ft wide, and 36 anchor piles—a total of 413 piles, and if these were placed end to end they would stretch one mile and a-half. After being sunk and. driven into the solid they were driven further by an electric pile-driver. The length of the piles was from 18ft to 24ft, and they were driven to a depth of from 9ft to 19ft. The wall was anchored every 10ft with 1 inch rods 35ft long, cased in mortar to prevent rusting. Safety was assured first by the position of the work being beyond mean high-water mark, and any waves that reached it would be broken and rendered harmless by means of an apron of loose rock, more of which had yet to be placed in position. The length of the esplanade was 10 chains (200 metres) and its width  50ft, with footpaths on the land and sea sides.”

In 1914 almost all of the sand immediately in front of the wall at St Clair beach disappeared and this was repeated to a greater extent in 1919, 1935, 1939 into the high erosional period of the 1990’s. Erosion of the beach and the dunes has become a regular historical and present day feature of both the beach and dunes immediately east of the wall. This has largely been due to the “end wall effects” where once waves reach the wall it “bounces” off them with more energy than a wave washing back off a normal sand beach.  More sand is carried off shore, promoting beach loss. Seawalls, harden the coast and reduce its  ability to adjust naturally exacerbating erosional problems by reflecting and concentrating wave  energy and erosion.

Dunedin’s various local authorities have struggled for the last 140 years to manage the coastal issues at St Clair and St Kilda. Sadly, it is a historical record of failure to understand the natural processes of the dune and coastal environment that affects the coastline that we perilously live beside. Perhaps this latest failure is an opportunity to rectify that understanding and restore the coastal environment to ensure its long term functionality as an ecological asset that provides both protection and pleasure for our city. The problems with the wall and the wider erosion issues of Ocean Beach Domain cannot be dealt with in isolation, but must be integrated into a programme that deals with the coastal environment as a living entity rather than as an engineered solution. That may also mean making changes to our thinking and use of this area in the long term. History has shown our failures let’s hope that we don’t continue that trend.

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Follow the Yellow Brick Road

One of the most famous lines from “The Wizard of Oz” is when Dorothy says to her little dog “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” That particular line has become a cultural metaphor used when we visit places or see things  that are not familiar to us and we relate them back to our own personal vision of the world. That same cultural metaphor may well apply to the proposals being put together by the Dunedin City Council for the Otago Peninsula.

The Dunedin City Council road widening programme will include reclaiming 5-8 metres of the Otago Harbour shoreline along a 13 kilometre stretch from Burns Point (near Vauxhall) to the entrance point of Taiaroa Head. It will cost the City Council nearly $28 million over 9 years, with a further 66% of the construction subsidised by the New Zealand Transport Agency. That’s a total project fund of $84 million. The driving force behind this development has been the Council’s desire to create better cycling and pedestrian access to and around the Peninsula from Portobello and Harrington Point Roads. Traffic safety has also been mooted as the justification for the project and on the face of it that sounds reasonable. However, like all things the devil is always in the detail, and this project requires deeper financial, landscape and ecological scrutiny.

In a 2011 Council report the Otago Peninsula route did not even rank within the top ten in terms of safety, accident history, population, topography and demand. However, the same report recommends that the Peninsula be given priority since the 2011 Annual Plan because the City Council had already undertaken work at Vauxhall and Macandrew Bay. Which raises the question, what is the real reason for this project?  Looking through the City Council’s Cycling Strategy there is some description of the benefits to tourism, but the strategy has no data and only a recommendation that further research is required to understand this dimension of cycling use. So despite not ranking as a priority in the City Council’s own assessment, the Council decided that because work had already been undertaken it should continue. Yet the Council seems confused as to why it undertook that work in the first place and how it came to that decision. That’s misguided and muddled thinking.

The reclamation of Otago Harbour’s rocky shore and intertidal zone will have a significant effect on the ecosystem of the harbour and the associated food web of the Otago Peninsula. Current estimates of the total reclamation undertaken by the City Council will total 11 hectares, and that may actually exceed 14-16 hectares when looking at the proposed extent of the reclamation described in the proposal. Which is ironic given that the City Council’s Cycling Strategy suggests that “cycling improves the quality of our natural environment and minimises environmental impacts because bicycles are the most energy-efficient land transport vehicles.” Well that’s probably quite reasonable, providing you don’t destroy almost all of the intertidal shoreline habitat from Vauxhall to Taiaroa Head with reclamation and then cover it with an oil based asphalt pathway.

The environmental impacts of this project on the health and functionality of the harbour are immense. Reclamation will result in significant loss of rocky shore and intertidal sand flat habitat, damage and loss of traditional fish breeding sites, and changes in the tidal structure of the harbour that will deplete further intertidal areas. The destruction of the interrelated food and habitat web in the harbour could be catastrophic on many bird species such as shags, spoonbills, wading species, and marine birds that populate the harbour and its environs. Which is ironic given that most of the Peninsula tourism market is based on bird life, the Royal Albatross, Blue Penguin and the Yellow-eyed Penguin.

There are also significant implications for the landscape with the destruction of the harbour landscape features that have become part of the natural and modified character of the Otago Peninsula for over 150 years. Many older landforms that were once part of the original harbour and cliff edges for thousands of years are to be demolished to make way for the smooth. One area of particular concern to the Society will be the removal of all of the trees on the harbour’s edge from Burns Point to Glenfalloch.

Climate change and sea level rise considerations also need closer consideration with this proposal. The report “Climate Change – Impacts on Dunedin” by  Professor Fitzharris suggests that natural ecosystems will be particularly at risk from the sea level rise associated with anthropogenic climate change. Which raises further questions of the sustainability and wisdom of reclamation in the face of these predictions. Professor Fitzharris clearly demonstrates that the “harbour side shoreline, including the entrance to Otago Harbour” will be one of five specific hot spot areas vulnerable to climate change. He goes on to state that “rock protection walls around Otago Harbour will need to be continually strengthened and eventually raised.” The Fitzharris report clearly indicates that coastal communities like the Peninsula may experience severe risks of inundation by a 1-in-100 year storm surge which “will more than double after 2040” and this will lead to on-going coastal erosion. Where is the forward thinking in the face of mankind’s worst environmental disasters when the City Council is planning to reclaim the harbour and build new walls which may well not stand the long term impacts of sea level rise?

The really sad thing about this proposal though is that the citizens of Dunedin know virtually nothing about it. The level of public consultation undertaken by the City Council and the Otago Peninsula Community Board has been very quiet indeed. The City Council presented the proposal to the Community Board on May 24th, 2012 and little was reported at the time. Indeed the Community Board were asked to provide feedback to the City Council by the 29th June 2012, but have never reported what that feedback was to the community. It begs the question, if both political arms of the Council were making these plans 9 months ago why did the public only get the opportunity to comment on them in March 2013, and only for a trifling 4 weeks?

By no means does the Society not support the need for cycling and recreation, our organisation has supported public recreation for 125 years, but where is the sustainable rationale behind this scheme? If this proposal is allowed to come to fruition it will irrevocably damage the biodiversity, landscape and tourism brand that defines both our harbour and the Otago Peninsula. If that happens there will be many people in Dunedin saying “I’ve a feeling we’re not on the Peninsula anymore.”

SONY DSC

The 125th New Year

The blurred tones of “Auld Land Syne” seem a distant memory as we race through the second month of the 2013 year and settle back into the regular routines of our daily lives after the summer holiday period. For the Dunedin Amenities Society 2013 ushers in the reality that our organisation is to celebrate its 125th year of operation and that brings a further level of reflection for the coming year. To reach such a milestone for any organisation is a significant achievement that the Society can be justifiably proud. However, with any milestone there needs to be critical self-examination of the future of the Society. This is essential so that it can continue to grow and utilise the experience and knowledge of its members for the continued advocacy and conservation of Dunedin’s environment, landscape and natural heritage. So while the Society might celebrate and reflect on its achievements, it must use that reflection to ensure that its message continues to be heard as it has for the last 125 years.

In the midst of the Society’s celebration it appears that Dunedin is at a fiscal and philosophical crossroads, with pressure on the city’s management of its economic, social and environmental assets. Those pressures have not been improved by a deep sense of division and dissatisfaction in our community. The public’s perception of a lack of transparency and sound management in financial and governance matters has created a high level of uncertainty over the city’s future. Sadly, this has become very damaging for our city and our community. As we approach the 2013 Annual Plan the Society looks anxiously at the areas of landscape, recreation, conservation and heritage matters which undoubtedly will be affected by the current economic climate.

Not that just the financial deliberations of the Annual Plan are the only area of concern in the governance of these areas in our city. The 6 year debate over the use of the John Wilson Drive Reserve was a strong indication to the Society of the divided and muddled thinking around the Council table in regards to the value of conservation and reserve land in Dunedin. The descent of the issue into a popularity contest amid a fog of confusion that Councillors appear to be under does not bode well for the need to nurture, enhance and ultimately restore open space areas for the benefit of the public and biodiversity. The Society can only hope that the fog of misconception will have lifted when issues like the proposed use of the Town Belt for car-parking at Moana Pool or future changes in the District Plan are considered by the City Council. The Society will certainly be casting a critical eye over those issues in 2013 along with many others that arise in Dunedin. The advantage of being New Zealand’s oldest conservation organisation is having deep resources of  memory and experience to call upon and 2013 looks as though they will be needed.

Peninsula from Mt Cargill

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

Lawyers Head for the Birds?

The Star Midweeker recently reported that a proposal to re-establish sea-bird populations at Lawyers Head by Forest & Bird has been put on hold until the Dunedin City Council completes the Ocean Beach Domain Management Plan. The project involves placing audio equipment at Lawyers head to attract birds back to the area and has already received funding from Speights Brewery. The rationale for the Council deferring the project is that the request may affect other users of the area, including the golf course and should be part of the planned consultation on the Management Plan. However, the issue for the future of this project is just how long will it take for the Council to undertake such a plan?

Ironically, the Dunedin Amenities Society have been requesting that the Ocean Beach Domain Management Plan be reviewed for at least the last six years and it appears the Council may be working on the production of a plan for Council approval and public consultation.  Yet, the Council who control the management of the area, will not at least entertain a trial of the proposed programme to see whether the proposal is even viable?  There is a significant amount to gain from such a trial, rather than padding this out for as long a Management Plan may take. The current Ocean Beach Domain Management Plan has no references to avian biodiversity on the reserve or the wider coastal environs. Therefore, the Council could at least gain some insight for the future management of the Domain and perhaps the beginnings of a programme to protect and enhance what bird life may actually be present in the area.

There is significant value provided by avian biodiversity to both our physical and economic environment. Dunedin’s economic lifeline has been based upon an avian tourism industry created by the presence of the Royal Albatross and Yellow-eyed Penguin. So, the continued delay in initiating this opportunity at Lawyers Head is disheartening because it fails to embrace a broader vision for both the biodiversity and economy of the city.

John Wilson Drive Revisited.

It’s been difficult to believe that the vehicle users lobby are suggesting that better walking and cycling access on John Wilson Drive is a form of selfishness. The fact that John Wilson Drive has been dominated by motor vehicles for the last 50 years does not seem to have entered the equation. Worse still, the public have been asked to suffer the burden of the destruction of the scenic qualities of the Drive through larrikinism, littering and vandalism as penance for that vehicular obsession. The question one might ask is whether it’s selfish to want change that arrests the destruction of those qualities that we want to preserve?

One of the most repetitive assumptions made in the media and by the pro vehicle lobby has been that the Drive is closed, but on examination this has never been the case. The reserve has always been open to the public throughout, except during the pipeline construction. The other misconception is that the Drive was closed to vehicles by the walking and cycling community. Actually the Drive was closed to vehicles after the pipeline closure revealed that the rate of suicide from Lawyers Head had decreased since that closure. That evidence was supported by submissions by the Police and Search and Rescue. The decision to exclude vehicles at the present point was a decision based on public health not on recreational use.

It’s become obvious that since the removal of vehicles from the eastern portion of the drive, that the capacity of the area to be a truly picturesque coastal landscape might actually be realised. Indeed, John Wilson Drive has become a genuine recreational space that provides access for a much broader range of users than it has done in the past. That change in use has meant that the reserve is finally meeting its environmental and legal potential as an open space for the wider Dunedin public. In the present configuration all users are given an opportunity to utilise the Drive including cars. Previously vehicles had exclusive use of the Drive and the recreational potential was not shared. Isn’t that selfish?

John Wilson Drive is not a legal road but a reserve defined for recreational and environmental purposes. The notion that it should be used exclusively by vehicles as a quasi-legal road at the exclusion of others is not consistent with its definition or use as a reserve. Worse still are the continued suggestions of overly complicated and costly programmes which are unnecessary and in the most part unneeded for the drive. The change of use at the Drive has actually allowed the reserve to function more appropriately than it has ever done in the past.  Therefore, the present configuration remains the best possible outcome at a legal, recreational and environmental level for John Wilson Drive and the wider Ocean Beach Domain.