Smart growth, walkability, and near-urban natureThree key strategies are used in Wellington: preservation of nature, smart-growth, and walkable city. These factors have made Wellington's ecological footprint among the lowest in New Zealand. The city is a leading example of the “smart growth” concept of high-density development for sustainability and higher quality of life.
Keywords: smart growth, walkable city, nature conservation, compact urbanism, mixed use
Wellington, New Zealand's capital city, has a low ecological footprint compared to the rest of the country, of 2.40 ha per person, according to a 2004 study based on input-output analysis authored by McDonald & Patterson. The highlighted reasons are Wellington's more efficient use of land and its lower energy needs for transport. These are both based on having a compact urban form. Wellington's use of light rail is also credited in reducing the city's ecological footprint.
Why smart growth?
Smart growth in Wellington is based on a strong consensus among citizens that higher density development delivers higher quality of life, stronger urban economics, and better nature and environmental performance. Compact development – involving mixed land use, clustered development, and growth focused on existing communities – is credited with providing walkable communities, public safety, and a greater range of attractive housing and transport options. Higher quality infrastructure is used more efficiently in denser cities, where the larger number of users – relative to sprawl – enables higher investment: this provides benefits ranging from safety, to competitiveness, to resilience (see also Portland and Vancouver).
Two green belts
Wellington’s district plan gives highest priority to the protection and enhancement of natural areas. Wellington’s rural area represents approximately 65% of the city’s total land area (see also Berlin, Freiburg, Stuttgart and Vitoria-Gasteiz). Its urban land development is limited by two green belts. The first is the Town Belt, designated in 1840 by city founders, formed by the hills surrounding the city. The second is the Outer Green Belt formed by a line of ridges. Most of the Outer Green Belt is pastoral farmland: housing-construction is carefully limited by regulation, and instead recreation and the ecological restoration of indigenous vegetation are prioritised by the city council. Consistent with this, Wellington is returning 250 ha of land around abandoned reservoirs to a wildlife reserve, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. Planned as a predator-free environment, Karori will show New Zealand’s nature environment as it was before human occupation.
Together with the concept of smart growth, another guiding principle is “walkable city”. The total area dimensions of central Wellington are just 2 km by 4.5 km, and a range of policy measures promote walking. Pedestrianisation has gone hand-in-hand with boosting economic activity, due to more people walking in streets, and implementing measures for resilience, for example earthquake-strengthening of buildings when making streets more walking-friendly.
Pedestrians have been called the ‘indicator species’ of a smart growth community (see also Copenhagen). Wellington has had the highest percentage of people walking to work of any New Zealand city, and the lowest rate of travelling to work by car of the eight largest New Zealand cities. Pedestrian-friendliness is another benefit of smart growth – supporting new-economy qualities of accessibility, networking, and creativity.
High-quality urban environments are achieved in Wellington also through design guides and principles, for example mixed use. Wellington's centre has been transformed into a highly vibrant area from its earlier situation of being filled during the days but empty at nights. Wellington has supported the addition of more apartments in the city centre, integrated with other building uses, e.g. shops and services at ground level.
Carlton C. Eley “Absolutely Positively Wellington: A Model for Smart Growth”, in Heberle, C. Lauren (Editor), Opp, M. Susan (Editor), Local Sustainable Urban Development in a Globalized World, Abingdon, Oxon, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2008
Garry W. McDonald, Murray G. Patterson, “Ecological Footprints and interdependencies of New Zealand regions”, Ecological Economics, Volume 50, Issues 1-2, 1 September 2004, Pages 49-67, ISSN 0921-8009, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.02.008, (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800904001545)
Gabor Zovanyi, 2004, “A growth-management strategy for the Auckland region of New Zealand: pursuit of sustainability or mere growth accommodation?”, International Journal of Sustainable Development, Volume 7, Number 2
Key data are retrieved from the UN Demographic Yearbook 2011, http://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/dyb/dyb2011.htm
Text by: Aaron Thomas