Out of chaos, comes opportunity: new directions for Wellington

The way we respond to Covid-19 can and should accelerate Wellington's transition to a clean, healthy, inclusive and emissions-free future, say Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul and Regional Councillor Thomas Nash

As the climate portfolio holders for Wellington’s City and Regional Councils we’ve been balancing the twin imperatives of promoting public health and wellbeing in the face of Covid-19 and helping shape the future of our city for the increasingly unpredictable times that lie ahead. As we prepare to go into self-isolation, let’s stick together and keep the conversation going about how we want our country to be when we come out the other side of this.

Central government has signalled how serious it is about supporting New Zealand through this pandemic, including with specific measures for Māori communities. As local government representatives, we are painfully witnessing the rapid deterioration of everyday life for the communities, businesses and organisations we represent. Similarly, the social, environmental and economic losses due to climate change multiply each time we defer much needed action. The way we respond to Covid-19, as a city, as a region and as a country, can and should accelerate our transition to a clean, healthy, inclusive and emissions-free future.

Newsroom's Bernard Hickey wrote last week that this is a time for “massive Government-led investment in public transport, affordable housing, education and health to be ready for when the global economy returns to life with much better wellbeing and productivity levels. Railway lines, apartment buildings, electric bikes, hospitals, schools and the like.”

We agree and look around our own city at the much needed investment in all of these areas. The state of our water infrastructure, public transport, access to affordable and healthy housing, and our public amenities like Civic Square are all examples of neglect or under investment. Here are some of our thoughts on how we can shape the future in Wellington.

We would love to hear your thoughts too and we’ll be setting up an online session to keep this kōrero going. Let’s not forget all of the important work that has been going on already, but amidst the chaos it’s important we keep these vital conversations flowing.

Filling our stomachs
In Aotearoa, we produce a lot of kai. In the wider Wellington region we produce excellent food (and beer and wine). In Wellington city itself, we know we have a lot of accomplished gardeners and community leaders who would benefit majorly from reconnecting with the production of our food, through investment in urban farms - like the Kaicycle model on Hospital Road in Newtown.

The supermarkets are under serious pressure, and we can alleviate that by growing our own. In Wellington it’s the season to be planting your broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and leeks. If you don’t have an area to do this, most neighbourhoods have their own community gardens where food can be grown and supplied to the whole community and where we can compost (who wants to self-isolate around piles of stinky organic waste?) and rejuvenate the soil, creating carbon sinks across the city.

Clean, green transport options
Staying inside when we can and keeping our distance to avoid spreading the virus is the priority right now. But some people will still have to rely on getting around, like doctors and nurses, teachers, and people providing other vital services. Public transport has to keep going and we are doing that as safely as we can through extra stringent cleaning and cash free ticketing to protect both workers and passengers.

In places like Denmark and Germany, though, the official advice is for people who can, to cycle rather than use public transport to limit the spread of the virus. This sounds smart to us given we have such a massive cyclist community. To make it safe for people, we can put in place temporary bike lanes like they’ve already done in Bogota and Philadelphia in response to the pandemic. New York City is working on this too, as cycling surges over there. And just last week, the Waitematā Local Board asked Auckland Transport to look into emergency bike lanes. We should do the same in Wellington.

Transport is an obvious place to invest the stimulus package that’s rolling out right now, to make sure people can get to work more reliably when we come through this crisis. The ‘Recovery Budget’ in May should offer lots of opportunity for this. Let’s electrify our bus fleet - there’s never been a better time to do it than right now. Same with electrifying our trains all the way from Wellington to Palmerston North and over to the Wairarapa.

Let’s publicly fund these core transport infrastructure projects now while the circumstances allow us to do so. Not only does this mean public ownership over essential assets, it brings us one step closer to the climate safe economy we need to build anyway.

Access to water
We know we have a lot of work on our hands with our water system. An increase in hand washing and general hygiene precautions could put more pressure on that system, although bars and restaurants closing will ease that pressure. Fixing and maintaining pipes to be resilient, securing access to clean drinking water and not having wastewater where it shouldn’t be are essential.

Even if the dolphins in Venice were too good to be true, we’ve seen the miracle impacts that some international lockdowns have had on the environment. This is an opportunity for us to look at how we think about and deliver water and how our current water infrastructure responds in an emergency of this nature. We would make the case for cleaner, greener waterways which are able to filter water, maintain dense, diverse ecosystems, and sustain supply. On the consumer end of this, we must look at our own consumption patterns, and ask ourselves how we can help conserve water, which includes helping to identify leaks which may be coming from our own homes.

Purposeful jobs in the region
There is no way businesses could have prepared for a shock like this. There are ways we, as regular people, can help with the transition facing workers who will be most-affected, e.g. those who work in tourism, hospitality, forestry or aviation and people on casual contracts.

The Government is ramping up important wage subsidies to try to keep our workforce intact and has already announced a plan to transition the forestry workforce. Here in the Wellington region, we have many projects and initiatives that could create more jobs for workers transitioning from other sectors.

Once it is safe for people to go back to work, we need workers to build all that resilient, clean, low emissions transport infrastructure. We need workers to repair and renew our water infrastructure. We need workers to step up our work to regenerate native forests, restore wetlands, control pests like rats, stoats, weasels and possums and deal with invasive weeds like Old Man’s Beard. We also have harvests to pick.

There’s lots of important mahi to be done and much of it will allow people to be outside with physical distance, rather than cramped into buildings together, which is exactly the shift our environment needs of us right now.

A sharing economy and resilient communities
Of course, we are working to mobilise people to help out our most vulnerable communities during this time because we know the impact of this pandemic will not be felt equally.

Our region is home to more than 30,000 students who, upon suspension of classes, are keen to help out. We have over 500 volunteers who are ready to assist those who need to go into self-isolation (through the Wellington Volunteer Student Army) by running errands for them or keeping them company and checking up on them via phone calls, texts or emails. We have partnered with local organisations to ensure critical volunteer services keep going, for example getting chemotherapy patients to their appointments when all of the older volunteer drivers have to self-isolate. It’s important that our communities are connected and resilient. This should help us move towards a sharing economy rather than a consumer-driven one, and encourage us to work with our neighbours on things like transport, i.e. community ride-share.

This is an unprecedented time and big, previously unthinkable decisions are being made, like closing our borders, banning mass gatherings and asking people to stay at home. We are all worried about our loved ones, our kuia and kaumātua and everyone most vulnerable during this time.

Let’s follow the guidelines, wash our hands, stay at home whenever we can and keep our physical distance when we have to go out for supplies and exercise. Let’s organise in our communities, make sure we know our neighbours, and support our local businesses. At the same time, let’s keep our eyes on the big decisions being made right now and make sure that when we eventually do emerge from this, we come out stronger, more connected, more aware of the limitations of endless growth and the need to improve the way we do day-to-day life.

We will be here for you every step of the way.

Kia kaha, kia manawanui.

Tamatha Paul is a Wellington City Councillor and Thomas Nash is a Wellington Regional Councillor. They hold the climate portfolios for their councils.

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