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If you come to a fork in the road, said Yoggi Berra, take it.
Dunedin is nearing that fork in its proud history. It has, in essence, two paths ahead. One sees it as a prosperous, growing city with a fine university and innovative tourist and business enterprises. The other path is the well-trodden one in recent times — a sleepy university town.
In the first path, the city grows at about 3% to 5% per year and by 2030 its population hits about 160,000. The other road sees the city shrink to about 110,000 by 2030.
Which vision of the city is better? My contention is the former is much preferable.
Here are some inconvenient facts. Dunedin (127,000) is now the seventh-biggest city in New Zealand. Let that sink in: seventh. From long being the fourth-largest we have recently slid down the batting order behind Hamilton (161,000), Tauranga (134,000), and now, the Napier/Hastings conurbation (130,000). Worse still, the last three are growing rapidly. Dunedin, by contrast, has experienced tiny growth and, for all intents, is static. I could use the harsher word, stagnant.
The implications for our comparative shrinkage (vis-a-vis other cities) are all too plain. We have fewer MPs and hence less political leverage. Based, understandably, upon population-based criteria, we struggle to receive government funding for our cherished institutions. We battle to secure a new hospital, whereas if we were growing it would not be an issue. We struggle to get regular domestic flights, or flights to significant places like Queenstown. Our international flights are meagre.
I dread to think what might happen if Waikato University gets approval for a new medical school. Our university’s flagship is the medical school and with another rival its market share would be diminished. Having placed our city’s eggs in the university basket for far too long, the chickens could come home to roost. I could go on.
If we want Dunedin to be nothing more than a pretty university city with delightful historic buildings, low house prices, minimal traffic, then so be it. I like these things too, but they come at a price. It is not my vision.
Incidentally, the first path tends to be the preference of people who have come to Dunedin for its laidback lifestyle. I know very few who were born and grew up here who would share it — they want growth, jobs, some hustle and bustle. They fret over the continual demise of a once proud city. Funnily enough, the true Dunedinites share the ambition of their ancestors. Our forebears thought big. They built the first university, established banks, insurance companies, renowned businesses and achieved many firsts for New Zealand.
A significant vocal minority of modern-day residents of our fair city are of a different mindset. A noisy few have become adept at saying "no". Any major proposed venture is too big, too ugly, too "modern". If we discovered oil and gas off the Otago coast we must block development of the infrastructure that would support this. I dare say if gold were discovered now in Otago, the permissions to begin mining it would be swiftly denied. Goodness knows how Forsyth Barr Stadium ever got through. To take a topical example, if the appearance or height of a new hotel is too jarring, then the council should strive to work with the developer to find a more harmonious, aesthetic design or a location outside the historic inner-city precinct. It is not rocket science.
I, like so many others I know, prefer a city that is growing, that provides opportunities for our children to work once they finish their education. We want an airport that has more domestic and international flights, some new housing subdivisions. I want a second all-year-round municipal swimming pool (I’m a swimmer). Perhaps I am alone and my vision is the wrong one. I hope I am not.
- Rex Ahdar is professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago.