Come on Dunedin, think big again!

Photo: ODT
Photo: ODT
There are two paths Dunedin can take, writes Rex Ahdar.

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. 


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I agree with you Rex. I read recently that Otago is about three quarters the size of Switzerland. Switzerland has a population of 8 million yet I haven't been blown away by the crowds visiting that country. Therefore, a Dunedin population of 200,000 could easily be a future goal.

Shame on New Zealand. We used to be a first world country but have been surpassed by many third world countries that heavily tax imported goods which can be manufactured in their own country. What does NZ do? - we do away with a great apprenticeship scheme, close productive manufacturing companies and import cheap shoddy goods thereby bankrupting NZ owned companies, the result being multitudes of citizens out of work, on the dole, taking drugs and because there's no light at the end of the tunnel - committing suicide. Dunedin used to be a huge industrial manufacturing centre for woollen mills, clothing & shoes, railways, engineering, shipping. You name it, we had it but successive Governments have stripped us of everything except our land - Oh - Oh almost forgot, we're selling that to foreign investors. Tourism is great but how long will it last? At the end of the day, all I see is a city full of out of control University students, dole bludgers & druggies.

Dunedin has been saying no to opportunities for nearly 30 years. It's become a terrible habit our city cannot break. The time has come to identify and remove those saying no from positions where they impede Dunedin from having a prosperous future.

This starts with the council. Make sure at the next election you vote for people open to saying yes and vote against the naysayers. We also need to counter the no faction by making submissions in favour of developments. Things will not improve without possible engagement by more Dunedinites.

Sometimes you have to have a go or be lost. The West Coast is the same... not a lot of progress .

Yes it is up to council to work with a developer in order to achieve a design that suits local/national laws etc, but the council is not there to manage the project nor direct the developer on best design practice. If the developer is being knocked back by council, terminate the current contract with the current architect/design team - they are obviously failing!! - and employ competent and knowledgeable designers. There is talent around. Dunedin citizens should not have to be bullied into accepting a bad quality building because the developer is hell bent on saving a few bucks.

Personally, I favour development in Dunedin, but generally a developer is looking for short term economic gains solely for their own and financial backers bank balance. The council is (and should be) addressing the project from a holistic approach with emphasis on long term design/economic/environmental integration as key points of concern. They are right to knock back the current designs.

My partner and I are about to have our first child, we live in Wellington. We love it here but we have talked about moving to Dunedin to make things easier. Houses are cheaper and we'd have a couple of babysitters to call on.
Every time we have the conversation we came back to the point raised above. It seems like every idea that might ignite the city is borked at. I grew up in otago, I went to uni there and I've visited a few times since, nothing is happening. Do something, anything and you might start appealing to 30 somethings who will bring money to the region

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