Speaker by Various Artists


The Measuring of Heritage

by Hamish Keith

Someone close to the protagonists in the Turua Street debacle asked me if I believed that if people were passionate about their neighbourhood, should that be a sufficient ground for affording those bits they felt particularly passionate about protection. Clearly they did not think so. On the face of it the objection had some merit, but the truth is, at the heart of heritage rows community passion is never too far away. Passion is seldom soothed by political hand wringing, carefully ticked heritage assessment boxes, or promises that the new will be better.

Sadly, the Auckland CBD has whole streets that attest to the lie of the latter and ticking boxes is all very well if the average citizen has any idea of what the boxes mean and why they had been assigned ticks or crosses and just who or what had a hand in the crossing or ticking. As for political hand wringing, that is as much a background noise to the demolition of heritage as is the grinding of bulldozers.

But passion is a subjective thing - hard to measure the value of and, just as likely to come back in a different form to bite the political or bureaucratic bum. Yet passion for continuity is a laudable community emotion. In a very real and tangible sense it is the built past that reinforces that sense of continuity in a neighbourhood. It is one of the social glues that make a place a community rather than just a bunch of buildings with a common name or a common social aspiration. It has a measurable value, but possibly not one to which we can easily assign a set of boxes to tick.

Those pushing for change, development and what they perceive as progress are impatient with and insensitive too that passion for neighbourhood. They dismiss those who voice it, as ignorant busybodies, who should have informed themselves that change is on the way and got over it. For their part the busybodies view the proponents of demolition as greedy and rapacious developers who only care about profit. Sadly there is a bit truth of truth in both views. As a result Heritage rows heat up very quickly and once they do, any common ground is lost.

A major part of the problem is, I think, our definition of Heritage. We tend to do it building by building. Age, aesthetic and association with history or famous people automatically push the heritage button as they should. Only, of course, if there is no underlying commercial pressure, that in the minds of those who would benefit cancel any or all of those indicators out. Tragically Auckland is littered with examples of that. A lean-to in which a famous writer wrote is lovingly cared for, while a 600 seat, purpose-built auditorium a metre or two away from Queen Street, can go for a handful of “urgently” needed carparks.

This in Auckland is a never-ending story. Our desire to conserve the past is seen to be only conditional on that bit of our past having no greater underlying commercial value. This of course is only about buildings. The notion that there is also heritage values worth preserving in contexts is never addressed. The run down and rotting Symonds Street cemetery ought to be a continuing affront to the city, but apart from occasionally arousing the ire of a Herald columnist it goes without notice. Yet there is ample precedent in any civilised city I have ever visited, in making an historic cemetery something of breathtaking urban value.

Here of course, the larger texture of the past is not counted as a Heritage asset.

That, I suppose, is easily rectified with a combination of public outrage and responding political will. It is unlikely there will be much development interest in a cemetery – although in New Zealand we have a habit of running motorways through them – shifting the dead to make the quick quicker. But this gets us no nearer resolving the question of the rights people have invested in maintaining the coherence and continuity of their neighbourhoods.

Obviously there can be no argument for protecting things just because they have always been there. That is as mindless as declaring a street to be a picket fence zone simply because some planner decided that that kind of fence was a heritage kind of fence. (My street, Franklin Road, is a picket fence zone despite the clear evidence that the surviving heritage fences in the street are plastered brick.) But there is an argument for taking the views of the neighbourhood about the neighbourhood into account. Citizens have a right to be heard about how the places they live in will be developed, and even if they are wrong, they have a right and an expectation to be persuaded rather than simply ignored.

Clearly the existing heritage management in Auckland City has no process for doing that. Now the city has been expanded to include neighbourhoods that are fiercely tribal it can no longer ignore an obvious need to do so. There will be no value for anyone in endlessly repeating the fiasco of Turua Street. It is all very well for the developers to argue that there was a rugged heritage assessment and the community was consulted and the community to argue that there wasn’t and they weren’t. They cant both be right.

It will need to be a long and careful process to get the way Auckland measures heritage values right. But it is not something we have to invent. Plenty of cities have been there before us and plenty of them have got it right – or more right than we seem to have. But more immediately something simple and effective can be done. When an heritage consent is being sort – or for that matter any consent that will impact of the character of a neighbourhood – a notice clearly stating that application and the reasons for it should be posted on the site or building involved. What is more it should be posted for a reasonably time and clearly state where in the neighbour models or drawings which show what is intended and its impacts can be viewed.

It is not rocket science and it will not solve all of the problems, but it will at least take the element of surprise and ambush out of the mix. We can achieve that now. To survey heritage management and fix what is broken will take and should take a little longer. But we should start now before the new Auckland is tarred with the old Auckland’s dodgy brush.

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