Looking for Dunedin's future in the past

Artbeat column no 460 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 2.11.09

Can the arts and heritage save Dunedin? Dunedin doesn’t need saving I hear you mutter and neither it does. Nevertheless demographic anxiety, sometimes demographic panic, continues to gnaw the city and move it to folly. Both the attempt to build a smelter and the push to build the stadium illustrate the point. Nevertheless there are sober reasons for concern and intelligent things which might be done to bolster the city’s future. Dr Rodney Wilson’s report on our museums and built heritage illuminates one of these. It should be taken seriously.

 Dunedin’s population growth or lack of it has long been a touchy subject. That is apparent in K.C. McDonald’s centennial history of the city council published in 1965. He wrote some wise words which have mostly been ignored by civic leaders. My attempt to publish an analysis of some relevant figures in the early 1980s met with a blank refusal from the Otago Daily Times,basically because acknowledgement of the city’s then declining population was too painful to put into print. Nevertheless some of my accompanying advice was published and heeded.

Until the demise of the smelter the city’s political and business leaders had been inclined to see its future as an enlarged manufacturing or commercial centre. I pointed to the limitations of that and said more would come from cultivating the university and tourism, especially cultural tourism. Despite some confused thinking about the university’s place in the local and national economies the civic leadership did enter into a new and more engaged relationship with the university although its embrace of tourism remained very spotty.

The university grew and from that the city’s population decline was halted and reversed. This was only partly because of the city’s efforts, more because of government policy – its move to the “bums on seats” funding model. In the early 2000s I stated publicly this was nearing its limits, that the city couldn’t comfortably accommodate many more students. In 2007 the government changed its funding model so the next 20 years won’t see comparable growth anyway.

Even so it’s important to realise the present roll is large enough to support academic excellence. Its necessary faculty buildings are endangering the built environment with its distinctive residential component while congestion contributes to declining standards of student behaviour. The city’s further growth should not come from university expansion. Nor should it be focused in north Dunedin. There are alternatives.

Dr Wilson’s report called on the city council to explore with government a special status for Dunedin as a national heritage city. This is premised on the view Dunedin’s historic architecture is better and better preserved than any other New Zealand city’s, as indeed our museums, libraries and galleries and their collections are also exceptional. This is true and I have said as much before.

But Dr Wilson went on to say this distinction extends to Australia as well as New Zealand. I have heard some question this but think it is not implausible. However that may be it is beyond argument that Dunedin is New Zealand’s best built and best preserved colonial city which should be enough for any New Zealand government. Redevelopment on this basis could make the city a star tourist attraction.

Will Dr Wilson’s advice be heeded? At first sight it seems unlikely. The city council buried his report. It took the Otago Daily Times’ request for it under the official information act to get it released. Clearly some in the council don’t want the public to hear about such things. But the Otago Daily Times made it the subject of a generally supportive editorial, which is significant, because previously the paper has been inclined to dismiss such suggestions. (ODT 24/10/2009.)

The editorial contained signs of lingering incredulity. It said “it is hard to imagine [Dunedin’s heritage buildings and precincts] ever having the pulling power of centuries-old heritage like Prague, Bath, Istanbul or Quito for that matter.”

This is just a problem of imagination. It isn’t age as such which signifies. So long as the structures in question are old enough to read as old to most people, that is old enough. That is now true of Victorian and Edwardian things, in fact of things built in the interwar period too. But a repaired and restored Dunedin would indeed have far more “pulling power” than it does at present. Many had difficulty seeing the potential of the Municipal Chambers before it was restored. It’s that sort of transformation, on a much larger scale, we could have here if we were determined.

The editorial also thought albatrosses and penguins might have more appeal than stone, although international tourist statistics show otherwise. No matter. It sounded the right note. All we need now is for our civic leaders to start doing something about it. Maybe this time they will.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times  http://www.otagodailytimes.co.nz