The good, the bad and the ugly

By Raewyn Peart

New Zealanders place a high value on our ability to connect with unspoilt coastline - but development pressure is relentless, and often ruinous. Raewyn Peart, co-author of a new book on coastal development, argues there are ways to better protect what's left

These houses on Great Barrier Island have been built with a generous setback from the coastal margin, retaining much of the natural character of the beach.
These houses on Great Barrier Island have been built with a generous setback from the coastal margin, retaining much of the natural character of the beach.

The New Zealand coast: it's vast, it's diverse and it's enormously beautiful. It's a place where we unwind, where we renew our spirits and where we become inspired.

It's a place that envelops all our senses; the feel of soft sand running through our toes; the delicious prickling of salt on our skin and spray on our faces; the sounds of waves crashing on the shore and the cry of gulls; the smell of salt-laden breezes; the sensation of wind blowing our hair and buffeting our skin; and at night the darkness, the peace and the starry radiance of the night sky.

But it's the visual magnificence of the natural coast that is particularly awesome and awe inspiring: the sinuous estuaries where freshwater meets salt; the tumbling, rocky cliffs and dramatic headlands plunging into the sea; the undulating dunes; the long, gently curving sandy beaches; the specklings of islands and the sea stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see.

It's the undeveloped coastline, those areas which haven't been built on, which provide the most moving and memorable experiences. What's not there is just as important as what's there. No houses, no shopping centres, no traffic, no lights. It's the absence of the very things that characterise our urban spaces that make these natural places so sought after. They enable us to experience the raw power and majesty of nature.

These places are not untouched. Most of the country's coastline has been stripped of its original vegetation and much of it is still farmed. But the special places are rural, open, and unbuilt.

Research confirms that New Zealanders value these undeveloped landscapes the most highly. And it's these special places, along with the coastal species that live there, that draw tourists to our shores. These are the places that require the greatest protection if we are to continue to enjoy them, and if future generations can continue to do so too.

But not all of our coast is undeveloped and development pressures continue unabated. Sure, we can strive to protect some of it in its natural state, but what should we have in mind when considering coastal development projects?

Sometimes we do it well, but much of the time we do it badly, sometimes very badly indeed.

Often when we develop the coast, we treat it the same as inland areas, and ignore the very special qualities of the coastal environment. Land is cut up into rectangular parcels and a series of houses are plonked on to the land. There is little attempt to integrate them into natural landforms, to locate them around natural systems, or provide space for the regeneration of natural vegetation. The natural coastal landscape becomes something to divy up, to recontour, to redesign, and to build upon.

Over the last few decades, more and more houses have started to appear in visually prominent locations, on exposed coastal hills, along coastal ridgelines and on sensitive headlands. This has significantly increased the visual dominance of built structures within the coastal environment and furthered the domestication of the coastal landscape. Where houses are built of reflective materials and colours, the visual prominence is increased. Such locations also often require new access roads, and cuttings, further scarring and modifying the natural landscape.

Houses have escaped the boundaries of historic coastal settlements and are now sprawling along the coastline, up nearby hills and into the rural hinterland. They are forming a long urban coastal line, where there is little respite from buildings and structures, little opportunity to refresh and renew within nature's coastal wilderness.

Then there are the so-called farm parks, some of which have gone seriously wrong and have been anything but farms or parks.

We have often built far too close to the coast, increasing coastal hazards, magnifying the visual dominance of buildings and excluding the habitats and species which survive on the coastal front line.

At times we have even sought to better the hand of nature by creating our own coast, punching through existing coastline, carving out new waterways and buttressing them with artificial seawalls.

We can do better, and we must. When we choose to develop, we can tread much more lightly on the coastal environment. We can respect and even enhance its natural values, its landforms and its habitats:

• We can tuck settlements into the landscape.

• We can nestle houses into coastal vegetation rather than creating expanses of lawn and gardens.

• We can keep houses back from the coastal edge and away from natural systems such as estuaries, streams and wetlands.

• We can avoid building on visually prominent landforms, such as headlands and volcanic cones.

• We can break up the bulk of buildings and nestle them into the landscape, away from the coast edge.

• We can locate and design buildings to reflect natural coastal patterns and contours.

• We can incorporate green infrastructure, restore natural vegetation and habitats, reinstate frontal dunes and protect these areas from invasive weeds and pests.

• And, yes, we can restore the coast without building on prominent headlands, as proposed as the quid pro quo for the development of the Arrigato property [at Pakiri].

• Finally, we can permanently protect areas of the coast which should never be developed through purchase, through covenanting, through land swaps and through clear and robust rules in district plans.

The New Zealand coast is an integral part of our country, our heritage, its our place. It is a gem, a treasure, a fundamental part of what it is to live in this country and a defining part of who we are. It can and should be our legacy for future generations, if we manage it wisely.

• From Raewyn Peart's commentary at the launch of Caring For Our Coast, an environmental defence society guide to managing coastal development written by peart and lucy brake. conceived as a handbook for those involved in coastal planning and property development, the book won the 2013 resource management law association's publication award.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 22 Oct 2014 17:25:14 Processing Time: 410ms