Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Cemetery cycleway access a bad idea

No doubt from a traffic engineer's viewpoint, a green space full of dead bodies could be seen as 'underutilised'. Photo / The Aucklander
No doubt from a traffic engineer's viewpoint, a green space full of dead bodies could be seen as 'underutilised'. Photo / The Aucklander

After the uproar caused by the exhumation of more than 4000 bodies in the mid-1960s to make way for a motorway through Auckland's historic Symonds St Cemetery, you might have expected today's transport planners to tread rather gently around the graves that escaped the diggers. Silly me.

This week, they unveiled a proposal to plough three cycleway access routes through the remaining graves to provide links between Symonds St and the 3m-wide Grafton Gully Cycleway, which gets under way this summer.

The Central Motorway Junction Walking and Cycling Masterplan 2012, developed by staff from Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency, declares that "there are a number of underutilised spaces located along the length of the ... Cycleway, including the Symonds St Cemetery. These spaces provide opportunities for improving connections and destinations ..."

A map shows three arrows coming up from the cycleway, one running alongside Grafton Bridge and seemingly over Governor Hobson's grave, another, up the present Southern Motorway on-ramp, and the third, on the west side of Symonds St, snaking through the last resting place of pioneering Presbyterians, Wesleyans and Jews.

No doubt from a traffic engineer's viewpoint, a green space full of dead bodies could be seen as "underutilised".

But I suspect the more general view would be that of Waitemata Local Board chairman Shale Chambers, who says driving cycleways through the remnant graveyard would occur "over my dead body. It's a sacred place, an historic place".

The transport planners see it as a case of killing two birds with one stone. "The cemetery currently suffers from a lack of surveillance and activity, while the proposed cycleway has perceived security risks associated with the location of the route. The edge condition of the cemetery where it meets the motorway is currently subject to a variety of illicit uses."

The solution? "New connections to and through the cemetery, providing greater accessibility to the Grafton Gully Cycleway, increased use of the cemetery and enhancing the special character of the cemetery."

This could be achieved by providing "direct links from the cycleway to cemetery paths, improv[ing] the legibility and visibility of both the cycleway and cemetery paths through brush clearance".

Also on the list was "improve signage, upgrade lighting, celebrate heritage values and significance of [the] cemetery".

The council's transport committee this week resolved that nothing be done without the backing of the city's heritage staff. It's a relief they insisted on heritage staff, because the council's park staff went along with the plan.

Opening the cemetery to "meaningful pedestrian and cyclist through traffic" would, in parks' eyes, bring in the good guys and drive out the anti-social elements.

They risk a cure more deadly than the disease.

For years, I've been banging on about the need to clean up this historic pioneers' graveyard and turn it into a restful heritage park for the living, respecting the famous and the not-so-famous founding figures of Auckland and New Zealand. Carving on-ramps for cyclists through the remaining graves is not what I had in mind. While Lycra and liniment might well drive away the undesirables, it would also have the longtime residents turning in their graves.

Converting the motorway on-ramp into a cycleway entrance is an interesting proposition. But given the controversy that followed NZTA's failed attempt to close the Wellington St ramp, it's hardly likely to be the quick answer.

Cheekily, the transport planners appear to expect the local board, which controls the park, to fund the proposed cemetery cycleways. Mr Chambers rejects this, saying it's not part of their cemetery upgrade plans. He's bemused by the proposal, saying that when the NZTA briefed his board two weeks ago, there was no talk of cemetery cycleways.

The insensitivity of the transport planners is of little surprise. But for parks staff to promote it is disappointing. They appear to have seen it as a way of cleaning out undesirables on the cheap. But the price is too high.

The way to reclaim the cemetery is to get in with a task force and a plan, clean up the over-growth, recreate the neglected walking paths, and decide on which monuments to restore.

Unfortunately, the $1.64 million, 10-year upgrade plan, approved earlier this year by the Waitemata Local Board, is so parsimonious it will do little more than arrest the decline.

Like now, it leaves the old cemetery prey to the undesirables, both those drinking from a flagon and those wielding NZTA clipboards.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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