A Paihia community group is winning national recognition for transforming the town into a prettier, more pedestrian-friendly place.

Focus Paihia is heading to the national Trustpower Community Awards in Wellington next year after taking out the top prize in the Far North awards in July.

The charitable trust was born in 2010 out of locals' frustration with the state of their town. Its streets were tatty, the public toilets were infamous, and its waterfront was the domain of parked cars and asphalt.

A few townsfolk - among them Tania McInnes, Grant Harnish and Heinz Marti - surveyed their fellow Paihians to see what they wanted done, and came up with an ambitious masterplan for transforming the town. However, they soon found there was little the council could or would do in cash-straightened times. The breakthrough came when a group member went to a talk by Australian urban design guru David Engwicht whose message was you don't need councils, ratepayer cash or consents. He believed ordinary people should reclaim their public spaces, act first and ask permission later.


It was an epiphany. From it sprang the Paihia Phantom Placemakers who, with little notice and less permission, would descend on public spaces like an army of guerilla decorators, beautifying footpaths, the Village Green and Maiki Hill. Emboldened by success they took sledgehammers to the town's biggest embarrassment, the Marsden Rd toilets, and turned it into a work of art. But those projects pale next to the creation of a waterfront park on what used to be a parking lot.

For three months last winter volunteers pulled up asphalt, built boardwalks, installed coloured lights, fountains, sculptures and a giant board game, sowed grass and created a large illuminated map. There's even a free library in an old phone booth and a
public piano which is wheeled out each day for anyone to play.

Because Horotutu/Our Place, as the park is known, is on land owned by the NZ Transport Agency, the Far North District Council and Far North Holdings, the group had to give up its usual method of asking permission afterwards. Unlike previous projects it also ran into opposition, due mainly to the loss of parking spaces.

That transformation of Paihia's waterfront from car park into people's park won Focus Paihia the supreme award in the Far North Community Awards.

Treasurer Sarah Greener said the group was already buzzing about representing the Far North in the national finals next year.

Mr Engwicht's talk gave Focus Paihia "the big shift", she said. "We went from demanding the council do something, to the community doing it and asking the council to help ... David talks about not just being consumers, but going back to being citizens, members of your community.You have a responsibility for making it a better place, to make it feel like home."

The group found their new attitude prompted a similar change in the council. The once depressing experience of dealing with officialdom turned into a positive, can-do relationship. Focus Paihia decided what needed fixing and how. The council chipped in with materials or looked the other way when the rules were broken.

These days Paihia is a poster child for civic revival. Councils and community groups from around the country come knocking to look and learn. Kawakawa residents adopted a similar philosophy to upgrade their indoor pool and save it from closure. A group called Love Opua is busily beautifying its corner of the Bay of Islands.

Mrs Greener said Focus Paihia had done more than make the town look better - the projects had also brought people together. More than 250 had helped build Horotutu, including tradesmen who gave up their time and locals who delivered food each day.

"I've made friends I'd never have met in my day-to-day life. It's pulled people together from all walks of life," Mrs Greener said.

"I walk through the park now and I see families eating fish and chips, kids playing on the wave seats. It's about the ability to make a positive change. It's given us a real sense of pride."