The children who race down Victoria Ave on their scooters to get to school struck journalist Rod Oram as an indicator of the good life in Wanganui.

He was one of the 40-plus speakers at the A Place to Live conference last week. It started with Dame Anne Salmond's lecture on Sunday night and finished on Wednesday afternoon.

Delegates were a mix of academics and practical people working in the regions.

"It was a pretty rich menu of great speakers," ecologist and Victoria University Professor Charles Daugherty said.


The conference was third in a series of forums inspired by the ideas of Sir Paul Callaghan, a scientist brought up in Wanganui. It was organised by the MacDiarmid Institute and Victoria University.

"Our hope is that we can continue to be friends and support you with science, because after all that's our real agenda," Prof Daugherty said.

Mr Oram developed a "scooter index" for the quality of life. Wanganui councillor Martin Visser presented a Social Progress Index, ranking 32 factors that contribute to quality of life.

It was noted that Wanganui ranks high on that index.

Keynote speaker Richard Louv's talk about nature-deficit syndrome was picked up by former science teacher Jim Callaghan, Sir Paul's brother, at the conference dinner.

Attendees decided to pay more attention to nature in their own lives. "If young people had more free time to relax and be outside and not be pressured constantly with testing maybe they would think their way out of those states of mind," Prof Daugherty said.

The trip up the Whanganui River on Monday was a highlight. Those who went to Te Wainui a Rua School at Ranana loved meeting the confident and friendly pupils and teacher Karleen Marshall, and seeing the attractive new school.

"Even the 7-to-8-year-old children looked into our eyes and put their hands on adults' arms. It was just great," Prof Daugherty said.


Those who didn't go to the school crammed into the meeting house at Koriniti Marae and all stood and introduced themselves.

The day ended with the Small Is Beautiful debate open to the public. Most of the seats in the Wanganui War Memorial Centre's concert chamber were filled. The planned one-hour event chaired by broadcaster Kim Hill went on for two hours, with many questions.

"Kim was obviously elated to have so many people there," Prof Daugherty said.

Members of the public also joined in for the last few hours of the conference on Wednesday.

The formation of the Predator Free NZ Trust was announced then, though Prof Daugherty said it would be opposed by hunters and the anti-1080 lobby.

Tariana Turia's closing speech on "the holistic idea of the river" was both poetic and practical.


Actions arising from the conference could include initiatives to give prisoners contact with nature, a youth job market and a restoration project on the Whanganui River. And the series of forums inspired by Sir Paul are likely to continue.

Attendees were struck by Wanganui's beautiful town centre, and found the War Memorial Centre a comfortable and well-appointed venue, Prof Daugherty said.