Diversity, inundation maps, sea walls, leadership and liabilities. When it comes to protecting our foreshores, council parks teams have their hands full. Ruth Le Pla reports on their complex work in an age of climate change.
Auckland Council’s Ian Maxwell has appealed to councils to look for new ways to engage a wider variety of community members in climate change and environmental protection initiatives. Ian is Auckland Council’s director of community services – a unit which brings together council’s parks, libraries and community development activities.
Part of the global King Tides movement, King Tides Auckland identifies when unusually high (king) tides will occur and encourages people to take and share photos of the events.
“Sometimes it’s hard to grasp what climate change is but sea level rise is more tangible,” says Ian. “You can turn up at a king tide and see what an extra half metre of tide might look like and do. It makes climate change real.”
The snag is, like many of council’s own climate change and environmental protection initiatives, the movement “almost always” attracts disproportionate numbers of European people. Very few young Polynesians are involved, for example, he says.
“So in a city like Auckland where people of European descent make up 50 percent or less of the population, we’re not quite hitting the mark,” Ian says. “We need to pick up the concept of diversity in all of this.”
Among its own initiatives, Auckland Council is in the early stages of rolling out a series of localised coastal plans.
Ian acknowledged work to date had been “a bit hit and miss”. “We have tended to react to things that were occurring as opposed to working on a more comprehensive basis.”
The plans will look at managing possible sea level rise in specific neighbourhoods identifying options for hard or soft defences or managed retreat.
Council will focus on relatively small chunks of area that are already struggling with erosion and have the greatest perceived need. There is no one-size plan to fit all places.
“So if you live in Orewa, for example, or Muriwai or Takapuna, there will be a coastal plan for you.”
Auckland Council is also looking at publishing easily-accessible storm inundation maps.
Ian says it’s already possible to get hold of this type of information but council is trying to help make data more readily accessible to people who may not be out looking for it on a regular basis.
“We haven’t cracked this yet,” he says. “So if have any great ideas on ways of working with different communities on these sorts of technical issues, please let us know. We’d be really pleased to hear about them.
“Particularly given the diverse population in Auckland we need to adapt as an organisation. Otherwise a lot of the work we do becomes increasingly irrelevant to an increasingly large proportion of our population.”
Ian also notes that while most people who work in councils’ parks departments believe in the science of climate change, they have to work alongside colleagues who may not share their views.
“For that reason they can often take on a real leadership role on responding to climate change issues within councils.”
He adds that in many cities council parks often have to play a defensive role between the built environment and the sea.
Many people’s first reaction is to demand a sea wall is built.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to get them to understand the benefits of soft defences. We’ve got some examples around the Manukau Harbour and Orewa where we’ve managed to get to that point. But in other places we’ve haven’t managed to convince people of the benefits of soft defences.
“People often see their local beach as a very important part of their local community’s character. People look to council to respond when their local beach is being eroded and yet we know shipping in sand is not a long-term answer.”
He advises council officers to look into the updated health and safety legislation around any potential danger from trees in parks and public places and who may be liable in case of an accident.
And he raises the question of liability and compensation if cliff-top houses were to be threatened by rising sea levels.
“Auckland is a coastal city. If you look at cliff-top houses with sea views between Milford and Takapuna it’s probably hard to find a house worth less than $8 million. So what happens if the cliffs start eroding – or if the houses start falling into the sea?
“In general we think that’s just a natural occurrence so the council’s not liable. I think that’s probably true. But I guarantee that will be tested in court and if we’re proved wrong – if we happen to have an esplanade reserve or some sort of reserve between the property and the sea – and the danger, or threat, is coming through your [council-owned] reserve and on to the private property causing damage there’s going to be debate taking place.
“That hasn’t happened yet to any great degree that I’m aware of… but it will be on the horizon in a few years’ time.”
Ian advises other councils to think about such issues now.
“That may affect the rationale for investment now if there’s a possibility of liability for your organisation later.”
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.