Sarah Murray fronted up at the New Zealand Recreation Association conference to tell a story about bikes, bush, boots and backpacks. It’s also a story about working across administrative boundaries and doing the seemingly impossible – getting 11 agencies and over 100 stakeholder and interest groups pedalling in the same direction.
Our story begins like all good stories – with an awakening. The Wellington Region is a trail user’s paradise. It’s a region characterised by hills, harbours, native bush, rugged wild coastlines and nature on our back doorsteps. It’s one of the only places in the world where native biodiversity is increasing and we’ve got a trail network all through it.
Across the region we have over 2500 kilometres of track, including 1800 kilometres of shared use tracks, and three dedicated mountain bike parks. We have the most active population in the country and a huge number of committed trail building groups who have been developing the network for the past 20 years.
Work is underway on proposals to build a new adventure park in Porirua and the Five Towns Off-Road trail in the Wairarapa. As a trails destination, the Wellington Region has got it all. You can literally walk, run or bike from downtown Wellington and see and hear tieke, kakariki, tui and kaka.
But up until 2016 when we started this project we weren’t making the most of our trails network. The Wellington Region was better known for culture, coffee, craft beer and the Wairarapa’s wine than it was for our trails.
As a region we were missing out. Our communities wanted to see us invest more in trails and we knew there was central government money available for walking and cycling initiatives. When we looked around the country we saw the smart regions jumping on board – and seeing significant economic, social and wellbeing returns for their communities.
In September 2016, the Wellington Regional Parks Managers Forum came together and agreed to co-fund a piece of work looking at how we could better manage our trails as a regional network.
We have 11 different agencies involved in trails management in the Wellington Region, including nine councils, the Department of Conservation and the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA).
We’ve also got about 120 stakeholder groups actively involved in the trail network including trail builders, mountain biking and tramping clubs, trail running and horse-riding groups, and trail-related businesses and event organisers.
Eleven agencies and 120-plus groups – all with a stake in the network. None of us able to do it alone.
Layer on this, 11 different policy and planning frameworks, nine sets of elected representatives, a healthy amount of user conflict, and lots of different views on what the trails network could, and should, deliver.
We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we were up for the challenge.
So, in December 2016, we developed terms of reference, rolled up our sleeves and got on with it. We formed a steering group made up of representatives of each of the 11 agencies plus two stakeholder groups representing the views of walkers and bikers. In January 2017, we engaged TRC Tourism to start developing a framework.
Working together across 11 agencies and 120 stakeholder groups is challenging.
It’s time-consuming. You have to work hard to get on the same page and then you need to work hard to stay there. Levels of buy-in and engagement ebb and flow throughout the project. You have pressure from your communities who often aren’t all on the same page either. You’ve got to balance competing priorities and demands, and keep your executive teams and elected representatives engaged. Working together takes patience and perseverance.
Principles of partnering
Despite all the challenges that come with multi-agency partnerships, we succeeded. We came together, worked together and we’re still working together because we followed some basic principles of partnering, some of which come from the Stanford Model of Collective Impact which I thoroughly recommend.
Top of the list is having a common goal. Not an airy-fairy high-level idea of what you want to achieve together – but a clear and commonly-understood goal to which you are all committed. For us, the goal was to develop a framework that could guide how we collaboratively developed, managed and promoted a coherent regional trails network.
We spent quite a bit of time at the beginning of the project teasing this out and debating the scope of the project. This laid the foundation for later. We knew that success was a framework that we could all sign up to and were committed to implementing and we were all clear that was our goal.
Next, was recognising that partnerships are about mutually-reinforcing activities – not shared or collective activities. We didn’t seek to amalgamate or centralise our trail management functions. Rather, we recognised we all had responsibilities as trail managers and we wanted to continue to carry these out individually but in a way that achieved our common goal.
Important in this, and in getting buy-in from our elected representatives, was agreeing early on that the framework would not affect each agency’s ability to make decisions or create policy for trails. Rather, it would sit over the top of this as a guiding direction and seek to inform our individual planning and decision-making.
The third principle is one of the most important, yet most overlooked: having a backbone organisation to coordinate and manage the project. There needs to be someone with the time and energy to keep things moving. More often than not, multi-partner projects fail because there is no dedicated resource to service the partnership and someone is trying to do it from the corner of their desk in addition to a full work programme.
In this case, Wellington City Council was the backbone organisation for the planning phase of the project. This then transferred to WREDA which is coordinating and overseeing implementation. WREDA’s mission statement is to make the Wellington region the most prosperous, liveable and vibrant in Australasia and it views this project as sitting right in the middle of all that.
Without these two agencies stepping up and resourcing coordination, the project simply wouldn’t have succeeded.
Being outcomes-focused speaks for itself. Don’t let the project fail because you drown in the detail and lose sight of the outcome.
And make sure you have political buy-in. This is critical. One of the challenges of this project was getting the support of nine different mayors and councils. We did this with frequent standardised briefings and updates, so each council was getting the same key messages and presentations to the regional mayoral forum.
And lastly communicate, communicate, communicate. Partnerships succeed because everyone knows what is going on. Regular, clear and timely communication is the key to making any partnership work.
Back to the trails
Wellington Regional Trails for the Future was completed and endorsed by the Regional Mayoral and CE Forum in August 2017, less than 12 months after we started and with all 11 agencies still at the table.
It sets out a plan for realising the potential of the Wellington Regional Trails Network and turning it from a sleeping giant into a world-class network that provides outstanding experiences in nature and delivers health, lifestyle and social benefits to the region’s residents as well as economic benefits to our communities.
Part of realising the opportunity was recognising that we need to do more than just write a plan. We needed to set up a structure to deliver on the framework and we needed to resource its implementation.
As part of the process, we created a role for a regional trails framework advisor. This is hosted by WREDA and co-funded by the 11 agencies. We also re-shaped our original steering committee into a regional coordinating committee.
We also set up a community and industry engagement forum with an independent chair who sits on the coordinating committee to ensure connection between the two groups.
The framework creates a trail hierarchy and focuses our energies on our most significant trails – our top five ‘signature trails’ and our top 20 ‘regional trails’ – which together form the best of what we’ve got to offer. Under the framework, our focus is on working together to develop, manage and promote these trails as the core of the regional trails network.
And we’re on our way. Our website launches in December 2018, our coordinating committees and community and industry engagement forums are up and running and we’ve locked in three years of funding to support implementation of the framework.
We’ve gone from being a region of inconsistent and fragmentary trails experiences to taking the first steps towards being a world-class trails destination delivering real benefits to residents and visitors alike.
I’ll finish by sharing a couple of lessons learnt. I said at the beginning this was a story about trails, but also a story about working together. And our lessons learnt reflect that.
Wellington Regional Trails for the Future is a great project. It’s brought us together as a group of trail managers and given us a compelling common goal. It’s hard work but it’s worth the effort.
We learnt along the way that managing trails is not just about the trail. A great trail network is as much about the visitor experience as it is about the physical trail and our focus has been as much on developing the experience on offer as it is about the trails themselves.
We also learnt it’s not all about the plan.
We knew if we wanted to succeed, we needed to plan for implementation and our approach reflected that from the start. We set out with a goal of getting the framework in our Long-Term Plans and locking in resourcing for implementation by the end of the project and we were able to secure three years of funding to employ our trails framework advisors and deliver on region-wide priorities.
Find a champion and bring your stakeholders along with you. We enlisted the support of the chair of the regional CE’s forum early on and we worked hard to get buy-in – and it paid off. We also worked hard to engage the huge number of stakeholder groups with an interest in trails and the framework is better for it.
Whether your chosen mode of travel is running, walking, horse riding or biking, working together is a journey. But it is a journey worth taking and ultimately one that we believe will deliver great things for the people of the Wellington Region.
So, next time you are in the Wellington Region, grab your boots or bike and hit our trails and check out what we’ve got on offer. Come and be part of the next chapter in the story of Wellington’s Regional Trail network.
• Sarah Murray is community partnerships manager, park, sport and recreation, at Wellington City Council. >Sarah.Murray@wcc.govt.nz
This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.