Working with the Community for the Community

Delwyn Shepherd, MLA Unitec

How can a landscape architect create a public place/space within Muriwai Regional Park that speaks local community park yet has over 100,000 tourists visit this space each year?

As Landscape Architects we design for people and their relationship to place, we must take into account their needs, wants and biophysical requirements. The needs of local residents varies greatly from that of a tourist who may only visit once in a lifetime having read about one of the unique landscape features which Muriwai has to offer these visitors. Local residents also value these remarkable landscape qualities that make Muriwai their place.

Muriwai people are privileged to live in this place/community, which is located 38km north west of Auckland’s CBD on the west coast of the Tasman Sea - it is an old seaside holiday village. The community comprises of about 2000 residents and current planning regulations mean it cannot grow. These people are both young and old and together they form a transient social presence in the Muriwai community. The key to this population is its connection with nature. The people who live here, and those who visit, do so precisely to enter into and become part of the natural system that it offers.  A large proportion of this area comprises of wilderness, with a rugged coastline, Regional Park, DOC reserve, plantation forest and farmland and is at the end of a no exit road. It is the complex relationship that the people of Muriwai have with the edge that brings this dynamic and open landscape to life on multiple levels.

You need to look at the community from inside (inwardly) to understand the complexity of the people who make this community. To see what they value and how they operate to understand their desires for public open space. You must look at the different community groups and organisations that make this place – Muriwai - to see how they overlap and operate. Each of these groups will use this park space for many and varied reasons and not forgetting times of day and seasons. Thus the values will be different for all within this park. Only then can we begin to design this space for this local community.

The tourist on the other hand will be on a specific agenda and will bring different values with them they will not engage in this space to the same level as the local community user as they do not have the same complex connection to this space. Instead they will value what they find on the surface as well as their preconceived values for this place. The key to the tourist use of this same space is its accessibility for the tourist as they will appropriate the space on a transient level. 

The Community of Muriwai is a very active one there is the local Muriwai Environmental Action Community Trust (MeAct), the Surf Club, the Maori Bay Boardriders, the Muriwai Tennis Club, the Arts Trail Group and Residence and Rate Payers Association all of whom actively engage and initiate, and fund community projects within Muriwai Regional Park. It is this unique process that allows the community of Muriwai to take ownership of this public space, giving the locals stewardship, and making it a local public space regardless of who is using the park.

The erosion processes acting upon the sand dune system at Muriwai beach operates across a range of temporal and spatial scales. The coastal systems at Muriwai are part of the greater Tasman coastal system, which in turn operates within global weather systems that begin and end elsewhere. The Muriwai shoreline forms part of a high energy coastal system. Consequently, the Muriwai coastal system experiences long periods of erosion followed by periods of accretion. These periodicals however, are impossible to predicate. Currently the area is experiencing a long period of erosion.

A recent community project began in coastal erosion in 2002. The project was trying to stabilise the surf lifeguard tower located on the fore dune of Muriwai beach. We quickly learnt that any solid object such as logs and wind-cloth fences collected sand and built sand dunes. This was nothing new - historic work by the New Zealand Forest Service had used similar methods of fences in the 1950s to 1970s. We next translated the fence method to plants that might hold the sand in place, again nothing new, a botanist by the name of Dr Leonard Cockayne had gone to France in 1909 to look at such methods and introduced the Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) to New Zealand to do just that. The short comings of Marram grass is that it builds bigger, taller sand dunes,  Cockayne’s method,  which in conjunction with Muriwai’s coastal location at right angles to the prevailing westerly winds combined with the spherical 0.05mm sand particles of the Mitiwai sands results in highly mobile sands equalling large volumes of shifting sand.

In the end, the environmental conditions of this nonlinear system won – we moved the surf lifeguard tower; in fact we moved the tower three times in three years.

This introduction of working in the community for the community spurred the community onto forming a sand dune restoration group and this coincided with the commercial reproduction of Spinifex sericeus an indigenous sand binding plant. At this point we were introduced to Jim Darm from the Bay of Plenty who was achieving great results in sand dune restoration in the Bay of Plenty.

Many community working bee days were held in late autumn on the sand dunes of Muriwai. We have had tourists arrive and talk to us about our project, be inspired about what the community is doing, then roll up their sleeves and assist with the next two hours of planting. One of these city dwellers wanted to know the dates of Muriwai community planting days and became a regular at our Muriwai planting days. The community no longer considered them as a tourist as they fitted into our community by being part of local working bees. Other tourists have never seen anything like it and taken photos of us working for “free”.  It is this “hands” on approach that the Muriwai community has taken with public space empowering the community’s connection and belonging to this public place. However, it is not as simple as planting existing eroding sand dunes along this west coast. The Muriwai coast is part of a high energy coastal system best described as a high energy dissipative beach and all these system are connected.

The first part of the restoration process is an assessment on the eroding sand dune. These sand dunes were highly modified in the 1930s when Woodhill Forest was planted by the NZFS, dune modification was carried out until the late 1990s. We then bring in machines and reduce the height of the sand dunes, flatten the top, widen the base and where possible create an incipient fore dune. When planting we used twice the number of Spinfex sericeus plants to address the mortality rate creating plant colonies which improves survival rates. As a temporary measure against the equinox winds we often place rectangular hay bales on the seaward side of late plantings. “Erosion only becomes a problem when a human – made structure is threatened” (Pilkey and Hume,2001). What has been learnt over the years is nothing is permanent when working with non-linear systems.

The latest community project started with a phone call; “we need a landscape resource consent for the new surf club at Muriwai but we have no funds to pay you with yet.” As a surf club member I was honoured to be asked.

When designing this community landscape it was essential to connect the landscape on many levels into the existing broader community spaces. This was achieved by avoiding visual barriers to enable people to be drawn in and could safely enter these spaces. This promotes activity and social interaction between the various spaces and community events. This landscape has enabled a strengthening of community relationships with all the local community user groups who occupy the new centre. The design called for many activities to occur simultaneously this has resulted in seven different landscape spaces which can all be used at once.  We only achieved this by openly getting all the community groups to submit critique and refine the design process which often resulted in compromise by all groups. The key factor to this projects success was “for the community by the community”.

The project has been driven by Tim Jago who is visionary in his thinking. We needed a new surf club due to erosion and the community has never had a hall. Tim’s solution was to combine the two and build a community centre, which also houses the Muriwai Surf Club and other community groups such as the Muriwai Sports Fishing Club. Four and half years later we now have a state of the art complex, which has seven permanent tenants.

We worked with an amazing team of people all of those key people have succeeded beyond belief with a “can do” attitude for the community. Probono work can be a humbling experience - from the architect, Jazmax, to the contractor of West Auckland.

We project managed the landscape installation over a six week period with a zero budget yet we pulled off a $150,000 landscape. We are indebted to Porter Hire for machines, AC Diggers for machines, operators and materials, Treescape for materials and cartage - those are the big companies involved in the project and the 100’s of hours of volunteer community labour through working bees. The site is 300 meters from mean high tide springs in a very exposed location within the Muriwai Regional Park. This has resulted in many restrictions on both design and materials. These restrictions were not seen as hurdles but rather as challenges which required the landscape architect to think outside of the square.

We would not have achieved the results that we did if it weren’t for the community supporting our project and backing the project with man power, machines and materials. The landscape is by no means completed - that will take another two autumns and many more hours of volunteers.

 It is a public centre within Muriwai Regional Park. This public facility can be hired by anybody and is accessible on the Auckland Council’s website it is not exclusive to the Muriwai community. However, due to the very nature of this project the community of Muriwai take pride in knowing their community needs and desires influenced the final design outcome and landscape installation for this public space. This has been the key to creating a public place that speaks local community park yet has over 100,000 tourist visit within a year.

As a landscape architect it has been the most rewarding job to date and we have thrived on the curve balls it threw at us.

The key factor in designing a community space, which is part of a larger public space with many visitors from all over the world is to understand the fundamentals of how the landscape actually works. This must be based upon a rigorous understanding of the complexity of the people who make this community. By looking at the community and landscape from the inside “within” looking out enables a different viewpoint to emerge. This then needs to be transferred to the design process which comprehends the multidimensional requirements of both the physical site and the community needs for this site. We cannot achieve this unless a strong relationship is developed between the community and the public space - this can be accomplished on many levels. It is this understanding of place that empowers a landscape architect to design for the community and its public space as this public space is part of the community’s everyday lives.

Delwyn Shepherd

Landscape Architect

Xcape Design

Foot Note:

 The new Surf Club and Community Centre at Muriwai had 7695 people use this centre within the first 30 days of opening. 

Xsection Issue Three 2013/14 Placemaking