High ground, Low Ground

Caitlin Wallis



The New Zealand ambition to live by the water has defined how we have settled within our landscape. This presents an interesting dilemma when confronted with the current research surrounding coastal hazards and sea level rise. The tension between coastal hazards and settlement is a global issue but as an island nation New Zealand has a particularly high number of sites that face these challenges. 

The Waikanae and Paraparaumu coast has had its own share of problems arise from New Zealand’s coastal settlement legacy. New Zealanders longing to live and holiday by the coast have encouraged widespread coastal subdivision; often located in near-shore areas vulnerable to coastal hazards. This problem has been ongoing but is notably embodied in the Kapiti Coast District Council Coastal Hazard Report released to the Kapiti public in 2012. The report revealed that 1800 of Kapiti’s beach front properties are at risk of coastal flooding with housing around the Waikanae River being particularly endangered.

In cases such as this, options presented to residents are often limited to holding back the waters or the looming threat of managed retreat. Yet this does not have to be the case, this project explores the design challenge of remaining in the flood zone. In doing so the research has provided a platform for discussing a new way of living that does not have to banish us from the coast. It questions how landscape architects might negotiate ways in which we retain housing, while also responding to the increasing coastal risk? Perhaps it is a matter of how we settle the coast? What form might this take?

The present coastal settlement of Waikanae and Paraparaumu is comprised of long formations of housing running parallel to the coastline. This structure is problematic as it diminishes the importance of community while exposing beach front housing to coastal hazards. Through analysing this formation, it was determined that by simply adding additional connections from the coast to the first line of stabilised backbones, it would alleviate much of the threat. To support these new connections, streets were incrementally realigned in the site to accommodate ease of access to high ground. An expansion of wetlands into the lowland backyards and a series of water towers on the backbone system became an important part of a new suburb wide water management strategy. While also supporting communities in emergencies, the stabilised back-dunes also became a cultural focus, with schools and community centres, catalysing the development of smaller neighbourhood hubs. 

Emergence in this project was an important concept driving the opening up of the often rigid design thinking associated with vulnerable coastal settlements. It allowed the understanding of flooding and coastal hazards as not just an engineering problem, but an opportunity to re-think the way in which we settle our coastlines. Ecological variability in our coastal landscapes should not simply become a design constraint but a challenge for us to explore new alternatives from the status quo.