What if… Dunedin no longer needed so much petrol?

Written By: - Date published: 10:03 am, April 22nd, 2022 - 17 comments
Categories: climate change, public transport, sustainability, transport - Tags: , , , , ,

Imagine it’s 2032. We’re looking back on the 2022 crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine which led to shortages in oil supply. As the crisis deepened a new variant of coronavirus emerged, triggering another round of societal restrictions and the New Zealand government brought in a system of intermittently closed borders. A set of major adverse weather events hit midwinter, leading to flooding and mass evacuations in the South Island (West Coast, South Dunedin, and Queenstown).

These converging crises led to an unexpected upsurge in new green and sustainability candidates for the 2022 local body elections, as people finally understood we have to act now. A handful of key regional, district and city councils gained a significant number of progressive and green councillors.

Within a year, South Island councils were working on a cross-regional strategy for Just Transition to a low carbon society, with a central focus on redesigning city and town systems to cope with the skyrocketing petrol and food prices as well as damage to key infrastructure that was likely to need multiple, expensive repairs in the coming decades. The continued lack of mass tourism was now seen as an opportunity to conserve fuel supplies for essential services, and to generate new ways of making a living and running local economies.

In Dunedin, a special five year Transition Plan was bolted onto the DCC’s ten year plan already set to run to 2031. This allowed each Ward to prioritise a % of funding towards retrofitting its local suburbs for resiliency and sustainability. The twin Transition Plan goals of mitigating climate change by dropping GHGs fast, and future proofing city life, allowed Dunedin people to respond to the oil crisis as an opportunity. Interim Just Transition funds were set up to help low income people and businesses manage while systems were being changed.

This meant instead of repairing marginal roads that would require increasingly frequent maintenance (leading to budget blowouts), select roads were ‘retired’ from conventional traffic and converted to other uses: foot, bike, playground/recreation, and food forests/orchards. Many spaces adapted existing infrastructure rather than doing large scale, expensive, time and resource intensive projects.

Children came to be seen as the indicator species of the suburbs, and outside spaces that enabled play became highly prized as more adults worked from home.

In order to maintain a Just Transition, reassigning streets was done in the wider context of public transport and relocalising economies, with a central design premise of diversity of need and ability rather than designing for the stereotypical cyclist or walker and adding in other needs later. Consequently urban spaces quickly became child, elderly and disability friendly, with a surprising and welcome increase in social cohesion. As people understood the interrelated nature of the climate, oil, and economic crises, the scheme where residents could band together and apply to retire streets in their neighbourhoods became particularly popular. Over the decade a number of suburbs created multiple green spaces for children to play in close to where they live, and these in turn became focal points for community socialised and organising.

Each Ward was ensured either a local superette and/or a food ordering and delivery system within walking/biking distance based on the pioneering Longwood Loop in Southland. The Loops matched up local small growers and buyers, lowering food and transport costs and increasing income for people working from home or within their neighbourhood. The long awaited commuter train ran from the City to coastal communities going north and south, connecting up a wider range of growers and eaters as well as workers moving easily across the rohe. Ferries and ebuses on the peninsula and harbour did the same.

Dunedin’s already thriving Farmer’s Market created satellite markets in key suburbs, spread out across the week, so that each area had access to fresh, locally produced food, and growers increased their ability to make a living. Neighbourhood pods of gardeners providing excess produce for free or low cost, alongside mass planting on council land of fruit and nut trees and perennial vegetables, dropped household food costs back to pre-2022 levels. Dunedin was well served by its abundance of quarter acre sections and relative lack of infill building.

Skills and systems developed in the first two years of the pandemic of working from home were upgraded into sophisticated systems allowing people to set up a new swathe of small, home based businesses. This was utilised by stay at home parents, solo mums, elderly people and university students, and people formerly known as unemployed. The 2026 Labour/Green government’s trial Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) was started in Dunedin in part because of the work already being done by council, NGOs and community groups.

Major government funding was sought and granted in 2025 to make sure every household had unlimited data broadband (free for low income households including students, musicians, artists and ecological regeners) and a number of software and systems support companies sprang up in the city. The small localised nature of the projects encouraged cooperation and playful competition, which created an enhanced degree of lateral thinking and pride in the city. Companies started developing bespoke IT systems for managing transport and food, and these were then sold to other parts of NZ and eventually the world.

Funding and R & D was also prioritised for assisting people to create livelihoods at home or within walking/biking distance of their home. The Right to Livelihood Award was granted quarterly to the most creative enterprises, with the prize tending to go towards models that were easily replicable and open source. The years leading up to the mid 20s had been rich with creative initiatives but people still struggling to create steady income: food growing, child care and homeschooling, art, music, environmental care, IT, small manufacturing. With the GMI  and funding, many of these quickly blossomed into viable livelihoods.

People found that they enjoyed spending more time at home and in their neighbourhoods. Local greenspaces were soon found to be highly prized and council was pressured to increase such spaces within planning, and to allow more creative conversions of existing spaces. A new design field emerged in response to the pandemic, whereby outside spaces were designed according to each community’s need and included covered meeting spaces based in micro climates allowing more socialising during pandemic waves as well as escape spaces for people working from home. Forest schools sprang up and the University campus underwent a retrofit rebuild to be both regenerative and pandemic resilient. Forest bathing and the return of native birds like kākā to the city forests resulted in the new strategies for stress management and mental health as well as engagement with conservation. Everyone wanted a flock of social kākā to visit their neighbourhood.

An integrated bike lane network plan was finished in 2026 for the flat areas of the city, and ferry commuting systems linked up Port Chalmers, Portobello, and the City. Two ebike manufacturing plants started producing for the demand from the hill suburbs. One of the companies branched out to specialise in wooden and bamboo framed bikes, as the international supply of steel and aluminium constricted.

Early investment by the regional council in ebuses meant that public transport became free by 2027, and many people spontaneously stopped using cars except where essential.

By 2032, people were still feeling the effects of the long crisis, but they could see that their communities were stable, people had enough to eat and good homes, and the changes were bring new benefits. Working from or close to home allowed more time for gardening, patting the cat, playing sport or socialising, and Dunedin’s already solid creative sector spawned a whole new wave of home/community-based craft, music and art scenes, as well as explorations into local democracies. Communities had become vibrant and diverse and were now places where people looked out for each other. They were also places where people wanted to be.

What if…? is a process created by Transition Towns pioneer Rob Hopkins as a way to envisage how things can work out. You can see more about the process as well as other scenarios in Rob Hopkins’ book, podcast and blog. Feel free to join in the process below. What if…?

17 comments on “What if… Dunedin no longer needed so much petrol? ”

  1. roy cartland 1

    Why do tourists flock to Venice, Paris, Queenstown? Walkability of the centre is surely a factor. People like walking when given a decent space to do it; no one likes crossing roads every 2 mins, breathing fumes and listening to roaring traffic. Why not a thousand Venices instead of a few massive cities?

    • weka 1.1

      Looking at the amount of debate about public holidays in the past few days I’d say time is a barrier. Or perceptions of time. NZers overwork. How many feel they need their car simply because they think it gives them more time?

    • Populuxe1 1.2

      You can have massive cities that are walkable – New York, Berlin and London for example, and Paris too for that matter. Notice that they also all have extensive underground rail. Venice is basically a stagnating museum on life support crumbling into its lagoon – probably not the best example of a viable community. In my experience tourists don't really go to Queenstown for Queenstown, they go for things like winter sports or as a hub to explore the lake district.

      • roy cartland 1.2.1

        Good points. It would be interesting to know whether the carbon cost of keeping Venice alive outweighs any savings in having no cars (but those awful vaporetti etc).

        @Weka, it's a wider debate around getting back one's time then? People value outdoor time – remember all those memes about what we do in lockdown vs normal (everyone goes out to the park during lockdown, sits on their phone in normal). I like the concept of the neighbourhood, or what I suppose the village was in those older cities.

        • weka 1.2.1.1

          yep, and working close to home but also being able to get one's groceries and essentials close to home = less carbon emissions and more time. It's both a perception thing, but also how society organises. We're not there yet.

          • Craig H 1.2.1.1.1

            Annoyingly, this was once how society was organised and it's not even that long ago – local schools, local shops and services (e.g. GP clinics), often local jobs and a lot less driving required.

            • weka 1.2.1.1.1.1

              it's good it's still within living memory of quite a few people, that makes it easier to change it again.

      • alwyn 1.2.2

        "Paris too for that matter. Notice that they also all have extensive underground rail".

        That isn't really true of Paris. It is certainly a tourist image of the city but people visiting don't go anywhere near most of the city, except for travelling to or from the airports.

        Paris is a city of about 12 million people. About 2 million live in the area within the Peripherique, which is a ring road. That area is all that tourists see. It is the 20 arrondissements that you hear about in the guidebooks. It is only a small fraction of the area of the city and it is the only part of the city served by the Metro, the (mostly) underground rail. The Metro does not cover any of the rest of the city. There are some limited trains that do but I would think most travel in that part of the city would be bus services.

        If you visit Paris you will never visit the banlieue where the majority of the population live. Neither do the people who live in the central part of the city to be honest. You might pass through to go to Versailles but that is about it.

        However it is there. It certainly isn't catered for by underground, cheap, convenient and frequent Metro services though.

  2. Heather Grimwood 2

    Sounds like Utopia! and in big scheme of things not a costly change, the greatest necessary change being a fast embracing of such creative energy.

    One factor I've long thought sensible is the use of ferries across the Otago harbour as operated in my Grandparents' time, meaning Peninsula dwellers arrived in city virtually at their places of work.

    An advantage too would be if housing on Peninsula flourished, maybe relieving some of South Dunedin's flooding predicament and certainly saving the urban sprawl over valuable fertile land of the Taieri Plain, though much of it also eventually likely to become inundated through rising sea levels.

    • weka 2.1

      The Bay road won't survive sea level rise, ferries make sense on multiple levels.

      Housing and forest regeneration for the Peninsula I think. A good mix. There's good growing land on the north side too, so food forests and market gardens for the locals.

      Not sure how much of the Taieri will be lost to sea level rise, but agree we should be protecting fertile land. Maybe marshland agriculture? Lots of South Dunedin too.

      • DB Brown 2.1.1

        Scattered thoughts:

        Tidal lagoons for multiple uses could be feasible, if all of an area is to be inundated shaping of the area before the event may be worth the effort, then let the water in instead of passively waiting for it to claim a place.

        Study of aboriginal and aztec designs for aquaculture and agriculture will pay dividends. Let some wetlands revert to wetlands, farm the edges with chinampas.

        Let tidal ingress fill large shallow areas where photosynthesis fuels aquatic food chains. Create natural fish farms, anchorage, recreation, aesthetics… and make power via turbines embedded in seawalls.

        If a place is clearly not going to be habitable given current circumstances, it might be abandoned, but it might examined for potential 'land' use changes.

        • weka 2.1.1.1

          Very very good! Hadn't thought about land management and intervention to take advantage of sea level rise before.

  3. Populuxe1 3

    Similar things have been tried many many times since the nineteenth century. The two main problems are that (1) it requires ideological continuity of government to pull off, and (2) rational planning assumes people are naturally rational and cooperative rather than sentimental and independent.

    Unless you abolish democracy to keep National and its fellow travelers out of government forever; forcibly redistribute people to balance out economic, social, and demographic disparities; and somehow restrict freedom of movement between wards, there's not much to prevent it turning into a patchwork of ghettos, capital flight, gentrification and feudal villages the moment a destabilising influence inevitably enters the mix.

    Most of the criticisms of the Garden City movement apply here as well. It doesn't address the problem of population growth as well as urban densification does. The young, single and childless will leave in droves because they don't want to live in a cross between Nappy Valley and Twilight Acres. And as we saw with Christchurch, incentivising people to stay within their suburbs just causes a rapid decline in the inner city that is very difficult to reverse.

    • weka 3.1

      Chch was a mess post-quake when it could have been the exemplar of what I explored in the post. It has little general relevancy in this conversation as an example, apart from the creative initiatives that people did despite National et al.

      One of the points of the post was to show what can be done without central government leading. It requires continuity of local government perhaps.

      It's very easy to see what is wrong and what won't work. That won't help use find the solutions if that's all we do. The left is very good at that. We also need to get good at imagining how things might work out. When we can see a good future ourselves, we can more easily convince other people.

  4. Grafton Gully 4

    I was studying in Dunedin in the 1960s and me and my friends did not have cars, we got about on foot and I don't remember using a bus either, but probably did. We walked to lectures and to pubs and to Joe Tui's for fish and chips all hours and to parties Saturday night or along George Street Friday night. No student loan and a choice of jobs in the summer holidays certainly made me feel hopeful and trusting. I remember thinking I should write down the rhymes of children playing on the street after school in Grange Street, but somehow it would have spoilt it. There can't have been many car owners in Grange street at that time. Our flat had no garage that's for sure and a wetback stove to cook with and heat the water, coal fired. And currant bushes, gooseberries and strawberries in the little backyard. Funny how when you get older the earlier memories are the most vivid.

  5. Scud 5

    Well at least all those double rail track would be relaid after they were ripped up in the early 80's when the last communter train ran in 81 or 82.

    Could see inter-regional & communter trains running in Dunedin again, just need to relaid the rails & new Station infrastructure rebuilt?

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