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NZILA Opening Address

International Federation of Landscape Architects - NZILA Opening Address

embargoed until midday 10/4/13

NZILA Opening Address

World Congress Welcome Speech from Stephen Brown, NZILA President:

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my very great pleasure to welcome the international community of landscape architects to the City of Sails – Tamaki-makau-rau – for both this World Congress and the 50th Anniversary of the International Federation of Landscape Architects.

Early Maori navigators called New Zealand Aotaeroa – the land of the long white cloud – attributing it a sense of place and identity derived from the elemental forces acting on its elongated sequence of islands. In fact, New Zealand is still strongly influenced by both sub-tropical and sub-antarctic climatic regimes, while much of its terrain has been shaped by geological processes that date back more than 500 million years. Even so, many of its most spectacular landforms are the much more recent, indeed violent, progeny of the Pacific Ring of Fire and the constant state of hostilities between the Pacific and Australian plates. The 40 odd volcanic cones that still dot the Auckland Isthmus bear testimony to this heritage, while the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch are an eloquent reminder of the tectonic forces still shaping this country. Australians frequently remind us of this by referring to this country as the ‘shaky isles’ – in a not unkind way.

Many visitors to New Zealand also comment on our unique plant life: this is hardly surprising, given that Aotearoa’s flora and fauna remained effectively isolated from the rest of the World upon the disintegration of Gondwana – through to the arrival of early Polynesian explorers some 8-900 years ago. As a result, much of the endemic vegetation found throughout New Zealand has stronger connections with that of New Caledonia, Lord Howe Island, even Peru and Chile, than with Australia or Asia: the kahikatea forests of South-westland and even the Waikato first emerged amid primeval swamps some 20 million years, and as a species are little changed from that time.

Yet, change across New Zealand’s varied spectrum of natural landscapes accelerated very markedly with the advent of Maori occupation some 8-900 years ago, and increased exponentially after European colonisation, some 170 years ago. Quite appropriately, therefore, this week’s conference is fundamentally about landscapes in a time of accelerated, and exceedingly rapid, change: economic, social, and – perhaps most worrying of all – environmental and ecological. The World has held its breath at the successive economic and banking crises in New York, Portugal, Greece and Cypress, but remains surprisingly muted about climate change, the current sequence of World wide droughts and heat waves, air pollution, forest contraction, arable soil loss and species extinctions.

Even in this far-flung corner of the planet, there remains a strangely ambivalent attitude to the natural systems that actually underpin both our society and economy: New Zealand flogs its 100% Pure, clean green image – through very much the same sort of imagery as you can see behind me now – without any apparent appreciation of the interrelationship between ‘scenery’ and environmental management, let alone a more comprehensive understanding of natural resources and the physical environment as the true economy that ultimately dictates the well-being of us all.

Unfortunately, our current government’s recent actions and policies display a remarkable lack of foresight in this area. Erosion of the funding base for the Department of Conservation – which manages that third of New Zealand’s land area most critical in terms of biotic resources – combined with the effective loss of that Department’s conservation advocacy role, and increased ministerial intervention in local planning are obvious manifestations of this change. Rather more insidious has been manipulation of recent appointments to the Environment Court and Boards of Inquiry, while current proposals for the Resource Management Act – once touted as an effects based planning model for the World – appear designed to emasculate key sections that are fundamental to the conservation and protection of this country’s natural resources and landscapes.

In the course of a famous Oxford University debate on nuclear proliferation in 1985, the late David Lange – then prime minister of this country quipped – that he could ‘smell the scent of uranium on his opponent’s breath’. Nowadays, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy in the air every time Tourism NZ comes up with yet another strategy talking about this country’s ‘pristine state’. Much as we live in the 21st century, there is an emerging sense that we are trapped in a time-machine taking us back to the policies and environmental management regimes of the 1950s and ‘60s. All the while, this year’s worst-ever recorded drought and all too evident changes to the ice pack and glaciers of the Southern Alps cast a much darker cloud over Aotearoa.

The sort of matters that I have described are far from unique to New Zealand, apart possibly from the scale of self-delusion exhibited by some politicians. And even though they go well beyond the traditional areas of work long associated with landscape architecture, they remain critical in respect of the landscape in a much broader sense – affecting our natural heritage, our cultural heritage, life styles, identity and shared values. In New Zealand, Maori – the tangata whenua or people of the land – have been recognised as having a particular affinity with the land, landscape, and landscape features. Yet, I suspect that the concept of kinship or connection with the land remains critical to us all – regardless of race or creed – if only because landscapes define where we have come from and our place in the wider world. Far more than being just about aesthetics or ‘genius loci’, such connections reflect our perceived birthright, heritage and a place of belonging, comfort, even well-being.

Yet, for the first time in human history more than half of the Earth’s 7 billion human inhabitants live in its cities and urban environments: far more than just centres for occupation, employment, education and transportation, future conurbations and metropolitan areas may well have to become the focus for self-sustaining food and energy production. This transition will almost certainly give rise to new forms of urban development that challenge long-standing design principles and norms. I believe that landscape architects will play an increasingly important role in the development of urban models that, in addition to being effective and efficient, provide real sustainability, resilience and enduring appeal. Outside the urban arena, landscape architects will have an equally important a role to play in managing the interaction between rural domains that are increasingly hall-marked by mechanised systems of production and those marginal areas that become the last repositories of natural habitats and biota.

In addressing many of the issues that I have alluded to, it seems to me that landscape architects will bring three highly important ingredients to the table: a discipline that melds the arts and sciences – integrating, not divorcing them from one another; appreciation of cultural values and diversity; and the ability – indeed proclivity – to work in an integrative or facilitative capacity with one another and with other disciplines. The papers being presented at this conference clearly evoke such skills and reflect the journeys associated with their development and application, by individuals and teams of professionals alike. In many respects, they offer models for future professional practice, integration and cooperation that we simply cannot afford to ignore.

In concluding, I also want to briefly comment on this year’s 50th Anniversary celebrations: much of my speech has had an historical context and I am very mindful that 50 years ago landscape architecture did not exist in New Zealand. For that matter, nor did the personal computers, the world wide web or mobile phones – yet they are now central to our everyday lives and work. The profession of landscape architecture has come along way in a relatively short period of time, perhaps nowhere more so than in New Zealand. Despite the many issues confronting us today, I remain optimistic that we are – as a famous war-time statesman once said – not at the ‘beginning of the end’ but rather at the ‘end of the beginning’. We have a long and exciting way to go.

Go well; I hope you enjoy the experiences and stories that will unfold over the next three days.


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