New Plymouth is the major city of the Taranaki Region, located on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Its population accounts for nearly two-thirds of the total of the Taranaki Region, and according to Mayor Harry Duynhoven, people simply love to live there. “We do have an enviable lifestyle, being a coastal city with a mountain at our back,” he says. “We love it here, and most people who come here to live absolutely love it too.”
New Plymouth is a service centre for the region’s principal economic activities including dairy farming as well as oil, natural gas and petrochemical exploration and production. As such, it attracts a lot of residents who come to work. Many of those residents will stay for the duration of their job and then leave, only to come back later. That returning worker demographic is actually quite substantial, according to Mayor Duynhoven. “They’ve come for a job, but by the time they’ve been here a year or two they fall in love with the place. So they go back to where they come from, realise they miss the lifestyle and come back.”
The city’s status as a skill centre makes for a very diverse community, as a lot of residents come to the area from different parts of the world. They are also an outdoorsy people, and the New Plymouth District Council has done their best to foster an affinity for walking and cycling – for health reasons, but also environmental ones. Through a programme branded ‘Let’s Go’, people are encouraged to make the switch from motor vehicles to cycling, walking and bussing whenever possible.
Tourism is an industry of growing importance for New Plymouth, of both the domestic and international variety. Internationally, the city took a major step forward when a major cruise liner visited over the Christmas holidays, and a few months earlier hosted three enormously popular Rugby World Cup 2011 matches. Domestically, New Plymouth has a history of success with major festivals. Every March, for instance, they host WOMAD – World of Music, Arts and Dance – which usually attracts more than 30,000 people. WOMAD, which was co-founded by Peter Gabriel, brings together artists from all over the globe and is a weekend of music that aims to excite, inform and raise awareness of the worth and potential of a multicultural society.
Additionally, New Plymouth conducts an annual Festival of Lights in the central-city Pukekura Park, which is lit up in the summer evenings with spectacular lights and digital artwork aimed to captivate the young and old.
Mayor Duynhoven says people may visit for the festivals, but they will stay for the lifestyle. “That’s what brings people here and keeps them here,” he says. “We’re a place where on the right day you can snow ski in the morning and water ski or surf in the afternoon.” Their climate is mild, with 8 to 13 degree days in winter, all the way up to 30 on a real hot day in summer. Mt Taranaki is behind them, and has a ski field, and they also have year-round surfing, sailing and swimming on the Tasman Sea. Even more, they have fantastic parks and gardens – “Those are second to none,” Harry says.
New Plymouth’s oil industry makes sustainable development a relevant concern. Fortunately, both the city and its industries have been responsible in caring for the environment. “We are pleased the oil industry has been very careful in terms of the environment, and also involved in a number of environmental projects in the area,” Mayor Duynhoven says. Additionally, the city is focused on long-term sustainability – thus the walking and cycling initiatives.
Because of the city’s relative isolation, New Plymouth has always maintained an active independent streak. “That’s a quirk of the local psyche which has often embraced by those who come here, because they identify with that particular facet of our personality,” explains Mayor Duynhoven. “The can-do attitude is very strong.” In the oil and gas industry, for instance, they are constantly innovating and adapting to the evolving world.
“We’ve seen a real change of thinking in lifestyle,” he continues. “One of the major design companies in the oil and gas industry, for example, has a large portion of their staff commute by cycle. One of the big energy industries locally sponsors the Round the Mountain Cycle Race, which is a 150-kilometre cycle race around Mt. Taranaki, and this year more than 1100 people competed in it. It’s a big event.”
The city’s accomplishments in sustainability have not gone unrecognised. In 2008, they won a trio of LivCom (Liveable Communities) awards, which are endorsed by the United Nations. Most significantly, they were named the best city in the world in their population bracket (20,000 to 75,000). They also won an Environmentally Sustainable Projects Award – also Gold – for the Coastal Walkway, their shared pedestrian and cycle path that runs the whole length of the city. Finally, they won a Community Sustainability criteria award for the way they involved the community in the decision making process.
Moving forward, New Plymouth’s priority is in infrastructure, and continuing to implement strategies to maintain their appeal to residents. “We certainly are aware that we need to keep up with infrastructure and have been doing that,” Mayor Duynhoven says. “Our whole environment is trying to keep that lifestyle going and trying to keep it an attractive place for people to visit and then stay. That’s been one of the big challenges that councils over the years have grappled with, and it’s why we put some of our resources into developing major events.”
The common challenge standing in the way of those plans is the GFC. While a slew of projects set up by the previous governments and continued by the current one helped stave off that crisis, they did not immunize the city from its effects altogether. “We’ve been protected a little bit. But being late in doesn’t mean you’re immune from the effects, it just delays them,” Mayor Duynhoven says. “So we certainly have experienced that, and it has put some challenges to the council.”
If Mayor Duynhoven had a pet cause, he says it would be getting people to embrace a greater sharing and recycling culture. He recalls an old tradition in New Zealand – Inorganic Rubbish Days. On those days, people would put things like their old bed or lawnmower in front of their house, and if someone else felt they could use it, they would take it, and the following day trucks would collect all that remained. “I think that’s an idea that might make a resurgence,” he says.
Beyond that, he would also like to see more people commuting by electric scooters, electric bicycles or even just regular bicycles. His own council has a number of electric bikes for staff use during the day.
“I think there are lots of possibilities in terms of the way we charge for parking spaces, maybe electric charging spots for people’s workplaces – a whole lot of things like that we could do over time, as the technologies become more cost effective,” he says, thinking ahead.“One of the things we’re doing right now in that regard is trial retrofitting a couple of streets in the city with new LED lighting.” With that initiative, they are looking to assess what the savings might be in a real world situation, with a view of retrofitting the entire district in the future.
“The great thing about New Plymouth is that we are an outdoors people,” he concludes. “We enjoy our lifestyle. We have lots of sports here – you name it, we’ve probably got it. We have a huge recreational industry, so we have a wonderful lifestyle, and as a result I think we’re a pretty outgoing sort of people that have, over the years, spread all over the world.”