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RED CARPET NOT RED TAPE: Holding on to heritage buildings can give smaller towns and cities a unique pull-factor, says urban designer Dr Glen Hazelton (right) who was in town on Wednesday for a public talk at The White House. He was given a tour around Gisborne's heritage buildings and main streets by Heritage New Zealand's lower northern area manager Ben Pick (left). Picture by Liam Clayton

Tips on making vibrant cities

26 August 2016, Michael Neilson, The Gisborne Herald

EMBRACE what makes your city unique. 

That's the message from Dr Glen Hazelton, an urban designer at Dunedin City Council, who was in Gisborne this week.

He wants to see New Zealand towns and cities embrace their heritage buildings; roll out the “red carpet”, not “red tape”.

“It is focusing on what smaller towns are, rather than what they are not.

“In Gisborne you have great heritage buildings, it is warm and close to the sea, and warm enough to swim in the sea.”

He sees enormous potential in Gisborne.

“You have a wonderful, long main street, lots of little alleyways leading off it with amazing potential and really nice, traditional shop fronts.

“That is the kind of stuff you want to work on and highlight, rather than trying to compete in making it more like the big cities and big businesses.

“You can’t compete, they will always undercut, so you have to offer something authentic and interesting for people.”

He likes the Edwardian style of Gisborne’s buildings, “and the cool deco stuff as well”.

The key, he says, is to hold on to what makes Gisborne different and unique.

“I fear the push towards heritage building demolition in smaller towns, where they cannot afford to upgrade, as they are losing that point of difference.

“They are all becoming a bit ‘samey’. It is those local shops and little industries; the differences from big cities that make them really interesting.”

It is also about tourism and attracting visitors.

“When you go to small European towns it is about the architecture, how the place looks, the friendliness of the people — not that every shop is the same and the traffic is good. It is the little things, different things, that stick in your mind.”

Having spent the past five years at Dunedin City Council working on its successful Warehouse Precinct Revitalisation Project around Vogel Street, he has many tips to pass on to the rest of the country.

“There are similar challenges around many smaller New Zealand towns and cities.

“As soon as you get off the main streets there is not much happening — the struggle to occupy shop spaces, costs of strengthening, fire upgrades, accessibility and the question of whether you are going to find tenants who will be willing to pay for it all.

“But when you demolish, it is expensive to rebuild and you often end up losing the heritage buildings, and ending up with vacant lots in the streetscape.”

Any change has to be community and business-led, but with strong backing from councils to enable them to take risks.

“In Dunedin it was about building confidence and vision that that was a go-ahead area.

“Ten years ago if you said you were going into Vogel Street people would have laughed, ‘Those buildings are all crap, horrible part of town,’ now we can’t find enough space.”

Dr Hazelton shared the story of Dunedin’s revitalisation in a public talk at The White House on Wednesday, organised by Heritage New Zealand, Heart of Gisborne, Historic Places Tairawhiti and Activate Tairawhiti.

Heart of Gisborne events and marketing manager Lana Davy said it was a “wonderful evening”.

Around 30 people attended, including council staff, councillors, council candidates, building owners and general members of the public.

Gisborne architect and president of Historic Places Aotearoa James Blackburne said the talk included many lessons for Gisborne.

“It was really interesting how councillors in Dunedin invested funds in getting runs on the board. It reminds me how here pre-2000 there was a fund for CBD owners to get help painting buildings. It was not a lot, but it helped and really transformed Gisborne.”

He says a similar thing could happen with heritage building areas.

“It would be good if the council could do some research on Dunedin and how they could do it here.”

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