Published in the Dominion Post 4 April 2019

Press reports around eight years ago announced that a swathe of Defence and Corrections land on Watts Peninsula were surplus to Government requirements.  Speculation focussed on it being handed to the Wellington City Council to own or to manage, probably as a reserve. At one point there was a memorandum of understanding signed. Good news.

Then there was a silence until December 2016 when it was announced the Government was assigning the land to LINZ to dispose. Not so good. Recent news suggests that some of it be sold for housing.

The land is a truly prominent feature of Wellington and its possible uses and impacts are huge. It is far too important to be disposed of piecemeal.

The first requirement is surely to keep it intact under one owner with Wellington’s best interests at heart, at least until there is a wide consensus on its utilisation. The original plan of assigning it to the WCC is optimal. Foremost, overall and long-term ownership and governance needs to be clear.

Then a comprehensive plan for its development follows. Parts may be kept as natural reserve, where ecological values warrant this. Parts with heritage value need to be preserved as such. Parts may indeed be available for housing, and other parts for recreation.

The plan should incorporate related activities, such as the Miramar predator-free project and, if there is a common boundary and with notions of a gondola, the development of Shelly Bay. Trade-offs may be needed but when implementation commences, we would know it is right for Wellington.

As for the scope of usages, let’s extend this. Somewhere on this vast space there is room for a sculpture park. The merits are numerous. Foremost, a sculpture park is not exclusive, but suits a multipurpose parkland. Widely spaced sculptures permit plantings, walking and cycling tracks, picnics, frisbee throwing and all sorts of shared space activities, and add intriguing backdrops for these.  

Further, such parks are strong tourist attractions. The Economist journal writes that sculpture parks are the “hot new British summer destination…combining culture with fresh air.” But all over the developed world, sculpture parks are recording rapidly expanding visitor numbers. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which promotes itself as Art Without Walls, attracts over 500,000 visitors a year. Plenty of Wellingtonians visit Auckland to see the stunning sculpture parks there. Part of a Wellington park could be kept for an annual temporary sculpture event, to rival Auckland’s Sculpture on the Gulf.

Additionally, sculpture parks in cities are symbolic of their ambition for cultural leadership - think Chicago’s Millennium Park, with its silver bean sculpture (Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate) and other pieces. Wellington is already strong in outdoor sculpture, and it is a strength worth building on, to expand Wellington’s cultural capital aspirations.

There are many models to choose from. Commissioning top sculptors would provide a high profile but also incur a high cost. A successful sculpture park near Auckland has the artists provide the sculptures and each is for sale.

Whichever approach is adopted, funding should not be a road block. Earlier WCC plans allocated to Watts Peninsula $2.5 million from a Bequest, and a sculpture park would fit with that. The Wellington Sculpture Trust, with its record of commissioning and fund-raising, would surely engage. 

Related is land art, where an unused piece of land, often a discontinued quarry, is landscaped to produce a large-scale art work. Many of these are stunningly attractive, incorporating terracing, moulded land shapes, water and other features. Watts Peninsula permits Wellington to take a creative lead with a major work of land art.

Can the powers that be please give Watts Peninsula and public art there an enhanced priority. Could Wellington’s MPs do more to help the Council get a sensible resolution from central government.

Neil Plimmer MNZM has an Absolutely Positive Wellingtonian award and is former Chair of the Wellington Sculpture Trust.