whakapapa and place identity

placemaking forum

I went to the 2nd annual Placemaking Forum in Takapuna on Wednesday. The gathering included planners, transport planners, architects, local business association representatives and more, leading to a grand firework display of ideas in the open discussion after each talk.
The afternoon covered topics related to development of New Zealand’s town centres and local communities. A lot of the presentations came back to the idea of place identity.

One of the main presentations was on the town centre of Taupo. Here a town centre group, TCT, sprang up in response to a proposed bypass. The council and local business group realised that Taupo’s easy customers stopping halfway down the island were no longer a sure thing, and it was time to put some thought into what Taupo wanted for itself. As a result Taupo as a town is considering its identity, updating regulations for its built form and working on encouraging a thriving business (and play) district.

As part of the presentation we all learnt to pronounce Taupo correctly as “Toe-Paw” (it works with our typically flat Kiwi vowel sounds), from a promotional video developed as part of this identity search. At the end of the presentation however the presenters admitted that Taupo is still a bit unsure about its identity.

Place identity is important to local economies as it is like a brand, a form of economic distinction. Urban centres rely on investment, from locals and visitors. A strong sense of place makes a community a destination in its own right, a people magnet. It encourages close development that reinforces the value of the town centre (and provides a focus for a supportive and a coherent community).

Taupo might be pronounced Toe-Paw, but what does it mean?

It seems to me that place identity is a common issue for NZ urban centres. Is it because as a young country our roots are too shallow to provide a secure urban context? I overheard this being said at the Placemaking Forum – “We only have a 150 year history ” – so we haven’t many stories to tell about ourselves. This is a persistent colonial misconception, it is not the whole truth of our identity as New Zealanders.

To illustrate here is another concept of identity: Whakapapa is the Maori term for genealogy or lineage, it is also about layers of identity, including ancestors that are remembered through myth and tradition. Whakapapa can include lineage of character, or special qualities as evidenced in stories, character that can be seen in all kinds of life force, human or otherwise. I feel this concept gives us as New Zealanders a powerful source of shared identity as a nation and right down to our smallest communities.

In New Zealand (or Aotearoa) we have a wealth of social and natural history just waiting to be bought to life as well known stories about our places:

• 150 years of colonial settler history, linking us to Europe and Briton.
• About 1000 years of Maori history, with distinct iwi (tribes) going right back to the great waka that sailed from Hawiiki.
• Ancestral stories of the migration of the pacific, linking us to Polynesia and even further back in time to Asia (and possibly South America)
• Unique natural history of forest and birds since the separation of New Zealand from Gondwanaland, before the age of mammals.
• Aeons of vigorous geological history, jostling on the edge of two continental plates.

This land has stories to tell. New Zealand is not as young as we think. More recently we have become a genuine multi-cultural home in the pacific, adding many more viewpoints and origins. It is the place that is continuous through all the changes, all the people, all the layers.

A single layer of colonial stories of kiwi culture have been dominant in shaping our urban landscape. “We are a farming nation” has been our catch phrase, implying we only come to the city to get supplies or for a special treat. Urban areas have been subservient to the farm, and this mindset lingers in the way we have yet to take full ownership of our towns and cities. Census results in 2002 showed we are one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Now 86% of us live in urban areas. (from 2006 census figures).

Yet our urban areas are only just starting to come into their own. We live in centres built on a land of untold stories. Good public space makes use of these stories, of real people and real actions right on this spot. Stories link us to the ground underneath, to the soil that holds our weight as it held up others before us. Sense of place requires this grounding, this recognition of people, animals, plants and stone that have come before. These are our riches, our good fortune, our reason to be here.

We are prone to forget our place here in New Zealand, and feel a bit lost in our imagined ‘newness’. Some of our urban areas have the aesthetic and emotional quality of a modern milk shed (multiplied fifty times), dairy farming is a big part of our culture, but only one part of many. Whakapapa can provide a model for diversity as well as continuity in our sense of our selves as communities, and inspire local development that strengthens sense of place, and celebrates our multifaceted culture.

For more on the Whakapapa/ history points listed see:
Te Ara history page 1 and page 2
Maori arrival

Notes on placemaking:
Placemaking New Zealand are a not for profit group and free to join. They aim to bring together people from all professions interested in public spaces and community development. They are just about to launch a new website for sharing tools and information to help connect placemakers in New Zealand: www.placemaking.org.nz This should be fully operational in a week.

If you are wondering what placemaking is, placemaking is a term for “the process of creating squares, plazas, parks, streets and waterfronts that will attract people because they are pleasurable or interesting.“ (From Wikipedia, 15/10/10).
If you are like me and you tire of design marketing-speak quickly I can recommend Wikipedia for simple concise definitions and summaries of urban design terms, even the ones you think you know well.

notes on Whakapapa:
For example consider how The Ocean acts as a unifier for New Zealanders, something we have all crossed at some point to get here, stories of ancestral seafarers and more recent arrivals is part of our pacific island inheritance, such stories we tell to the children born here are collectively our shared tradition. Our rivers, lakes and coastlines touch each settlement, and give character to our towns.

multiple histories

multiple histories

My individual Whakapapa can show me where I have touched the land and the land has touched me since the beginning of time, through all my ancestors, and it can link me to all others who have been touched by the same place.
With thanks to Te Rangimarie for her feedback.

Discussion (5) ¬

  1. Lily, you are so right. Excellent essay post, the best yet. Everything you wrote about ties in with subjects much on my mind lately. A combination of working in a place where civil engineering and town planning is the purpose, travelling to town every day and inhabiting parts of the city I usually avoid, and a revival of historical and prehistorical curiosity; all these feed into my thoughts about land, identity and time.

    What stood where the Town Hall now stands? A pa, a human settlement of some sort, yet that little hill remained bare for a space of time before the grand Town Hill was put there, a piece of prime real estate. Empty for what reason?
    What was where Aotea Square is now? I could not find an answer to this question until I met someone who told me that the little river that ran where Queen Street runs now had its origins in Myers Park, around where the statue of Moses is now (Moses who brought forth water; the city is full of these little echoes across history), and ran down through the place where Aotea Square now lies. So, it was the banks of a little creek.
    And before that? Moa came and drank from the creek.
    And before that? Lake Pupuke was a mountain, and Rangitoto still slept beneath the sea.

    “We only have a 150 year history.”
    The arrogance and ignorance of that statement is mind-blowing. Are people so stupid? I guess they are. That word ‘history’ to me is a very big word.
    It’s almost as if the city is so big in people’s minds, such a presence, so far removed from the ‘natural’ state of the land (its steel and glass towers the most elaborate and cunning works of the human mind and hand, in defiance of gravity and the hand-made) that they are overwhelmed by its mere presence and existence and the feeling of permanence inherent in such grandiosity.
    But even a casual glance shows many layers of taste and time overlaid like successive patches on an old quilt. Victorian buildings that remain. Why then are people not moved to think about the past present here before them?

    Maybe a clue can be found in the names our Pakeha forebears have chosen. ‘Auckland’. Who knows who he even is, this man Lord Auckland who has been granted symbolic ownership of our city? Tamaki Makau Rau, isthmus of a thousand lovers. How much more beautiful and right, that older name. It is still desirable, its maunga rising like islands above an ocean of human inhabitation.
    Or in a more local example, the common name of my turangawaewae, Bethell’s Beach. A literal claim of ownership. I use the apostrophe denoting ownership advisedly. The Maori name which is applied to the area but also refers specifically to the beach, is Te Henga, which likens the curve of the foredunes of the beach to “the ‘henga’ or the curve that extended from the keel to the gunwale of a canoe.” (Graham Murdoch). A name for a shape of the land, that reminded someone of something else.
    Or even when the older names remain, who can learn to say them properly? Who can remember what they mean?
    Names overlaid on names, buildings over buildings.
    We can choose to name things rightly. We can choose to look deeply into the history there before us.

    Take back the city, my sisters and brothers!

  2. Wow what a response! and thank you Rose for your examples of local stories.
    I would not like to say that one set of names is more ‘right’ than another however. One story does not obliterate another, each story is a layer, as suggested by the literal meaning for whakapapa, a layer of history or meaning that relates to the land, and the people on that land.

    Names can be chosen for a given situation to emphasise a point of view or certain layers of knowledge:
    - We can and often do list all names together when we are talking to all New Zealanders. (This echoes a formal mihimihi to introduce ourselves and our ancestors.) Naming can be an inclusive activity.
    - We can each use the names we feel most attached to to claim our own sense of home, or to express how we feel about a place.
    I think the important thing is to make sure no living culture is left out. We won’t get far pretending we have no legs holding us up.

  3. Hi Lily,
    I enjoyed reading your post – I love your comment about urban centres being like cowsheds – and I am a big fan of Hundertwasser.
    You are so right about the amazing whakapa of this land and all the peoples who have come here, and how that whakapapa reaches back to our individual and collective roots – physical/spiritual/human/forest/geological/etc … There is such a richness of story here!! We even have dinosaurs – living and fossil :)
    A question I ask myself, and I think you are asking a similar question, is: How can we recreate, or cocreate our urban society in a way that celebrates our whakapapa, inclusive of all cultures, and of the natural world? It’s a big question. But exciting…

  4. Thanks Richard, a well put summary : )

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