Today’s post is a special one, contributed by regular reader Starkive

A gorgeous colourful find in a dusty old book shop…

By 1972 New Zealanders were questioning the environmental impact of humans and their engineering. A plan to further raise Lake Manapouri – already flooded for Comalco power – triggered a national reaction. The proposed extra dams were damned by hundreds of thousands of petitioners. An advertising jingle for fibreglass batts went to Number 1 on the charts. The greening had begun.

It might have been coincidence, but the NZ Institution of Engineers launched a new Environmental Award the same year. The inaugural, and possibly only, Award (Google reveals no others) went to the Ministry of Works for a project which was judged “an outstanding example of a design in which care and attention had been given to environmental factors” and which would “give a feeling of belonging to Wellingtonians”. We are speaking of course about the Wellington Urban Motorway.

NZIE Environmental Award 1972

This honour might have been long forgotten, even by Google, if the MoW had not commissioned a handsome booklet to skite about it. At least one example of the publication has survived these 50 years to turn up in a second-hand bookshop with a fascinating snapshot of 1970s aesthetic, social and environmental values — and traffic volumes. 

Traffic volumes were… intense. Landscaping was…. lush

The illustrations combine dramatic construction shots and colour vistas of the motorway in action, accompanied shot with sometimes lumpy lyricism. “While the driver is encouraged to keep his eyes on the road, and his mind on his driving, his passengers see the city of Wellington nestling in the basin of hills on the far side of the harbour – one of the finest views in the world.” Or, “the overbridge is designed to dominate by its massive yet gracefully flowing lines”.

Gracefully flowing lines and heroic noble columns

The most telling detail, though, can be found in the aerial photographic map.

So many underpasses! Note the Te Aro section is: “Final Design Not Complete”

Here it’s plain that the MoW had plans to extend its medal-worthy environmental care and protection from Hill St across Te Aro to Mt Victoria. The work to date had been all about sensitive consultation with the inhabitants of Thorndon and the Bolton St cemetery. As the booklet says, “the Department has endeavoured to display tact and sympathy in dealing with members of the public and private owners.” It had also tiptoed over the rail yards and done a lot of tree planting. 

The final phases, as laid out in the text, were to be about preserving the cityscape. An estimated 28 million 1972 dollars would have to be spent, it says, to get from Hill St to the Basin Reserve–providing four lanes of tarmac, a piazza, a total of 14 overbridges, twin Terrace tunnels and a further tunnel from Taranaki St to the Basin. The map seems to show that the result would be a cross-town cut taking Highway 1 under Vivian, Willis, Abel Smith, Cuba and Taranaki Streets, leaving them free to go about their inner-city business. Seemingly, it was self-evident to the engineers at the Ministry that separation was essential, even in the days when the motorway was being used by only a single Kingswood station wagon.

The plans, though, carry a built-in caveat, a neatly trimmed slip of paper hovering over Kent and Cambridge Terrace bearing the words “FINAL DESIGN NOT COMPLETE”. Wellington’s epitaph?

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