While the focus of most of us interested in controlling sprawl is centered with wide-eyed horror on Auckland and it’s never-ending appetite for land and motorways, it’s not the only place that is suffering from sprawl.

Hastings, the sunshine town of the Bay, the shining apple in the fruit bowl of New Zealand, the radiant centre of the wine region of Aotearoa’s finest concoctions of fermented grape juice, has long been accoladed with such shining epitaphs. It used to hold an annual Blossom Festival in the 50s and 60s, which some are trying to bring back. It used to be the wealthier sister city to Napier, as it was the centre of all things farming, and the Hawkes Bay sheep farmer was God, buying a new Ford Falcon with all the trimmings every year, and a new John Deere every second year with the cheque from the Wool Board. It used to be the centre of a thriving industry around sharing those sheep, with the centre of town being the giant Omahu Rd stockyards, sheep sales every Tuesday, in which to purchase your furry, wooly, bundle of grass-eating joy. The flip side of that was that it used to also be the centre of the sheep-slaughtering freezing works, with the vast Tomoana works accounting for a chillingly high percentage of all sheep bound for England in frozen form. It used to be home to a large Maori population of high-earning working class, and it used to be better than Napier.

All that has changed. While Napier has discovered and milked its Art Deco heritage, and Hastings (with the same amount, having been destroyed in the same 1931 earthquake) having largely ignored theirs, Hastings has gone downhill. Napier has become the shopping town, and the big spending farmers of Hastings has been replaced by the cruise liner spenders anchoring at the Port city. The stockyards at Hastings have rotted away, and big shed retailing has taken off in Hastings, with the poor deluded townsfolk even selling off their local sports ground central city park, to make way for a new big box barn lot of Warehouse, Mitre Ten, and acres of car park. The freezing works of Tomoana have long since closed down, sitting empty except for David Trubridge’s light works taking up one tiny corner. The high-earning maori and pakeha have been replaced by low-income welfare beneficiaries, and the money has fled east to Havelock, nor-east to Napier, or nor-west to Auckland. It is a large town, but a pretty sad one. Two large patched gangs are strongly resident in the town: shops are largely empty, closed down, or on the edge of final financial oblivion. On the plus side, Hastings does still have New Zealand’s finest weekly Farmers Market, with the pick of the produce of the bay on sale. The raison d’être of Hastings is still the Fruit bowl of New Zealand.

It’s therefore even sadder to see the latest proposal to hit the town is to potentially expand their untidy sprawl and grow some more suburban dross. The land is for sale at the moment, advertised with the potential to destroy more productive apple-growing orchard land and replace it with more middle income, middle of the road, suburban dross.

Without the apple orchards, and the abundant rich soil of the Bay’s three great rivers that have flowed though the region for millennia, flooding the Heretaunga Plains with loamy goodness and providing Hawkes Bays most fertile paddock land on which to build those orchards, Hastings would never have happened. Napier has always been built around the Port, since the earliest days of its Pakeha existence, and the same with the Maori settlements before. But Hastings is a relatively recent existence, centering around a simple crossing between the road from Havelock and the route of the train tracks. Like any random train track crossing, it grew into a crossroads town, and grew again from there, centering around that rich soil and the riches that grew from it.

But for it to sprawl and sprawl, unfettered, even when it is declining in purpose, eating it’s own very reason for existence, is a sad end indeed.

There are parallels. Los Angeles used to be the orange growing district of California, famous for the smell of the orange blossom hitting you in the face as you drove over the hills on your immigration west. Steinbeck wrote of it in The Grapes of Wrath, vividly capturing the reason and the journey of the great trip west. Now, of course, it’s just the smell of petrol that assaults your nose as you near the city of Angels. Is that progress? Yes, of course it is, and in 100 years LA has gone from being an orange growing orchard centre to being a city of many million, the largest human conglomeration on the planet, that rich LA soil paved over under the asphalt, even the rivers safely concreted underground in parts.

But is Hastings going to be a centre of growth? Or is the Hastings suburban sprawl just like a growing cancer, malignantly taking over perfectly healthy ground in a search for suburban dross? If Laurence Yule is listening (Mayor of Hastings), I’d say No to any more orchard land being replaced by suburbs. Hastings needs to grow up, not grow out.

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