Wellington is alive

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 10 May 2013

Standing atop Mount Victoria last Sunday, looking over Wellington basked in glorious sunshine, I was quietly confirming to myself that I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Not in Germany where I grew up. Not even in London or Sydney where I worked for several years.

Having lived in the capital for a year, I enjoy it a little bit more each day. Its compact size makes commuting and travelling between meetings easy (though it’s surprising how much traffic such a small city can generate). Restaurants and cafes are world class. House prices are certainly too high – but nowhere near as crazy as in London, Sydney or even Auckland. And though it’s hard to quantify my subjective impression, Wellington’s quality of life is fantastic.

Tuesday then came as a shock to me. Not because the weather had turned ugly, wet, and windy (as it admittedly does in Wellington every now and then). Nor because of that minor earthquake south of Lake Wairarapa, which gave us a good jolt in our 12th floor offices. But because of the Prime Minister’s comments that Wellington was a ‘dying city.’

As always, context is important, and John Key’s speech was delivered on Auckland’s North Shore. If his goal was to please the local business leaders’ audience, a capital gibe probably helped.

In every other sense, though, the Prime Minister’s remarks were unhelpful.

Many commentators have already pointed out that Key was incorrect when he claimed the capital only offered “government, Victoria University, and Weta Workshop.” At the very least there are also Z Energy, Chorus, BP, Todd Corporation, Infratil, TradeMe, Xero, and NZX – all these companies are headquartered in Wellington.

Insofar as the Prime Minister has a point, it is true that there is still some work to do. The most important task is to market the city to the world. It is often said that nobody voluntarily moves to Wellington, but after a few weeks here hardly anyone wants to leave it.

It certainly was like this for me. Wellington had never really appeared on my radar before. I would have been more likely to holiday in Tibet again than to come here had it not been for a job.

What’s missing is a strategy to attract attention and investment to Wellington – and also to make it easier to come here. It is a joke that Wellington’s international airport offers flights to just three Australian destinations.

On the other hand, declaring it a ‘dying city’ is not the publicity Wellington deserves – let alone the help it needs.