Searching for community wellbeing in Oamaru

A rejuvenated waterfront in Oamaru contributes to the area’s prosperity and wellbeing. Photo: Mike Mackay, AgResearch.

Regions around New Zealand are striving to create positive futures. To do so, the issues that need to be considered are wide and varying and include the future of work in rural areas and provincial towns, the supply of workers, demographic changes, and the supply of suitable housing and social services.

Researchers from Building Better’s Thriving Regions programme are working directly with community stakeholders in selected South Island regions and settlements as they navigate change, determine their own aspirations, confront impediments to social wellbeing and search for solutions to local problems.

The researchers aim to uncover practical approaches to create real-world change in different community settings, and document examples where residents, local governments, community groups, and businesses have collaborated to create change.

The Building Better Thriving Regions research team has recently published results from their Oamaru case study for the Waitaki Housing Task Force. Their report is to help guide an informed district housing strategy for the district as well as providing ongoing research of interest to other regional programmes.

Lead researcher Dr Nick Taylor says for community groups to establish a strategic approach to housing anywhere in New Zealand, the first step is to gather sufficient information on the population, housing need, areas and locations, and potential responses.

Oamaru and the surrounding Waitaki District have an economy based on agricultural servicing, secondary agricultural processing, and tourism. The town is a settlement experiencing moderate growth and a changing demography associated with an aging population and the in-migration of workers from countries such as Tonga and Tuvalu. Nick says while there are many positive aspects of Oamaru’s regional success, such as community development, heritage preservation, landscape enhancement, and economic diversification, housing issues are evident.

“Oamaru has become an attractive place to live, visit, work, and do business. They’ve worked hard for it after marked economic decline and population loss in the 1980s. They’ve focussed on urban renewal, heritage conservation, and employment generation, with the regeneration of the Victorian heritage precinct of Oamaru stone buildings in the harbour area and along the main street, which ties in with their status as a Victorian precinct, the world’s ‘Steampunk’ capital, an eco-tourist attraction with the blue-penguin colony and visitor centre, and rejuvenation of the waterfront area.”

The first phase of the research considered how a combination of public and private investment and community effort has rejuvenated former industrial spaces and heritage buildings for new commercial uses such as retail or cafes, and public spaces such as playgrounds, a children’s bike park, new road access, and waterfront amenities. The Alps to Ocean (A2O) cycle trail, which ends in Oamaru, and a Geopark proposal complement these changes to the urban environment.

But success in making an area attractive to live in comes with challenges including pressure on the district’s housing stock and a shortage of long-term rental options with the rise of short-term tourist rentals such as Airbnb.

“Recovery from the Covid-19 downturn is also testing the resilience of the region, alongside economic cycles and natural disasters, such as droughts, storms, and earthquakes. There are also changes in demographics, in the case of Waitaki and Oamaru an ageing population and increasing cultural diversity in the population working in agriculture and food processing.”

Dr Mike Mackay, a social scientist at AgResearch, says it is important to understand the nature of the economy, employment, and population in regional areas in order to understand the effect on affordable housing. “Housing is an important focus for community organisations and stakeholder groups supporting the wellbeing of migrant workers and an ageing population. Some people are disadvantages in accessing housing due to limited income and capital, knowledge of rights, visa requirements, and lack of access to support services. The provision of housing for transient workers, including seasonal workers, is a particular issue.”

Nick says that “responses to these issues through strategies and action plans are most successful when they are driven by the community and involve a range of stakeholders such as the Waitaki Housing Task Force brings together. It is important that their work has a strong base of evidence.”

Read the research by the BBHTC Thriving Regions research team:

Taylor, N., Mackay, M. & Russell, K. (2020). Searching for community wellbeing: population, work and housing in the town of Oamaru. Working paper 20-08a for Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities Thriving Regions, 36pgs. Christchurch: AgResearch/BBHTC.

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Date posted: 5 October 2020