Geoff Simmons: Let's turn a poorly drained sports field into a wetland

Wellington City Council is looking to build a reservoir above the playing fields of Prince of Wales Park in the ...

Wellington City Council is looking to build a reservoir above the playing fields of Prince of Wales Park in the Wellington suburb of Mt Cook.

OPINION: I want to propose something that is pretty heretical in a sports-mad nation: ditching a rugby pitch in Wellington's Prince of Wales Park to create a wetland. But before you spit out your latte, hear me out.

Wellingtonians don't like to admit this, but stormwater management is one major environmental issue on which we are behind the rest of the country. You only have to look at the harbour after a big rain event to know that not all is well. Everyone knows to avoid doing bombs on the waterfront after a storm due to a toxic cocktail of soil, human waste and heavy metals.

We have piped our once abundant freshwater streams to fast track the passage of contaminants to the harbour and now turn a blind eye to the impact this has on our urban ecology, the loss of Mauri (life) in these waterways and the lost opportunity to enjoy waterways in our city.

Turning the Prince of Wales Park into a wetland would be an example of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD).

READ MORE: Public set to have say on construction of $30m Prince of Wales reservoir in Wellington

WSUD is the practice of using elements of the city – such as parks – to manage water. This would slow the flow of water so flood events don't cause so many problems, and give Mother Nature time to process the sediment and contaminants in the water before it reaches the ocean. WSUD can also provide some pretty important habitats for our unique birdlife, freshwater fish and insects. Wetlands in particular play an integral ecological role but sadly have all but been lost to the Wellington region.

Sure, the constructed wetland at Waitangi Park was cutting edge at the time, but the fact is that other cities have now overtaken us as they realise the value of better water management. Hamilton is now touted as the leader. You heard that right, folks. The Tron is environmentally cutting edge and is leaving us in the dust whilst still growing at a pace on par with Auckland.

Wellingtonians are rightly proud of our environmental credentials. We are leaders in public and active transport. We have a plan to plant two million trees. We have pioneered urban predator free sanctuaries with Zealandia and are now leading the charge to be the first predator-free city in the world. We were even first to start microchipping our cats.

The problem is that Wellington has for too long turned a blind eye to stormwater and doesn't have much suitable space for WSUD. Most of the former wetlands in our fair capital have things like hospitals, roads and sports fields built on them. This leaves a disconnect between our beautiful harbour and the remaining streams in the town belt which defines our city.

However, the proposed water reservoir in Prince of Wales Park offers a timely opportunity. If the project goes ahead, the enormous earthworks present a fantastic opportunity to create a high-quality wetland in place of just one of the existing rugby pitches.

At this point I can hear the sound of sprigs being sharpened. How can we possibly lose a sports ground? But recently we have invested in rubber crumb pitches, which can sustain far higher use in all conditions. The lower rugby ground at Prince of Wales is currently a bog through most of the winter, and can handle only a few junior games per weekend at best; often none. As the reservoir is being built we will have to manage without two pitches – why couldn't we last the distance permanently without one?

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A well-designed wetland will also provide a quality natural environment and setting in association with recreational features used for walking, picnicking casual recreation and environmental study. As seen in other cities across the world the wetland itself would provide a truly unique recreation space in Wellington which would support wide ranging social and environmental value for future generations.

A well-constructed wetland would reduce the flood events that have been plaguing parts of Mt Cook, and reduce the amount of sediment and contaminants ending up in the harbour. It would also provide a larder for the fish and birdlife that are slowly recolonising Wellington.

Local residents are open to exploring this exciting idea further, so all that remains is to convince the decision makers that there are better uses for a poorly drained sports field; an urban wetland to welcome biodiversity back to the city. It is time for Wellington to truly live up to our environmental credentials and respond to the historical neglect of our fresh and coastal waters.

 - The Dominion Post


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