18 April 2019

Reflections on a Waterview success story

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Gez Johns / gez@nwkcom.co.nz

It was great to read amongst all its recent brickbats, a bouquet for the NZ Transport Agency in the form of an international award for the Waterview Connection for its community-focused architecture: https://www.nzta.govt.nz/media-releases/waterview-connection-scoops-international-architecture-award/

The Agency and its Well-Connected Alliance partners have been rightly recognised for these built-form features, which go way beyond what may first have been imagined as mitigation. But I think it’s important to ensure that the credit is shared at least equally by the community who fought so hard for them in the first place. From a PR perspective, it’s also worth reflecting on the role played by authentic, empathetic community engagement that paved the way for their co-creation. And for this, we need to go right back to the start.

In Auckland we often despair at the NIMBY-ism that opposes vital development. But this was never the case in Waterview. Here there had been a begrudging acceptance of the need to accommodate progress for the greater good. However, as the community were about to trade sleepy anonymity for naming rights over a motorway that ran through them (but that they could not connect to), they had come together to campaign for quid pro quo.  This had taken them on a long, bewildering journey of statutory consultation, culminating in a Board of Inquiry process that one of the community leaders would later tell me had left them feeling ‘brutalised’.

My introduction to the play, as communications and engagement lead for the Agency and Alliance, came after this point, once the project’s conditions of approval – including provision for these community amenities – had been set. What was immediately clear was that despite having the statutory permission to proceed, the Agency was still a long way from gaining the social licence.

Recognising that the scars of previous consultation were still very raw shaped my entire PR approach.  Before starting the glossy Auckland-wide marketing campaign, putting up any of our signs, or even taking to social media, I’d made sure we had knocked on every household in the neighbourhood to explain what was going to happen, why and approximately when. We took time to listen to the wider community’s hopes and fears - and while many of them may still have thought we were bastards, they at least knew that by talking to them first, we intended to be good bastards.  

Empathy is not simply a question of saying the right thing, or holding an appropriate facial expression; it requires understanding people’s situations, appreciating the impacts decisions may have and allowing them time to adapt. Here, this meant supplementing the statutory community engagement prescribed in the project’s conditions with community events, a willingness to listen and, importantly, actions that grew trust.

We ultimately had a lot of fun with the project comms, using Alice the Tunnel (not so) Boring Machine to tell the story of the project to a nationwide audience. But none of this could have happened, had we not taken our lead from our closest neighbours.

Like most Aucklanders, I’ve benefited from the travel benefits that have come with the new tunnel – and I feel proud to have been part of the team that delivered it. But there is so much more to the project’s success than what the eye can see.

I was actually back in Waterview a few weeks ago. And as I sat watching my daughter play in the new playground, savouring my coffee bought from the Waterview Coffee Project shipping container café around the corner which we’d help to set up, I reflected that it was more than just pride that I felt. It was gratitude to have had the opportunity to work with such a committed and fabulous community, who deserve to share in this most recent accolade.