It’s been a very weird week in Wellington where we’re thinking actually Chris Bishop has done good for once with the District Plan? Very strange position to be in. Obviously, city councilors who want a city for the living and future have pushed for this for a very long time, but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that The Spinoff’s War For Wellington  and Joel MacManus’s passionate, in-depth and digestible writing on the subject played a large part in shaping public consciousness around the issues involved. So how do we reward someone for a job well done? We ask them to explain themselves, of course. Let’s find out more about Joel. 

Did you grow up in Wellington? We’re not the Christchurchista so we won’t ask what school you went to, but we’d love to know more about your history with this city.

Nope. I grew up in Nelson and went to uni in Dunedin before moving to Wellington in 2018 to start a job with Stuff/The Post. To be honest, I didn’t have a super strong reason to move to Wellington – it was mostly because my partner grew up here and I had a lot of friends here. It felt like home really quickly, though. Working for the local paper forces you to get to know a city really quickly. Wellington has a great culture for young professionals; I’ve met so many smart and interesting people doing all kinds of weird things. Wellington reminds me a lot of Nelson, which is a comparison that might surprise some people given the weather and topographical differences. The two cities were both settled by the New Zealand Company within a year of each other, so if you look closely, they share a lot of the same historical and urban design fundamentals, Wellington is just bigger and more developed.

We first really noticed you when the Spinoff launched the War for Wellington. Where had you been working before that?

I was previously at RNZ as a producer for Morning Report, before that I worked Stuff/The Post, mostly covering council, transport, and infrastructure issues in Wellington. I got my start in journalism in Dunedin as part of Critic Te Arohi (the best student magazine in the country), including a year full time as Editor.

What are a couple of your pieces that you’re most proud of, and why?

The entire War for Wellington series has obviously been a huge highlight for me. It was incredible seeing how many people became so passionately interested in zoning reform. I always felt there was an opportunity to turn the District Plan into a huge story, but we had to cover it differently, in a way only The Spinoff could. The story definitely got a boost once the IHP reports were released though, I never expected them to be quite that weird!

This piece about the people building Wellington’s cycleway network is another I was quite proud of. Cycleways are often covered in a lazy, conflict driven way, with photos of angry locals with their arms crossed. But I felt there was a bigger story here; Wellington is taking a genuinely innovative approach and doing some really interesting things to change its transport network.

I also have to mention a profile I wrote for Stuff about Wellington climate scientist Dave Lowe. He’s a relatively low-profile guy, but his research was truly groundbreaking for humanity’s early understanding of climate change. It was actually quite haunting talking to him about it – he knew 50 years ago that human activities were changing the climate, and he spent his life weighed down by this knowledge while no one else listened.

Forget that shit about journalists supposed to be objective – what are three actually possible things that would really improve Wellington?

Cities grow from the centre outwards, right? You can think of urban design like the solar system. The CBD is the sun, the most powerful gravitational force that everything else centres itself around. The most bang-for-your-buck thing we can do to improve Wellington is to improve the amenity of the city centre. That’s the area that the most people visit every day, and the area that gives the city its core economic value.

  1. We desperately need to upgrade the Golden Mile, especially Courtenay Place. The current project has been an absolute nightmare. To be honest, it’s embarrassing that it has taken this long and we are still talking about it. I think some of the debate about cars vs buses has been a distraction. The most important thing is that it needs a visual spruce-up that will make it a more appealing place to spend time.
  2. Cuba Street is similar. It’s a hugely valuable and popular piece of public space. It could use an refresh. I’d love to see the pedestrianised areas expanded to include upper and lower Cuba Street.
  3. Aro Park is another area I’ve written about that could be much better than it is. The wider footpaths on Dixon Street have helped, along with the safety efforts from the Poneke Promise team. It’s gone from a net negative to neutral, but the park has a long way to go before it reaches its true potential.

Let’s start a fight: in your expert opinion, what’s the best suburb in Wellington and why?

I love living in Newtown. It’s vibrant, interesting, and multicultural. It’s an example of a fifteen minute city, where you can get almost everything you need for daily life within a quick walk.

Finally, who do you think we should profile on our site next?

Tait Burge

(Editor: we’ll slide into his DMs and see if we can make that happen!)