For all the right reasons, New Zealand is starting to take notice of a small community in the Far North. In a district often associated with negative statistics and on the back of a bi-election wrought with what’s not working in Northland, Paihia is leading the charge and bucking trends.
It is demonstrating what can be achieved when a bunch of passionate, creative and inspired people take charge of their destiny. And it’s hoping to inspire other communities to give it a go.
Paihia, with a resident population of around 1,700 has, for the second time within a month, received significant national recognition. In February it was named the 2015 Mitre 10 Community of the Year (part of the New Zealander of the Year Awards) and just last weekend, it was named Trustpower’s 2014 Community Awards Supreme winner. A huge achievement.
So, what has made this community stand out? And why is this important for other New Zealand communities?
Simply put – Paihia stopped waiting for someone else to fix their problems. It took responsibility and put words into action.
Talking with Trustees of Focus Paihia Community Charitable Trust (FPCCT) they will tell you it’s all about having a common goal, building community spirit and getting your hands dirty.
FPCCT got underway in 2009, when a couple of people decided it was time to stop moaning about the state of the town and do something about it. The concept quickly gained local support and Focus Paihia was born. The community developed their own vision of where they wanted to be within the first five months. About a year later they launched the Paihia Masterplan, an aspirational future concept design for the village.
Not long after this, FPCCT was introduced to the concept of ‘placemaking’. Project for Public Spaces describes this as a ‘quiet movement that reimagines public spaces as the heart of every community. A transformative approach that inspires people to create and improve their public places’.
The Trust now had a vehicle for making things happen. And things did happen, with great gusto and impressive outcomes. The first project was the renovation over one weekend of an underused and unattractive public space next to the local i-Site. With just $5k, provided by the local community board, the area was transformed by over 100 volunteers.
This first project provided impetus to move onto the next. Within the last three years the ‘ugliest toilet in NZ’ has been renovated into a well photographed public commodity (for just $13.5k), a swimming pontoon has been launched, a mural painted, a village green over-hauled, public seating added, an Op Shop opened and the list goes on. All achieved by volunteers, who were feed and watered by more volunteers – sometimes for months on end.
The biggest and most controversial project to date has been the removal of a well used public carpark. From the word go, the community had clearly indicated that they wanted a people friendly waterfront.
With very limited public space in the CBD, it was decided that the waterfront carpark had to go. Not everyone was happy about it and the Trust ended up in Council fighting for the right to remove it.
The Trust had recognised that for things to really change within the village – both physically and in perception, something substantial had to happen. If the community could pull it off, the transformation would showcase what can be achieved and encourage future proactive development.
Over 250 volunteers spent over 9,000 hours transforming this space. Estimated to be worth around $1.3m commercially, the park was built for $180k. With around 90% of the funding being provided by FPCCT, through their sustainable funding sources.
The outcome is more than anyone had hoped. And many of those opposed have been won over by the success of the space and have got involved with other projects.
It was the creation the park that saw the Trust win the Trustpower Supreme Community Award. And it has forever changed the way this community looks and feels. Once a departure point, Paihia now has a heart and is a destination in its own right. The park, on the waters edge, now provides a place for people to meet, mix, mingle, sit back and relax.
The common theme however, is that the villages transformation is a by-product of what happens when a community unites and works together for the greater good. It is fair to say that for many years Paihia was seen as disconnected, with polar opinions and no clarity about who it was. Once described as a good example of a town with no planning, it was a mixed jigsaw, with a tired look and feel.
Today there is a buzz in the air. A feeling of hope and optimism. The creation of the projects has created a strong sense of community pride and comradery. Lasting friendships have been formed, alliances achieved and credibility built.
What is also impressive and somewhat unusual is the Trust is becoming self sustaining and isn’t having to rely on outside funders to get a lot of things done. Smart business decisions and good management has seen the Trust in a strong financial position to move forward.
It has been a win-win relationship for the Far North District Council. In a time when unitary authorities are being discussed and many councils across New Zealand are struggling to meet basic demands, let alone develop the nice to have projects, it is refreshing to see a community stand up and take the lead. And FNDC has been behind them all the way.
With Local Government in the business of serving its communities, it is recognised that it is much easier to work with and support groups that have a cohesive approach and are clear about who they are and where they want to go.
This Council is incredibly proud of what Paihia has achieved, believing that the town is showcasing how fantastic the Far North is, and the people within it. It believes that Paihia is in the process of reinventing itself, achieving amazing results on a shoe string budget. It is a template and inspiration for other communities.
And on this note, FPCCT are now looking to develop a toolkit to share and encourage other communities to take charge. It believes that if more people take responsibility and develop a bond and community spirit from the ground up, New Zealand will be in a much stronger, more resilient position to face whatever the future holds.
In a time when many people feel disconnected from their community – Paihia is developing a roadmap that combines community aspiration with community spirit – something that we could probably all do with a little more of.
On the project front, there is plenty more yet to come. The Trust recognises that there is still a way to go and is looking at a review of their strategic direction – all with community input of course. Along the way, a world class mountain bike park is to be built and with a community workshop on the horizon who knows what might pop up over the winter – anyone want to build a taniwha?