Waiuku Trail, Waikato River
Photo by Asher Wilson-Goldman

A trail network that reconnects us to the Waikato River

Professor Mick Abbott works at Lincoln University’s School of Landscape Architecture. Often he helps design tracks and trails.

He’s very interested in protected area landscapes. He believes most places are special not just public conservation lands. He focuses on how to make those places even more important and significant for us.

Dr Abbott has worked closely with the Walking Access Commission on our three biggest projects in Taranaki, Pūhoi to Pākiri and mort recently in the South Auckland-North Waikato.

One of his insights is that landscapes can change people rather than people change landscapes.

In the field of landscape architecture, we are often asked to change a site around to suit people,” he says. “But what I have increasingly become aware of is that the real opportunity is how we might change ourselves a bit.  How might landscapes stay the same but how they can change us?

Professor Abbott says this gets down to some core questions about who we are as people, such as what it means to belong.

“To belong somewhere is to feel connected to a place. The opportunity to connect ourselves to places is exciting. But that does not mean for us to change a place; it means for us to feel changed by a place.”

Professor Abbott’s work designing networks of trials is strongly influenced by this view that our environment shapes who we are.

In a journey, in a step, going along a trail, something changes. It is that power of places to direct and guide you that is exciting.

The most recent project that the Commission asked Dr Abbott for his help with is our Connecting Franklin-North Waikato project.  The project aims to connect the people of Pokeno, Tuakau and Pukekohe to each other, and to the outdoors.

He started by looking to the outdoors for inspiration. In that region the Waikato River is paramount.  It’s always been there, and it has always been shaping people and guiding a way to move through the land.

In developing a trail strategy Dr Abbott and his team spent time listing to mana whenua. He says they were generous in helping him to develop a strategy that connects people to the river in ways that do not change the river but allows the river to have much more influence over us.

“Connectivity back to the river rather than connectivity just to State Highway 1 is crucial. That’s not just a short-term need. It’s a long-term futureproofing.  Something people will be grateful for in 200 years.”

Dr Abbott’s work identifies what the core relationship is that people want to have with the land.  Then it works out how a trail can support that relationship.

The key thing with trails is, normally property boundaries divide and separate, but trails, at their core, are about connecting.  They bring people together, they bring communities together, they bring different age groups together.

Investing in a trail should not focus just on infrastructural needs but also those deeper needs to stay connected to our places and landscapes. They should also offer that potential to people who move to the area and come after us.

“It is easy to view the river as just that main channel, but if you listen to iwi, it is not just the main channel. It is the banks, it is the wetlands, it what’s on the bottom of the river. It is the waterspouts. And it is expansive. The river is these giant lungs, giant kidney. Our connection to the river does not have to be to that main channel. It permeates much more than that.”

Dr Abbott’s work is now a public report, complete with recommendations and phasing for those recommendations.  Each community will have a conscious connection to each other and to the awa. Te Araroa will focus on taking people on one of the richest river journeys in the country.  Other recommendations will support e-bikes and other walking and cycling commuting options for local people, connecting them to railway stations for those who want to go to Auckland or Hamilton.

Dr Abbott’s strategy report is now in the hands of local people. Local councils will create a governance structure to run the key projects. They will work with central government, developers, local community volunteer groups and residents to implement the strategy.

More about the Franklin-North Waikato report, including Dr Abbott's report and maps