My Wellington: “Walking or cycling is the closest thing to a magic pill”

Sustainable transport advocate, Isabella Cawthorn on Plimmerton beach.  My Wellington

Ross Giblin / Stuff

Sustainable transport advocate, Isabella Cawthorn on Plimmerton beach. My Wellington

Isabella Cawthorn wants to make city streets better for people. She’s been fueling conversations about how to do it for years, as editor of the planning website Speak Wellingtonamong other urban and cycling initiatives.

What part of Wellington do you live in and why?

I live in Porirua – specifically Plimmerton. I feel rooted and nurtured – and defined – by its particular seascape and landscapes. This is at the heart of my pākehātanga (Pākehā culture). Maybe it’s because I grew up here and now live next door to my parents. I invest a lot in the local community and the environment, and I see it paying off.

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Big waves pound the Plimmerton Seawall at high tide in gale force winds.


Big waves pound the Plimmerton Seawall at high tide in gale force winds.

My favorite thing about Plimmerton is…

It’s a village – a real village. We don’t have many in the Wellington area. There is a train station and every conceivable convenience. It is very easy to live without a car in Plimmerton. If you include the e-scooter, the whole of Plimmerton is 15 minutes from the neighborhood.

There are so many ways to get into the sea: from waka ama (outrigger canoe), to keelboats, to paddle and kaimoana (seafood).

How do you get around your neighborhood and then in the city in general?

For short trips, I always try to go there by my own means, whether by bike or on foot. With the combination of bike and train, or walking and train, or bus and bike, I can go almost anywhere.

There are four reasons why I prefer these modes: Walking or riding a bike for 30 minutes is the closest thing to a magic pill you’ll ever find, health-wise. I appreciate the connection with others, and the world around me, that public transport and the fresh air allow. It’s cheaper than owning and using my own car. And it’s zero carbon.

The most controversial issue on my neighborhood Facebook page is…

We mostly deal with things related to the car – traffic and parking. It’s sad to see how the imagination has been crippled by decades in car-dominated environments. Many of us seem to have dismissed the prospect that our communities can reduce carbon emissions and have a good life – “oh, that’s not realistic”, or “it’s never going to happen”.

There is a lot of transport inequity in Porirua – but in my area, which is quite wealthy, we actually have a lot more choice. One day soon, we’re going to look back and ask ourselves, “Isn’t it crazy how heavy the whole school dropout was once?” It is not yet the time, but I am convinced that we are making progress.

A juvenile tern spotted in Plimmerton.

Louise Thomas

A juvenile tern spotted in Plimmerton.

When I need to clear my head, I go to…

I like to go down and put my hands in the sea.

I have an old 1962 Zephyr dinghy; 3.75 meters. We go out on a sailboat, she and I. I go out on the ocean, I walk on it, I watch the seabirds go by and the dolphins appear from below.

I always come back from sailing with a sore face, because I smiled like an idiot for a few hours.

My guilty pleasure in town is going to…

Daytime: The Leeds St Laneway – either Lashing, Wellington Chocolate Factory or Leeds St bakery. I have a huge sweet tooth.

Evening: A negroni in one of the places with a good street environment for people watching. When in doubt, I go to Crupet. I really enjoyed the negroni at Amok with amaro coffee – it’s intense, a good late night drink.

If I was mayor for a term, I…

I would throw a huge civics festival in town – open the streets to people, have lots of kōrero and kai, and play all day and all night!

This would launch permanent mechanisms to democratize civic participation, so that who shapes our cities truly reflects the people who live there. Urban civics can be really exciting and tangible: we can get into it with truly local places like streets and parks, making them better for everyone.

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