Sales manager Darryl Maclean is a happy man as another section sells in Pegasus, a residential development 25 km north of Christchurch. Designed around a lake and within minutes of the shores of Pegasus Bay, the town is promoted as a place to “live where you play”, but not everyone shares the developer’s enthusiasm.
The sign at the road-end says eight minutes to the beach, but I walk it in five—through a pine forest, across some hillocky dunes and down to the pounding sea. Hundreds of surf clams lie strewn across the sand, the dregs of a winter storm. Their round, ringed shells are frozen open in rigor mortis—molluscan castanets that will never clack again. Everywhere, too, the smiley-faced carapaces of paddle crabs. More shucked shells than in an oyster shed.
A young couple hurry past me, retreating from the chill of the wind and the waning of the day. Their footprints stretch a long way to where sand meets sky down the vast crescent that is Pegasus Bay, a 50 km scoop of the South Island east coast that runs from Amberley to Sumner. Soon a few thousand more footprints will indent these sands, for, just across the dunes, New Zealand’s newest town is rising. Like the bay, its name is Pegasus, and its backers have bet the bank that it will take off.
The project is the billion-dollar baby of Wanaka entrepreneur Bob Robertson, whose Infinity Investment Group has a 10-year history of upscale residential and resort developments in and around the Southern Lakes, and is also behind the proposed Mavora-to-Te Anau monorail.
Pegasus, 25 km north of Christchurch, is Robertson’s biggest venture yet, and the largest integrated town development of its kind in the country. Spread across 250 ha of former forest, dune and bog, the new town will eventually include more than 1000 residential sections, an 18-hole golf course, a recreational lake, a primary school and preschool, sports fields, an adventure park, an equestrian centre, a retirement village and a downtown precinct with lakefront apartments, shopping centre, business park, hotel, restaurants and a yacht club.
The town has been developed in line with the principles of “new urbanism”, also known as “traditional neighbourhood design”—a back-to-the-future urban design movement that champions walkable neighbourhoods, a mix of housing types, high street connectivity, a strong, central “public realm”, abundant open space, defined edges and an architectural approach that celebrates sense of place.
New urbanism arose in the US in the 1980s in response to the problems of suburbia: congestion, the cost of commuting and the physical separation of where people live from where they work, shop and pursue their recreational interests. At Pegasus, new-urbanist ideals are neatly encapsulated in the town’s motto: “Live where you play.” This is a town that promotes lifestyle, and leisure is its drawcard.
Strangely, perhaps bizarrely, my interest in Pegasus was sparked not by its approach to living, but its apparent attitude to dying. I read an essay by Jacky Bowring, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Lincoln University, who had noticed that New Zealand’s newest town had made no provision to bury the dead. She saw a message in this omission. “Building a town for 5–7000 residents without a cemetery is symptomatic of the contemporary penchant for an untroubled existence,” she wrote. “This seems to be a town in which no one should die.”
I hadn’t thought much about the social role of cemeteries, but Bowring obviously had. “To deny a small town its cemetery is to erase part of the fundament of memory,” she wrote. Without a place for the dead, Pegasus would have “a lacuna in its soul, a gap in its self, in its hedonistic quest for life lightly lived.”
Utopian aspirations were troubling photography student Alexandra Cunningham, too. Brought up in suburban Christchurch, she had subsequently lived in gated communities in Orange County, California, and had become deeply sceptical of their insularity and superficiality. “Everything felt fake to me, from the pristinely manicured frontages to the hollow waves to your next-door neighbour,” she told me.
When she returned to Christchurch, she learned of plans to replicate, almost on her doorstep, the kind of community she had just left. For her bachelor of fine arts degree in 2006, she decided to photograph the transformation of the Pegasus landscape from unkempt dune and marsh to orderly subdivision, producing a book of panoramic images she called Pegasus Town Dream.
At the heart of the project was what Cunningham saw as a contradiction: “The developers repetitively pitch the location of Pegasus Town as one of New Zealand’s ‘truly remarkable environments, renowned for its natural and unspoiled beauty’. However, their urban utopia could only be achieved by razing this pastoral wilderness.”
I leafed through her book in the University of Auckland fine-arts library, turning each page with cotton-gloved fingers, struck by the juxtapositions of dewy pastures and bulldozed earth, mirror-calm lakes and long windrows of felled trees ready for incineration. An accompanying essay offered a stinging critique of the forthcoming town. Pegasus would be “a quintessential enclave of middle-class desire” dedicated to “self-serving entitlement whilst preserving a façade of democratic opportunity”. It would be a gated community without the gate.
Five years on, living in London, Cunningham continues to find herself drawn artistically to urban enclaves, to their repetitiveness, banality and scale. “By exploring gated communities, I endeavour to raise questions about the values and attitudes behind them,” she says. “Exactly what part of society are they trying to keep out? What are the criteria for entry? I am curious about what draws people to want to live in these places.”
I am curious myself. I pitch a tent in the campground at Waikuku Beach, Pegasus’s northern neighbour, and head for town. Expecting cookie-cutter culs-de-sac sprouting McMansions, I am surprised by how conventional the neighbourhoods look. It’s early days yet, but of the completed homes, most are standard subdivision fare—single-storey, with low hip roofs and high wooden fences. Each fence and roof creates a burqa-like slit through which a glimpse of window and drape can be seen. For all the rhetoric about neighbourhood values, the suburban obsession with privacy seems alive and well.
A couple walk their dog beside the sinuous 90 ha custom-made wetland that flanks the town’s eastern boundary. Orange-vested workers are busy weeding and planting. The fresh beds of reeds and rushes are covered with tents of netting to deter swans from pulling out the seedlings. At the lake in the centre of town, welcome swallows dart and dive around the scalloped concrete edges. The place is quiet, save for the distant breathing of the sea.
I step in to the Pegasus sales office, which occupies a sunny corner site next to the cafe/bar and general store—a placeholder retail hub until the downtown shopping precinct is built. A promotional video plays on endless loop, the camera swooping like a paraglider down the digital boulevards of the computer-rendered town. A stack of glossy booklets lie on a glass counter. They feature a smiling, sandcastle-building nuclear family on the cover, and a headline in large letters: “Don’t just dream it…”
Signing up punters to the Pegasus dream is the task of Darryl Maclean, head of sales. I ask him who’s buying. The answer is unexpected. “Fifty percent of sales are to people within a 10 km radius,” he tells me. “Twelve months ago, they were some of the biggest sceptics. They’ve seen that the promises have been delivered, and now they want a part of it.”
Maclean says the lag between buying and building has been longer than expected, owing to the recession, but construction is picking up—driven in part by buyers who lost their homes in the Canterbury earthquakes.
“We have three to four house starts a week, and that will rise to five or six in summer.” As of September, 230 houses were built or under construction. The town population is expected to reach 700 by Christmas, and 2000 by Christmas 2012.
Maclean walks to a wall map showing all 1245 residential lots, in sectors numbered 1 to 13. Stick-on dots show the sales, and in neighbourhoods 1 to 10—the allotments released so far—there are not many empty spaces. Maclean predicts that all the residential sections will be sold by 2013. As section sales tail off, the focus will switch to the higher-density central core.
When sales began in 2006, the whole town could be viewed at 1:100 scale in the famous Pegasus model. I’d heard about this edifice, but wasn’t prepared for its gobsmacking size when Maclean took me to see it. Said to be the largest model in Australasia, it resided in an empty office building in Addington. I paced out the floor area it covered: 50 metres in one direction, 25 the other. It took 300 Chinese model-makers six months to build, at a cost of $7 million. It was shipped to Christchurch in pieces and assembled in the Infinity-owned building, along with a (full-size) coffee shop, children’s play area, presentation theatre and dozens of sales booths. Pegasus design staff spent hours crawling over it, making sure the 53,000 trees, 15,000 street lights and 2000 buildings were just right, ready for the “Big Sell In”, a silent auction that netted over $100 million in a single day.
Up close, the detail was tantalising. Each tree-lined, home-filled avenue was dotted with people, cars and bicycles. Miniature sun-bathers reclined on the painted sands of Pegasus Bay, watched over by model lifeguards in a model surf club. Downtown, tiny rowboats, kayaks and trimarans criss-crossed the lake while diners sipped micro-lattes in a nearby cafe. Maclean flicked a switch and the whole central precinct lit up to show the night-time ambience.
All told, the Lilliputian Pegasus generated $150 million in sales for the real thing. But not everyone found the edifice edifying. For Alexandra Cunningham, the model town suggested an uncomfortable metaphor for model lives. For Jacky Bowring, it “underscores the surreality of the project, and emphasises its ersatz nature”.
“Surreal” is a word often applied to Pegasus. And, certainly, on a grey Canterbury day, the disconnect between the promotional images of throngs of leisure-seekers basking in Gold Coast-style sunshine beside a bustling town centre and the reality of a sombre grid of vacant sections and car-less streets can be intense.
The mockers and knockers of the blogosphere have had good sport from the Canterbury dream town. For many, the idea of a planned community appears to be inherently suspect. “Isn’t there something spooky about creating a perfect town?… It fair gives me the creeps,” wrote one member of the Share-trader investment blog, to which another replied, “Please, if I ever get to retirement age and start to lust after something like this, someone do me a favour and belt me over the head with a spade… really hard.” A third took up the thread: “I can hear the zimmer frame wheels squeaking from here. Oh, Lord, save us from the types of people that are attracted to plastic worlds and lifestyles that are insulated from reality.”
I wonder how James and Biddy Gardner would feel about that categorisation. Retired farmers from Waiau, southwest of Kaikoura, they have the distinction of being the town’s first residents, moving in in September 2008. They bought their section sight unseen, as all the early buyers did, when earthmovers were still scraping the land and all you’d get if you visited the site was a lungful of dust. “It was six months before we could get a look at what we’d bought,” James tells me when I visit their home in Infinity Drive.
They have no regrets. Their section, near the southern boundary, has unobstructed views of the Southern Alps, and living in Pegasus has “exceeded our expectations by about 585 per cent”. They like the effort management puts into the social side. “They hold community meetings once a month at the Flat White cafe to keep us up to date on progress and new services,” says Biddy. “They serve $5 beers,” adds James. Biddy appreciates the 24/7 security monitoring. Their grandchildren love the lake.
Naysayers irritate them—the media included. “Every chance they get to bag the place, they do,” says James. He admits that there has been some justification. “Two things rocked the boat early on. They burned the pine trees, which smoked Woodend out. But then they made good by giving everyone a free load of firewood. And during the earthworks, the north-easterlies whipped up sandstorms that took the paint off houses. But that’s all in the past.”
“Number Two” is mowing his lawn when I walk past. Bryan Bird says he and his wife, June, shifted from Dunedin to be closer to family. They could have been first had they wanted to, but June didn’t care for the publicity. Like the Gardners, they’re sold on the place, “though we could use a few more houses to cut down the wind”, Bryan says.
Around the corner, Keith McLaughlin is standing in his garage amid a stack of boxes. He and his wife, Chris, have been here for only a week. They fit Darryl Mclean’s 50-per-cent-within-10 km group. Ex-Christchurch originally, they bought a spec home in Kaiapoi in 2007, then rented in Rangiora while they built their Pegasus house.
Lifestyle was the attraction, Keith says. He runs, cycles, swims, plays golf. It’s all here, on his doorstep. He’s coming up to retirement. For him and Chris, it seemed like a smart move to shift in now and see the town grow around them.
I ask him about local scepticism towards Pegasus. “That’s just the nature of the beast,” he says, but adds that the quality of the amenities is softening attitudes. “I play golf with a couple of Woodenders. They took up the offer of life membership, and they love it. Why wouldn’t Woodend want these amenities on its doorstep? Wait till summer. This place will go off.”
It’s a comment I hear often. Over the past two summers, thousands of Cantabrians have made the half-hour drive to Pegasus to cool off in the lake. Dragon-boat regattas and triathlons have become regular fixtures at the town’s aquatic centrepiece.
It’s an impressively engineered stretch of water. A million cubic metres of soil was excavated to create it, with the spoil spread on the residential sections to raise them above flood level. You can take your pick of a dozen beaches, either grey pebble or golden sand trucked up from Oamaru. A swingbridge leads to a picnic island, and beyond that, the first of the luxury homes on the town’s priciest real estate are going up. I watch a bobcat levelling land for a new constant-temperature swimming bay and gas-fired hot pools. Maclean says they’re hoping to divert 10 per cent of Hanmer Springs spa-bound traffic to Pegasus.
There’s a sunken trawler under there somewhere, to provide for a proposed dive operation. All the children from Waikuku primary school, across the main highway from Pegasus, were photographed aboard the vessel before the lake was filled. Soon the pupils won’t even have to cross the road to visit the lake, because the school is moving to Pegasus. Roger Hornblow, the principal, says that for him, “it’s the professional equivalent of winning Lotto”.
“How many principals get the opportunity to provide input into designing their own school, and then get to run it?” he said.
For Pegasus, the dividend is huge, too. Paul Armstrong, the land project manager, says the school will give the town a heart and soul. “The premises will be new, but the school will bring its own identity and culture.” A heart transplant, if you will. He sees it as a driver of the next wave of sales and construction, helping to advance the much-anticipated development of the town’s commercial centre.
Hornblow was in an upbeat mood when I met him, because he had just enrolled pupil number 104, just one short of the trigger point the Ministry of Education has set for the shift. Already the school has been acclimatising pupils to the move. There is a treat system called the Hot Chocolate Club, where the week’s high achievers are rewarded with an outing to the Flat White cafe. Children also get to use the driving range to hone their golf swing.
The timing is up to the ministry, but Hornblow and Pegasus are hoping the move will happen in 2013.
The town seems to be growing according to plan, and the man behind the plan—or a good chunk of it—is Don Miskell, a senior partner in the landscape architecture firm Boffa Miskell. At his office in Gloucester St, central Christchurch, he tells me the back story of the development. Waimakariri District Council had bought the site for a rubbish tip. Miskell remembers the call he received in 1997 from a client who told him the council had changed its mind about the landfill, and the land was now surplus to requirement. Would Miskell mind taking a look at it to see if it had potential for development. “I went out there and told him, ‘I think it has. But you can’t do just another subdivision. The aim has to be to create a new community.’”
It was the opportunity Miskell had been waiting for. “What got me into landscape architecture back at the start was the idea of creating communities,” he says. “Some of my classmates were attracted purely to conservation. For me, it was the social and design sides coming together.” A consortium called Southern Capital, which had developed Omaha Beach north of Auckland, bought the land and commissioned Boffa Miskell to handle the design and consent process. Southern Capital sold the project to Infinity in 2004.
Miskell brought not just urban design theory to the task but his experience of overseas “master-planned communities”, as these towns are known. He rattles off the names of several that have been built in the United States: Celebration, Seaside, WaterColor, Destin. (Who comes up with these names?) Seaside, considered the first new-urbanist town (though only a tenth the size of Pegasus) was the filming location for The Truman Show. A cynic might suggest that Jim Carrey would not look out of place sailing to freedom on Lake Pegasus.
Watched, no doubt, by a coven of Stepford wives.
Miskell has spent time in most of these towns and he’s had a few reservations about them. “A lot of new-urbanist communities are so flash only the rich can afford them. There’s no place for the average or poor.” That’s not the case at Pegasus, he says, where cheaper sections sell for as little as $130,000. “You can’t say that’s elitist. And people can build their boxes if they want. There’s no residents’ committee telling them when to repaint the house. Pegasus has been designed to attract across the board of income and age. What’s the alternative? More suburban sprawl? Keep building at the margins?”
Worldwide, the trend is away from godzilla subdivisions marching to the horizon. “The project of suburbia is over,” says American social critic James Howard Kunstler. That style of living, he says, is “bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically and spiritually”. New urbanism champions live/work/play neighbourhoods that have flexible housing configurations and attract a diverse social spectrum. These goals line up with local policy guidelines, too. The New Zealand Urban Design Protocol, released by the Ministry for the Environment in 2005, stresses diversity, inclusiveness, identity, shared vision, environmental sustainability and a distinctive sense of place.
Pegasus ticks most of these boxes, though Miskell admits it isn’t perfect. Despite the provision of 100 commercial sites in the town centre, expected to create 600-700 jobs, there won’t be enough work opportunities either in Pegasus or the surrounding area to make the town self-sufficient. Ideally, the number of houses should equal the number of jobs, he says. In 2010, Infinity sought to remedy the employment gap by launching a 3000-resident housing-plus-commercial project across State Highway 1 at Ravenswood, aimed at boosting commercial activity in the district.
Another missing ingredient is proximity to a railway line. New-urbanist principles stress the importance of easy access to public transport. Suburbia’s twin demons of congestion and carbon can be exorcised only by mass transit options, the thinking goes.
What pleases Miskell about the town’s design? The street grid, for one thing. “We wanted the town to be pedestrian friendly, so we designed slow roads,” he says. “The problem with normal roads is that although they might have a 50 km/hr speed limit, they’re wide enough to allow people to feel comfortable driving at 80. That’s known as the perceived speed potential. What we did is narrow down the roads to make the perceived speed potential match the desired speed limit. If you can get the average speed down to 30-40 km/h, if someone gets hit, the chance of death or serious injury drops dramatically.”
The downside of narrow roads is that if two cars are parked opposite each other, a fire engine or ambulance might not be able to get through. The design team addressed that issue by using an old-fashioned grid design, instead of the more conventional culs-de-sac. A grid provides two advantages, says Miskell. “If someone breaks down, or there’s an emergency, you can go in or out the other way, but also a grid makes the space more legible. In the 1960s, a lot of subdivisions were designed by surveyors, who thought they were being artistic and put in all these curving roads and culs-de-sac. On Canterbury’s flat landscape, the effect is disorienting. You get lost. A grid fixes that problem.”
Another feature that pleases Miskell is the way the design pays homage to the site’s earlier occupants. At the highway entrance, the visitor is greeted by six tall pou which depict the history of Maori settlement. Interpretive panels explain the stories within the carvings and give the impression that these are more than token totems.
Other allusions to Maori habitation are more subtle. The town’s main street, for example, aligns with Mt Grey/Maukatere, the ancestral mountain of the local hapu, Ngai Tuahuriri. Another road, appropriately named Nga Tupuna St, is in a direct line between Kaiapoi pa, on the northern boundary of the town, and Tutaepatu Lagoon, to the south—both of them key cultural reference points for the tangata whenua. “We had our CAD guys line up these sites geographically, so it’s no accident,” says Miskell. “We wanted to create a permanent reminder that this place has a history, and that it’s important spiritually.”
The town design also provides for the possibility of a whare taonga (museum), where treasures unearthed during development can be displayed, a whare karakia (church), papakainga housing for kaumatua of the local hapu, plus a memorial garden for those who lost their lives defending the pa against Te Rauparaha in 1832. (The slaughter was intense; tapu ground across the highway from Pegasus is referred to as “the killing fields”.) There’s even a cemetery under consideration, to address that “lacuna” in Pegasus’s soul.
The wetland is another satisfaction. “You always bring a bit of idealism to these jobs,” Miskell tells me, and for him, that was trying to design with nature, rather than against it. The creation of a wetland to meet the town’s drainage needs arose from that philosophy.
“Designing with nature is a cliché now, but in the 1970s it was revolutionary,” says Miskell. It came from the work of Scottish landscape architect Ian McHarg, a pioneer of ecological planning. For a residential development called The Woodlands in Texas, McHarg designed a stormwater system based on swales—shallow drainage courses filled with porous material that filters runoff as it percolates through the system. It was far cheaper than the conventional kerb-and-channel drainage system, and preserved the water table and environment.
Pegasus uses the same approach.
Grassed swales run through the town, collecting stormwater, passing it through gravel and sand filters and discharging it into the wetland. Reed beds remove further contaminants and purify the water as it trickles slowly northward and eastward, to river and sea.
Where it ends up is a contentious issue for some of the town’s neighbours.
On a morning when the sky is a watery grey shroud, save for a strip of orange at the horizon where an ineffectual sun is struggling to break through, I trudge up the beach to the mouth of the Ashley River. Behind me, the long sweep of Pegasus Bay disappears into white spray hissed ashore by a nor’easter. I’ve got a John Masefield poem drumming in my head as I walk, about the gull’s way and the whale’s way and the wind like a whetted knife.
At the mouth, whitebaiters are about, hoping for an early-season run. They ferry their frames and nets to the water’s edge on homemade carts with long shafts, like harness-racing sulkies, and they themselves are the horses.
It’s a proprietorial business, whitebaiting, with its possies and pecking orders. A mindset geared to protecting your own makes the ’baiters wary of the town down the way. “I don’t like to see their water in our lagoon,” one of them tells me. After seeping through its designer wetland, Pegasus stormwater enters the Taranaki Stream, which flows behind Waikuku Beach township and empties into the Ashley through a control gate. Many locals are convinced that more water is coming down and ponding on the floodplain than is supposed to under the terms of the resource consent. And they worry about the ability of the Pegasus lake to cope with the one-in-10-year flood event it was designed for.
Another ’baiter, sheltering in the lee of his four-wheel-drive, gives his opinion of the Pegasus site: “I’ve lived here 17 years. That place was always a wicked swamp. Good luck to them, floating a town on a swamp. Swamp water always works its way back.”
They check their nets, but there is no silver bounty. In truth, they are not expecting ’bait this early in August. They come because they have the riverbank to themselves. “No turf wars, no whingeing.” Just that wind, as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss. I ask if they’ve heard about the hot pools that are planned for Pegasus. A steamy soak would be just the ticket after an icy morning on the river. They haven’t, but I doubt they’re the spa-pool type.
And this, I think, is the difference between a town like Waikuku Beach, population 800, and a town like Pegasus, estimated population 5000–7000. Both offer “lifestyle”, but each defines the word differently. Waikuku Beach is a typical laid-back coastal bolt hole. The road in is flanked by five-wire fences, where gorse and broom vie to glow the brighter yellow. Dried dung on the tarseal show where cows cross for milking. The village is a concatenation of Fibrolite cribs and modest architectural statements, a grab-bag of styles and ages. If Pegasus is a winged horse, then Waikuku Beach is a strutting pukeko, and proud of it.
Jo and Murray Kane came to Waikuku Beach 15 years ago for a relaxed pace of life in what they consider to be a special place. Murray works as a cook on the Cook Strait ferries. In 1996, Jo swam Cook Strait, to celebrate turning 40. She was deputy mayor of Waimakariri for nine years, and deputy chair of Environment Canterbury (a.k.a. Canterbury Regional Council) for three. Along with her fellow ECan councillors, she was sacked by the government in 2010 amid criticism of the council’s performance and accusations that the councillors were “too environmentally focused”.
The Kanes opposed Pegasus when it was first mooted in 1997, and have remained staunch opponents ever since. They believe the area is well served with existing towns, with no need for duplication. “You’ve got inland communities like Rangiora, Kaiapoi, Woodend. You’ve got coastal communities like The Pines and Waikuku Beach. Kaiapoi and Rangiora both have golf courses. The last thing this area needed was another golf course,” says Murray.
From the start, the whole thing smelt to them of profit. They recall the first public meeting held in the Waikuku Beach hall. “A dozen experts lecturing the locals. Armani suits, black shirts, Porsches—it was insulting. They treated us like hicks from the beach. Maybe I’m cynical, but they looked to us like wide boys coming to make a quid,” says Murray.
One thing they concede: it’s a good thing Bob Robertson got hold of it. “Bob has vision, and the work is done to a high standard,” says Jo. Even so, some of the Pegasus marketing material has caused them to raise an eyebrow. Murray wonders if prospective residents are told about “old faithful”, the mongrel wind that blows in off the sea. “Even in summer, you can get some grandfather easterlies that will cut you in two,” he says. Jo, who has been a member of the Waikuku Beach Surf Club for 30 years, flips open a Pegasus brochure to a picture of sunbathers with beach umbrellas on a limitless stretch of golden sand. “It’s a rare summer’s day that you could keep an umbrella up for more than a couple of hours in the morning,” she says. As heat rises from the Canterbury Plains, it sucks in the sea breeze like a vacuum cleaner. The golden sands of the artist’s impression are a bit of a stretch, too; Pegasus Bay sand is riverstone grey.
Like the whitebaiters, the Kanes have concerns about stormwater impacts and the risk of flooding. Jo chairs a trust that manages a 500 ha strip of coastal parkland between the Waimakariri River and Pegasus, and made a submission against the developer in its stormwater consent hearing in 2006. The planning commissioners concluded, however, that downstream water quality would likely increase as a result of the town’s stormwater infrastructure and flood risk decrease in all but an extreme weather event.
Floods weren’t the only hazard on local minds. Many opponents of the development during the resource-consent period highlighted the seismic risk—a risk that manifested itself suddenly in September 2010, with the first Christchurch earthquake, and even more catastrophically in February 2011, with the second. In the wake of those events, one of the doyens of New Zealand architecture, Sir Miles Warren, claimed there were parts of Christchurch and surrounding areas that “should never have been built on”, where soils were the structural equivalent of “sweet nothing”. A 2001 geological study had concluded that the entire area east of State Highway 1, between the Ashley and Waimakariri Rivers (including Waikuku Beach, Pegasus and much of Woodend and Kaiapoi), was highly susceptible to earthquake-induced liquefaction.
In Woodend, Walter Clark, former head of zoology at the University of Canterbury and an authority on soil micro-organisms (which he calls the “fauna of darkness”), told me he had opposed Pegasus because he believed that in a large earthquake, a related geological phenomenon called lateral spreading could squeeze the sides of the Pegasus lake together, causing a flash flood. As a ratepayer (“an irate-payer”, his wife corrected him), he was concerned about having to pick up the tab for poor planning decisions, given that the district council would eventually inherit responsibility for Pegasus.
“North Canterbury is one of the most seismically active regions in the country. Sooner or later, an earthquake was bound to occur. The council knew this. They must also have known that the Pegasus site is eminently unsuitable for building. They acted against the best geology.”
For Clark and many others, the arithmetic is clear: a bog times Infinity still equals a bog. Pegasus management begs to differ. In a statement after the September quake, from which the town emerged unscathed, the company detailed the geo-engineering measures it had taken to increase the density of the sediments that underlie the site. These included using sophisticated vibrocompaction equipment brought from Dubai. Soil stabilisation, combined with the town’s innovative drainage system, had “drastically reduced the risk of liquefaction”, said the statement—as was required by the Waimakariri District Plan, which specified that “all utilities shall be designed and constructed to ensure they will remain in service after a 150-year return period earthquake”.
Did the mitigation work make the difference between undamaged homes in the new town and the avenues of broken dreams in Kaiapoi, less than 10 km to the south? Or did Pegasus simply dodge the seismic bullet?
Bob Robertson believes that whatever differences may have existed in earthquake intensity and underlying soil composition between the two areas, the salient point is that the earthquakes of the magnitude that struck Canterbury had been modelled by the town’s engineers, and mitigation measures put in place.
“We spent $20 million to get these outcomes,” he told me, adding a comment about the scale of the project—the very feature that irks some of the neighbouring residents: “If Pegasus had been just a small subdivision, such measures could not have been carried out economically, but for a fully master-planned town like this they were, in the matrix of things, still cost-effective and appropriate.”
The question lingers, though, persistent as the nagging wind that has dogged my visit: Is this the right site for a town? One man who has wrestled with that question is Dan Witter. He has come at it not from the angle of natural hazards or environmental impacts, not from concerns of the present at all, but from obligations to the past.
I meet him a few metres from the fairway of the 15th green. Burly, bearded and wearing a thick windbreaker and a baseball cap, Witter leads the way along a path that winds between a water hazard and the driving range where a ball-harvesting machine is picking up hundreds of yellow Pegasus-branded golf balls.
Here’s a remarkable thing: a well-struck ball from outside the clubhouse would land on the site of the oldest-known pa in the South Island. And the pond with its mixer fountain gurgling in the sunshine was once a lagoon where waka delivered tonnes of pounamu to what Witter calls “the largest greenstone factory in the country”.
Witter is from Wyoming originally, and still has the accent. He married a Kiwi, Alison, also an archaeologist. They worked in Australia for 20 years before settling in Leeston, near Lake Ellesmere, and they’ve been digging at Pegasus for the past three years, keeping one step ahead of the earthmovers.
An archaeological assessment was a condition of the resource consent. Earlier work, along with the oral history of the hapu, had indicated that this was an important site, but the discovery of a fortified pa was a surprise. It created a dilemma for Witter. Should he halt the development to preserve the site, delay development in order to excavate by hand (a painstaking process which might have taken two years and carried the risk of perishable wet-wood artefacts drying out) or work in tandem with the earthmovers to achieve a more rapid, though less thorough, excavation? He chose speed.
Recruiting a dozen assistants from Ngai Tuahuriri to act as spotters, he and his team feverishly logged artefacts as they were revealed. As each scoop of soil came up in the earthmover’s bucket, the cultural monitors would jab a flag in the ground if they saw an artefact. If human remains were found, that section of the operation was shut down until the bones were removed by the tangata whenua.
At times during the excavation, two dozen archaeologists, students and cultural monitors were on site, following the mechanical diggers around like gulls trailing a fishing boat. “We found four times the amount of material we expected,” says Witter. Thousands of pieces of greenstone and bone were recovered, including adzes, chisels, ornaments and needles, complete with eyes. Even more exciting was the discovery of around 50 wooden artefacts, including adze handles, digging sticks, posts from the pa’s defensive palisade, part of a waka and a child’s spinning top. Most had been perfectly preserved in a wet bog layer under the clay.
Those items are now stashed in 14,000 plastic bags inside six shipping containers, awaiting analysis. Witter is eager to start assigning dates to the settlement, which he estimates is at least 500 years old. Yet the people of Taerutu pa were neither the first nor the last Polynesians to live beside Pegasus Bay. They displaced earlier bands of moa hunters, who camped on the dunes and lived on shellfish and fern root, and they themselves were overrun by later groups.
We pick our way through weeds and regenerating scrub to the top of a long ridge that separates the golf-course section of the development, called Mapleham, from the rest of Pegasus town. (The ridge also blocks the main town from the road, helping to maintain the “rural amenity” of the area. Siting the town behind the ridge, Don Miskell told me, was a way of mollifying local objectors who said, “We don’t want to see you.”)
Witter tells me that under our feet are thousands of shards of greenstone. This ridge, known as Hohoupounamu, was the country’s centre of greenstone manufacture and trade. It has been designated a conservation area, and has been capped with a metre of soil. There were three reasons for covering the site, Witter says: to deter souvenir hunters, to preserve the contents indefinitely and “because many Maori prefer things to be left the way their ancestors walked away from them”. Given the cargo of history underneath us, it’s not surprising that Witter considers this “the worst place in Canterbury to have built a town”. But then, what of the council, which held the site in such esteem that it planned to turn it into a rubbish tip?
Standing here, it is easy to imagine those waves of ancestral people working the stone, roasting bracken root, harvesting cockles and tuatua, making a home on these dunes. For each group, time and fate overtook them, often with sudden violence. The tenure of the Hohoupounamu people came to an abrupt end in the late 1600s when Ngai Tahu, with superior military might, rolled down from the north like a wolf on the fold, taking Marlborough, then Canterbury, then the West Coast and Southland.
And now, three centuries later, here is Infinity, putting a new stamp on the land. Looking down on the nascent town, listening to the mingled sounds of magpies and nail guns, I find it tantalising to think of archaeologists hundreds of years hence, sifting through the soils of some post-apocalyptic Pegasus, puzzling over not just flakes of jade but also hundreds of small yellow balls, or wondering how a fishing trawler came to rest in sediments so far from the sea.
Irony—it’s what got me interested in Pegasus, and it’s there when I leave. On the way out of town, I take a look at what’s left of Kaiapoi pa: a tall chimney-like monument with a carved figure at the top, a plaque describing the pa as the chief Ngai Tahu stronghold, a lumpy expanse of mowed grass, and a decaying observation tower, its steps broken, its timbers shat on by roosting birds.
With a bit of dextrous scrambling I climb onto the platform and am surprised to learn that the pa was laid out in the shape of a whale. The meeting house was in the belly; canoes landed at the mouth. I also learn that one of the founders of the pa, a rangatira by the name of Turakautahi, was criticised for choosing such a swampy locality on which to build. Three hundred years later, the same criticism is made of Robertson.
Turakautahi’s pa became the hub of Ngai Tahu’s economy. What will be the future of Pegasus? I’d like to think it was a sense of humility, or at least realism, that led Bob Robertson to cite this proverb on the panels at the highway entrance of Pegasus: As one fern frond dies, another rises to take its place. His town is the new fern in the forest. Some say it has taken the landscape by force, erasing its memories and obliterating its prior imprint. Some regard it as an undesirable import. They question the very notion that a community can be “master planned”, assuming that such a town must bear a permanent taint of artificiality, while a community like Waikuku Beach is more authentic by virtue of growing slowly, in an ad hoc way, going with the grain of the landscape.
Is a beach town that has developed from the bottom up culturally superior to one that has been designed from the top down? Is one a genuine community where “real” people live dynamic lives while the other is a cultural ghetto where unimaginative people live unexamined lives?
Does Waikuku Beach’s playground paddling pool with its smiling concrete whale trump Pegasus’s recreational lake with four kilometres of shoreline and a sunken ship? Will Pegasus’s planned kids’ adventure zone, with a skate park and BMX tracks, eclipse Waikuku Beach’s lonely halfpipe and handful of swings. You won’t find a road called Rotten Row at Pegasus; but by the same token you won’t find a street honouring nga tupuna in Waikuku Beach. Can communities be ranked? Should they be?
Give Pegasus time, says Don Miskell. No matter how towns start, they develop a life of their own. “Think of Twizel,” he says. “After the hydro dam was built, it was going to be dismantled, but the residents said no, we like it here. Or think of Tokoroa or some of the other forestry towns. They started as company towns, but then found a broader identity. We designers shouldn’t overemphasise our importance. All we can really do is set the stage. We have to give the project a good chance of succeeding, but it’s up to individual people whether it works or not.”
In other words, it’s up to the good folk of Pegasus to make this horse fly.