Learning about Environmental Justice in Aotearoa/New Zealand

By Carlton Eley

I had the experience of a lifetime in 2003 when I was selected for the Ian Axford (New Zealand) Fellowships in Public Policy.  I traveled to New Zealand to research how the nation’s policies encourage sustainable urban settlements, and I left the country enriched with broader knowledge about programs that are complementary to encouraging ‘environmental justice.’

The term environmental justice isn’t referenced verbatim in New Zealand’s environmental policies.  However, when you peel back the layers by talking to citizens, public officials, and Iwi (tribal) authorities, it is easy for an American researcher with a passion for the topic of environmental justice to become awestruck by the strides New Zealand has made in the areas of public involvement; social impact analysis; cultural preservation; heritage landscapes; and Māori approaches to community development.  As an urban planner, I took a key interest in the latter issues, heritage landscapes and community development.

In New Zealand, public discourse about heritage landscapes reveals there are many landscapes, which have heritage significance to communities, Iwi, and the nation. In the process, Kiwis have learned that preservation isn’t simply about protecting historic buildings, landmarks, and monuments. It is also about honoring the narratives, the institutions, and cultural assets that contribute to a sense of place. In the end, the built heritage and the institutional heritage are both treasures (or taonga in Māori) because they equally contribute to creating a sense of place.

Terry Puketapu inside the ‘Te Maori’ Cultural Centre.

As for community development, I was particularly impressed withthe efforts lead by Terry Puketapu within Lower Hutt.  As a local leader, Terry had a clear sense of the community’s pulse and the need for businesses, facilities, and jobs that would improve quality of life.  Following years of investment, Terry and the Iwi authority have built a community health center; fitness center; radio station; cultural center; as well as a pre-school which also serves as a language nest for teaching toddlers to speak Māori.  Further, the neighborhood services are for the benefit and enjoyment of all residents who live in the community.

My time with the people of New Zealand left quite an impression on me, and it reinforced my belief that environmental justice is a forward-thinking, sustainable approach.  New Zealand is often thought of as a breath-taking place because of its abundant natural amenities.  However, when I reflect on my fellowship experience, I am reminded of a country that has gone ‘beyond the green;’ that is improving communities holistically; yet tends to be modest about what it has accomplished.

Carlton Eley works for the Office of Policy.  He is an urban planner, sociologist, and lecturer.  Carlton interned with EPA’s Environmental Justice Program in Region 10 as an associate of the Environmental Careers Organization in 1994.  In recent years, he has become an accomplished and respected expert on the topic of equitable development in the public sector.