Our Wellington

News | 5 January 2021

Changing the face of the Capital's outdoors

A Council staffer who’s quietly played a huge role in changing the face of the Capital City’s outdoors – whether it’s our sportsfields, play areas, sculptures or seashores – is retiring after 41 years.

Peter Hemsley in front of a Council artificial turf.

Peter Hemsley is leaving his role as Marina and Sports Projects Manager at the Council to do some fishing and do some home improvements – after spending so many years making improvements to the city’s facilities to make life easier and more enjoyable for people in the outdoors.

Paul Andrews, the Council’s Parks, Sport and Recreation Manager, says Peter leaves an important legacy for the city.

A born-and-bred Karori boy, Peter joined the Council in 1979 as a groundsman at Wakefield Park in Island Bay after learning his trade at the Karori Golf Club and then the Springfield Golf Course in Rotorua. In those years, as he says, Wellington’s sportsfields were mud baths in the winter and winter codes had to cancel matches for weeks on end. He began his rise through the ranks with a nine-year stint as groundsman at Kelburn Park where he honed his skills by producing top-quality cricket and croquet surfaces.

Peter then took the role of Sportsfields Supervisor for the city’s northern suburbs, from Karori to Grenada North – and helped start the gradual process of improving the drainage and irrigation of key sportsfields via techniques including sand-slitting turfs and then laying sand bases under fields used for top-level club sport. After three years he came in from the cold and joined Parks, Sport and Recreation Management who, at the time, were based in Anvil House in Wakefield Street.

Having negotiated the first of many Council restructures, Peter was put in charge of playgrounds. “We did some serious modernising – and pulled out lots of dodgy old equipment that was heavy and capable of hurting children. We even started installing matting and bark chips!”

 
Oriental Bay.

Peter then shifted to commissioning and installing outdoor art around the city in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Among his favourite projects was the statue of John Plimmer and his dog, at the entrance to Plimmer Lane – a magnet for children and tourists alike. Other favourites are the landmark Reeds kinetic sculpture in the middle of the Cobham Drive roundabout at the northern end of the airport, and the Tuatara sculpture in the Cuba Mall – another kids’ favourite. “It’s sculpture and play equipment at the same time.”

Other small projects that, as Peter says, “all make contributions and a little bit of difference to the city” include the wishing well and stingray shower in Oriental Bay.

Peter’s move to making an impact on the city’s seashores and harbour then began with his role as manager in charge of the construction of the Owhiro Bay boat ramp – a project bitterly opposed by some in the Owhiro Bay and Island Bay community. The project only went ahead after legal attempts to stop it were thrown out of court. “It was a tough battle but we knew there was strong support for the ramp from the boating community and emergency services – there’s no other decent public ramp between Owhiro Bay and Titahi Bay. I’m glad to see the car park full of boat trailers on a good day.”

Since then, Peter has juggled nautical responsibilities with more sportsfield duties. He’s played a big role in getting artificial sports turfs introduced around the city in the past 20 years – “they’ve revolutionised club sports and made it accessible to far more people” – and he’s taken an abiding interest in Oriental Bay.

Since the multimillion-dollar Oriental Bay beach redevelopment was completed in 2005 – following the barging of 17,000 cubic metres of sand from Takaka – Peter’s been in charge of keeping the beach groomed and intact. This involves a significant earthmoving project each spring when the sand is trucked back to the western end of the beach after prevailing winds and waves push it gradually east. “It’s not a big deal really to do that work when you consider how brilliant the beach now is. Before the upgrade it was a pretty sad beach.”

 
Peter Hemsley at Oriental Bay beach.

Over the past two decades Peter has also been in charge of the Carter fountain – a beloved Wellington landmark that’s proved temperamental over the years. It’s broken down several times due to the harsh salty conditions in which it operates. Mussel larvae have also grown inside the intake pipes and there’ve been many other challenges including getting replacement parts. Peter, however, now reckons he’s tamed the fountain. “It’s all computer controlled now and we get divers down regularly to clean out the filters. It’s going well…”

Peter has also contributed to a number of landscaping and beach improvements along the south coast and around the harbour entrance – and has been part of the gradual change in the approach to the way the coastline is treated. “In the past we used to put big bulldozers onto the likes of Worser Bay and Seatoun beaches to shift sand round – now the approach is to plant dunes in native grasses and let nature take its course – which is a far better approach.”

He says the changes at the Council over the years have been radical. “When I was Sportsfields Supervisor I had a team of 26 staff – now there are about six people doing the same work. They work bloody hard these days.” There are also frustrations – “trying to get a wharf fixed and having to deal with all the organisations and heritage strictures involved – I won’t miss that.” Nor, he says, will he miss the advent of contractual procedures that frustrate the aim of getting a job done.

But he reckons the city now is a much better place than 40 years ago – and he pays tribute to the people he’s worked with. “They love their jobs and they’re clever and they love doing things for the city.”

Paul Andrews has the final word: “Peter’s done a hell of a lot of stuff under the radar – before he got stuck into the south coast it was treated like the arse end of the city – he had a big role in making it the attractive and popular place it is today. His sportsfield work has also shown obvious benefits. When he started, sportspeople were playing in bogs – now the surfaces are world-class.

“Peter doesn’t make a lot of fuss – he’s quiet but also mischievous – he leaves an important legacy.”