News | 7 April 2022
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Let's rev up central city and be suburban-proud

What does Wellington look like beyond the pandemic? For Ralph Johns of integrated design studio Isthmus it’s about a resilient city and suburbs that create amazing experiences so people want to stay.

A man in a black t-shirt sitting at a wooden desk with paperwork on it and pinned to the wall behind him.

When Ralph swam with dolphins in Wellington Harbour and broke the surface to hear plane engines screaming overhead, he knew he had found a place to belong.

“I thought, ‘sh*t, you don’t get this back in Wales!’” More than 20 years on, he’s deeply, happily entrenched in the city and its land, people and culture. 

He literally ‘put down roots’ in Ngaio, planting the family section with native trees and edibles. The whenua of his three children are buried deep in the ground, in a gully where they have all grown up to be connected to nature through food and play.

‘Business for good’ is key to success

Ralph says he and his colleagues at Isthmus are all about making our places better.

“We are an active part of the change Wellington’s been going through. There’s been some amazing change in the natural environment – connecting to the harbour, restoring the town belt and gullies, the resurgence of native bird. And the fact our central city is how our biggest neighbourhood shows urban and natural environments aren’t mutually exclusive.”

But there are more opportunities and there’s more to do, he says.

Ralph’s a huge believer in ‘business for good’, and he sees this as a key opportunity for Wellington. Isthmus sources lots of its office essentials locally. Milk, coffee, beer, biscuits and fruit are all locally produced. Staff use Mevo shared cars and the office e-bike – or their own bikes and skateboards – to get around. Deliveries arrive by sustainable transport where possible, and composting is taken care of by a local provider.

“When we build sustainable networks it’s good for us, for other businesses, for the community and the environment,” Ralph says.

Nurturing relationships with mana whenua is another key to future success.

“Integrating matauranga Māori concepts from the inception of planning and design gives much more meaningful engagement.”

Isthmus has a long association with the Victoria University of Wellington, and it’s a relationship that benefits the university, students and Wellington employers including Isthmus.

“We have interns working with us while they study, and we have employed dozens of graduates. It’s a great opportunity for them to build their careers in Wellington, and we benefit by building our knowledge and intellectual property from these amazingly talented people.”

‘A centralised city is not resilient’

Ralph wants to see two key opportunities realised in Wellington in the next 10 years.

“We need to be ‘suburban-and-proud’. A centralised city is not resilient. There’s so much potential in places like Johnsonville, Karori and Kilbirnie. I want to see the city set the agenda without being held to ransom by ‘land bankers’.  Most of the city is privately owned, so I want to see the council help build business confidence and catalyse private investment. A lot of property is languishing.

“And our streets are the places with huge potential. Let’s focus on the experience we want to create, so we can attract and then retain people. Yes, we should be making our city more resilient and environmentally friendly – but let’s create a radically different ‘surface’ to our streets.”

What does Wellington need to do to be successful? Let us know by taking our survey on Lets Talk