Late last year, New Plymouth was recognised as the world’s most liveable city for its size. But what does that really mean?
Realistically, most people won’t have heard of The International Awards for Liveable Communities. However, in New Plymouth, there’s no doubt they’re at least a little better known.
Even if people don’t know them by name, we’ll skite to friends and family in other parts of the country about taking out the top prize twice now, after first winning in 2008.
But what exactly can we skite about, beyond winning some obscure award (ahem, twice)?
What is a liveable city?
First off, what does liveable even mean? And who decided New Plymouth was the most liveable city?
LivCom, which runs the The International Awards for Liveable Communities, focuses on global best practice in managing development in harmony with the local environment. It’s endorsed by the United Nations, and a key part of its work is encouraging sustainable and environmentally friendly development by illustrating the good work that cities around the world are doing in these spaces.
In terms of liveability, authorities around the world consistently remark on how subjective the concept is.
Dr Mohsen Mohammadzadeh is the director of Urban Planning programs at the University of Auckland. He worked with Auckland City Council to come up with a framework that would make the city more liveable, but says it’s hard to define what liveable even means.
“Liveability means different things to different people. It’s based on their experiences and their perception of different factors – Auckland has won liveability awards, but it’s also categorised as having extremely unaffordable house prices. It really depends on the indexes you use and what weight you give to each factor.”
LivCom’s judging criteria is the enhancement of public spaces, environmental protection, green economy, community empowerment, sustainable planning policies, healthy lifestyles, plus art, culture and heritage management.
New Plymouth’s LivCom award is for cities with between 75,0001 and 150,000 people. For context, that’s roughly between the size of Rotorua and Tauranga.
In the 2021 awards, 160 submissions from 30 countries were entered. They were split across four categories based on their size. In New Plymouth’s category, second place went to Qihe County in China and Israel’s Richon Lezion was judged in third.
Qihe County is in China’s eastern Shandong province, and is known as a home for eco-tourism plus car and equipment manufacturing. It sits on the plains of the Yellow River, but beyond that it’s difficult to really grasp what kind of place it is.
Information about Richon Lezion is easier to come across. Israel’s fourth-largest city, it’s located just south of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coastline. It’s home to the country’s largest amusement park, a popular beach, creative nightlife as well as contemporary art and history museums. Migration service provider NBN says the city has consistently been recognised for its high quality of life.
Other cities to win LivCom awards for their respective sizes were Greystones, Ireland (up to 20,000 people), Narlıdere, Turkey (20,001-75,000), and Nanning, China (400,000+).
However, Mohsen Mohammadzadeh points out that these types of accolades are typically used as domestic branding exercises to attract people from larger cities. How New Plymouth compares to other New Zealand cities in liveability stakes is perhaps more relevant than internationally.
The Washington Post named Auckland the world’s most liveable city last year, a title that many outside the City of Sails no doubt find hard to believe. Wellington was fifth on its list.
New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom believes being recognised as liveable is particularly significant in a time where more people are making values-based decisions around where they want to live.
“In the past, if you really wanted to advance your career, you had to move to Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch. Those times are rapidly dissipating with technology solving the tyranny of distance.
“New Zealanders are people who like a lifestyle balance, so liveability is a critical factor for so many people. They’re asking themselves where they want to live, raise a family and have a good quality of life.”
How did New Plymouth become such a liveable city?
Neil Holdom believes we’re “standing on the shoulders of giants”, with generations of investment in assets that are now influential in the lifestyle the city offers.
Outgoing Venture Taranaki CEO Justine Gilliland agrees, and cites the likes of Pukekura Park as an example.
“People had the foresight to set aside the land for this amazing asset,” Gilliland says. “It brings visitors to our region and many of us spend time there too. There have also been other significant investments like the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre and the coastal walkway. We’ve been blessed with having visionary people commit to transformative projects over many years.”
Gilliland believes the strategic development of the city is key. She says New Plymouth (and wider Taranaki) has developed a real vibrancy, as well as the infrastructure to make things accessible.
“There’s vibrancy in the beautiful gardens…attractions…and events, then on the infrastructure side you’ve got all the things you need to conduct business, live your life and bring up your family.”
Work and economy
A lot of the rhetoric around the LivCom Awards is about nature, sustainability and the environment, but, as Justine Gilliland points out, “you can’t divorce economics from wellbeing.
“The ability of people to have well paid, meaningful jobs is almost a prerequisite to enjoying a great lifestyle,” she adds.
Fortunately, New Plymouth does fairly well on that front.
The regional economy in Taranaki has been one of New Zealand’s strongest in recent years. Statistics NZ reports Taranaki had New Zealand’s highest GDP per capita each year from 2007 to 2020, except for 2017 and 2019, when Wellington was highest.
Venture Taranaki reports the regional unemployment rate dropped to 4.1% in September last year, which is a historically low rate. That doesn’t mean the job market is without its challenges though.
“There remains a significant skills gap, with employers struggling to find people to fill their needs,” VT’s latest Taranaki Trends report states.
It found the number of people who viewed advertisements for jobs in New Plymouth was higher than those looking at jobs based in Wellington, Hamilton and Christchurch, and only slightly fewer than Auckland. There were more people, and more new people, based in New Plymouth looking at job ads than all of those larger cities.
Overall, Justine Gilliland says the region has been vibrant for many years.
“Having an entrepreneurial mindset is critical to creating jobs – we’ve long had that and it’s something we need to grow further. We’re geared at building the entrepreneurship ecosystem so people are supported to develop and grow their businesses faster. That means inspiring entrepreneurs to start their businesses here, supporting existing businesses to innovate and grow, and also attracting investors to put money into business interests here.”
The largest industries in Taranaki employ thousands of people. Sectors such as food and fibre, energy, engineering, health and construction have been strong for many years, and provide the backbone to New Plymouth’s strong economy.
As Neil Holdom points out, “that prosperity goes back to helping create a holistically healthy population.”
While there may has been a focus on developing New Plymouth as a liveable city, there’s also a dash of good fortune in that the city happens to be in a rather nice setting.
Taranaki Maunga, Pukekura Park, beaches, rivers and other natural features and attractions have been here for centuries, and contribute greatly to the city.
In saying that, the way these places are managed has plainly allowed them to become what they are.
The city’s submission to the LivCom awards included touching on its 1,600 hectares of parks, 82 kilometres of walkways, 50 playgrounds and free fruit available from five public orchards.
Neil Holdom believes a very deliberate approach to environmental protection is important, as seen in the city’s 30-year infrastructure strategy and waste minimisation plan.
“New Plymouth is green and getting greener, with 34 hectares of new urban forest on the way and 8,600 hectares of pest control. We’ve also been trialling the use of recycled plastic in our roading asphalt.”
Another recently recognised natural feature is the region’s weather. Yes, The west coast is hardly known for its climate, but perhaps that reputation is being challenged.
New Plymouth received the most sunshine hours of any New Zealand city last year, with a total of 2,592 hours of sun. The city backed that up in January this year with 358.6 hours of sun – an all-time monthly record for anywhere in New Zealand.
At the same time, there’s also enough rainfall to satisfy Taranaki’s strong dairy industry and agricultural sector.
Cost of living
It’s very easy to assume that, with house prices less than big cities like Auckland, New Plymouth is a more affordable place to live.
This is true, although in December, Venture Taranaki’s Taranaki Trends report showed that since 2016, the region’s average growth in house prices has been above the national average.
New Plymouth had a record high median house price sale of $700,000 in October 2021, and Taranaki’s median sale price of $630,000 was up more than 31% on the year prior.
Elsewhere, Barfoot and Thompson reported Auckland’s median house price was $1.235 million in December. Opes Partners found Wellington had a median of $1 million, and Christchurch – which led New Zealand with 35% growth in property prices last year – was at $758,000.
House prices aren’t the only indicator of what it costs to live here though.
Comparison website livingcost.org lists the cost of living in New Plymouth as $1,463 per person, per month. That’s in the top 31% of most expensive cities in the world, and 13th out of the 31 New Zealand cities it analysed.
New Plymouth is cheaper than major cities and the likes of Gisborne, Tauranga and Nelson, but more expensive than Palmerston North, Napier and Taupo.
While expenses like petrol can differ between provinces, the vast majority of everyday costs are similar across the country. House prices, on the other hand, can differ by hundreds of thousands of dollars from one city to the next, and influence the price of renting and rates too.
Venture Taranaki’s Taranaki Trends report summarises the situation:
“Median household and personal incomes have increased modestly over the past six months, while house prices have soared by almost 30%. The impact on cost of living and living standards is inescapable; our reputation as an affordable and liveable region is becoming harder to maintain.
“This trend is happening all over New Zealand, so when we compare ourselves with other main centres, it paints a rosier picture, however in real terms, life is becoming more costly for New Zealanders.”
Mohsen Mohammadzadeh describes lifestyle as a particularly subjective aspect of liveability. It boils down to the things people enjoy, and their ability to go out and do them.
What New Plymouth really has going for it is its variety of assets and attractions that appeal to many people with many different lifestyle goals.
There’s a strong events scene, with the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (TAFT) a particularly highly-regarded provider of popular events. Covid aside, the Taranaki Garden Festival and WOMAD are annual highlights, as is New Plymouth District Council’s Festival of Lights.
The council’s Bowl of Brooklands was named New Zealand’s best large event venue in November, and is commonly at capacity for summer concerts.
Generally speaking, the city is an easy place to get around. Neil Holdom proudly talks of being able to leave his Lepperton home at 8am, drop three children at three different schools and be at work by 8.30.
Everyone spoken to for this article talked about the number of things to see and do, and it makes for a formidable list.
They include foreshore and river-side walkways, Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, the Wind Wand, playgrounds, bike tracks, skateparks, the Len Lye Museum, Puke Ariki, Pukeiti and more.
“There are so many simple things that are right there,” Holdom summarises. “We have fantastic natural attractions and all of this other infrastructure that’s been designed to get people out and connect, which is pretty cool.”
Case Study: Carmen Castro-Verbeek
Carmen Castro-Verbeek and her husband, Joop Verbeek, are the founders of popular local organic coffee roastery IncaFe. She is originally from Peru, while he’s Dutch.
After careers in architecture and engineering, they delved into the global coffee industry, sourcing beans from as far afield as South America, Indonesia and Africa.
Seemingly, they could live anywhere. In fact, Carmen says being in New Plymouth is actually quite inconvenient at times.
“It doesn’t make sense for our business to be here. In New Zealand, it would make more sense to be closer to Tauranga, Auckland or Hamilton. We’re also far away from our families overseas, and in the last couple of years, that distance has felt huge.”
The pair came to New Plymouth through Joop’s job in the energy sector in 2000, and they initially saw it as a short term assignment. His contract was extended multiple times, and each time they were relieved they got to stay longer.
“After a while we realised that actually, we just want to stay here. Our lives were perfect, and we wanted to raise our kids here.”
What does New Plymouth have going for it that South America, the Netherlands, or anywhere else doesn’t? For Carmen, it’s about the people.
“It’s the friendliness of the community and ease of everything. People have always been welcoming and friendly, and the attitude of people here is all about community. People are equal, and everyone is valued the same way.
“Kids at school all helped to clean up after the storm the other day, and at the tennis club the other night we all spent 10 minutes tidying up before we played…that’s so normal here, and I like that.”
Case study: Aleshia and Scott Johnson
Aleshia Johnson believes New Plymouth has had a total liveability makeover in the past decade. Johnson left after high school and returned two and half years ago with her husband, Scott. They’d spent time in Auckland and London, but found New Plymouth offers everything they liked about the bigger cities.
“It’s become quite cultured. It feels like the creative part of local people has really flourished; there are coffee roasters, the art scene, new cafes, live music, craft beer, food trucks…people have brought so many things from other places. If I came back and it was the same as it was 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been as good.”
Scott’s from Auckland originally, and had never been to New Plymouth before meeting Aleshia. It only took a few visits to decide it was where they wanted to settle.
Since moving, they’ve bought a house close to the beach, got a dog and got married. Another highlight is climbing Mt. Taranaki twice (dawn summits – “you’ve gotta do it the real way,” Scott laughs).
Scott changed careers when he moved, starting an apprenticeship with building company Urban Prefab, while Aleshia works remotely as co-founder and Research Director for functional supplements and food company Ritual & Rise.
“There’s no way I could have afforded to change careers in Auckland – moving here has opened up that opportunity,” Scott reflects.
“What really gets me going is the lifestyle,” Aleshia says. “You can do a full day’s work, go for a walk or a surf at the beach then go out for dinner – you can only really do that in the weekend in Auckland. It’s like cramming three days into one, and it just makes your week so much more fulfilling.”
They’ve sold the lifestyle so well that Scott’s parents have moved down after spending all their working lives in Auckland. Scott’s even helping to build their new home in Ōakura.
“They like it for the same reason we do,” Scott says. “There are heaps of walks, great people, and it’s all just really easy.”
Case study: Josh and Kate Robinson*
Josh Robinson commutes between New Plymouth and Wellington for work, spending three days a week in the capital. Even then, he sees more of his two New Plymouth-based daughters than if they’d all stayed in the region.
With a good job at a government agency, Josh and Kate thought they’d be able to get at least an OK house in Wellington last year. They were in for a shock.
“Our mortgage broker essentially laughed at us when we first told him what we wanted,” Josh recalls. “We went to open homes for what would be our price bracket…it was so demoralising.”
Josh is from New Plymouth originally, and the pair had always liked the idea of moving here. But it never quite seemed possible with work elsewhere, until they thought out of the box. If they all moved to New Plymouth, Josh could spend Tuesday to Thursday in Wellington, staying with Kate’s parents for two nights, and work remotely on Mondays and Fridays.
“We realised the commute to Wellington from New Plymouth is actually better than from the Hutt or Kapiti. It would have been an hour in traffic each way every day, so I’d be gone before the girls woke up in the morning and I’d get home after they went to bed.
“Doing it from New Plymouth, I miss two days a week but I’m here for everything else.”
It wasn’t straightforward buying a house in New Plymouth – they missed out on a couple of houses they offered on – but they’ve ended up with a comfortable family home that’s close to town. It’s given their family the kind of stability they’ve never had before.
“Our oldest daughter has lived in seven houses, and she’s only four years old,” Kate laughs. “The last two rentals in Wellington were both supposed to be long term, but both times the landlords sold them after we’d only been there a few months. We didn’t want to move again – we wanted to give the girls one place to call home.”