I am particularly happy to include this feature from ‘Local Democracy Reporting’ RNZ.

I have loved Whanganui townscape and regional geography since working as an Architecture Graduate in Whanganui 1985 – 1987 for local architects: Belchambers and Bondy.

I was so taken with walking the city, across its diverse landscapes and historic built precincts, that I took the opportunity to campaign as a Counsellor in the 1986 Local Body Elections. I campaigned for a positive Whanganui, advocating opening up the CBD to the great River and refocussing on the existing character of the extensive number of original buildings both commercial and industrial across the city. People were surprised that I was so keen on this ‘backwater’ provincial city, most notably a place people left from.

Within 5 years it bounced into action, to celebrate in the early 1990’s becoming the best Mainstreet planning scheme in Australasia. The legendary design school, in the centre of town, brought art teachers from across the world to lecture and who settled, stayed and continued their arts practices. Bruce Dixon of architects Dickson Lonergan led the Mainstreet design programme and transformed the vitality of this historic old town. Galleries opened up in old warehouses along the Riverfront, along with the Saturday market and the restoration of the old Riverboat.

Maori reverence of their great Whanganui River drove the call, such that the Whanganui River is now a legal entity, it has legal personhood.

‘In 2017, an exceptional incident occurred. Whanganui River became the first waterway in the world to get legal personhood. The third-longest river in New Zealand can now be represented in court and has two guardians to speak on its behalf.’17/12/2020

>  Innovative bill protects whanganui river with legal personhood

> The New Zealand river that became a legal person

Then in late 2021 the Wanganui development agency Whanganui & Partners achieved success in their application for Whanganui to become recognised as a Unesco City of Design.

I am delighted that Dr Emma Bugden, who led the application process, reflects on ‘place-making’ and the ‘visual identity’ of cities as key to their endeavours…

‘Being part of the network will strengthen Whanganui connections with indigenous creatives around the world, particularly focusing on how indigenous voices are reflected in place-making and the visual identity of cities.”  Dr Emma Bugen

Whanganui becomes NZ’s only UNESCO City of Design


Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua in Whanganui Photo: Supplied / Whanganui & Partners

Whanganui has been named as New Zealand’s only UNESCO City of Design, recognising the city’s historic and contemporary contributions to art and creativity.

The designation earns Whanganui a place in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network of 246 cities which put creativity at the heart of their development plans.

Economic development agency Whanganui & Partners began the process to be recognised as a City of Design in August last year. The application was led by Dr Emma Bugden, strategic lead – creative industries, who worked with more than 100 stakeholders, partners and professional bodies throughout the process.

Dr Emma Bugden Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

Bugden said Whanganui’s status should be a source of pride for the whole community.

“The designation will be at the forefront of Whanganui’s profile in the city’s promotion and in our sense of identity. It is our intention that our city’s narrative, the way we speak and think about ourselves, will include our status as a UNESCO City of Design as a matter of custom.”

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network was created in 2004 to promote co-operation among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development.
As a City of Design, Whanganui would learn from and partner with a global network of leaders, Bugden said.

“Being part of the network will strengthen Whanganui connections with indigenous creatives around the world, particularly focusing on how indigenous voices are reflected in place-making and the visual identity of cities.”

St Paul’s Church at Pūtiki in Whanganui Photo: LDR / Supplied / Whanganui & Partners

She said the designation would help create international partnerships for major institutions and education facilities, enabling them to exchange and share knowledge, which would be particularly beneficial for emerging designers and makers.

Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall said the network’s aims align with Whanganui District Council’s Leading Edge philosophy by encouraging partnerships, connectivity, innovative approaches and safeguarding cultural heritage and natural resources.

Article cafe in Whanganui Photo: LDR / Supplied / Whanganui & Partners

“Our creative environment has always nurtured makers in our community, from our significant artistic legacy to our position as a creative hub. Joining other UNESCO Creative Cities will give us a connection to like-minded places and enable Whanganui to contribute our singular vision to this creative community.”


Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ on Air.