Living in the 'trees', Hokitika 2038

By Dr Robert Hickson

3 min read

Tagged with:

  • Opinion
  • New Zealand

Futures speculator Dr Robert Hickson envisages Hokitika in 2038, with climate change dramatically affecting the viability of many West Coast towns in New Zealand. Rather than fight nature, the community’s emphasis has shifted to adapting construction methods and designs.

jared rice 388264 unsplash tree house sized for web2
Photo: Jared Rice, Unsplash

It’s a hard decision to move a town, or drastically change it. But it’s perhaps not so hard on the West Coast. Trapped between the mountains and the sea there aren’t many places to actually move towns to. 

Sea walls, stop banks, bunds, sand bags. Over the years, we’d tried them all in Hokitika as the water has steadily encroached. Making them higher, wider, smarter after each record flood and storm. 

But after more than a century of fighting nature and losing each time, the decision had to be made. Plus the fact that the insurance companies weren’t going to insure us any more if things stayed the same.

So we decided we would work with the environment, not against it. These days, that’s not that surprising, but back in 2027 when the West Coast Construction Collective was formed (yeah, we made a mistake at the start with the WC3 branding), it wasn’t so common.

Other towns have made wooden skyscrapers, tree houses, or “vertical gardens”. But we’ve been the first to create a town in the “trees”. As with many brilliant ideas, nature got there first, so we drew inspiration from the kahikatea forests, which are at home both in water and on land. 

Naturally, we couldn’t use real trees, but steel, composites and laminates enabled us to craft bigger, stronger, buttressed structures with deep roots into the coastal ground. And they are interconnected with walkways. Compact, but we have an extra dimension to work with – the sky’s the limit!

Tropical Cyclone Tane in 2036 dramatically illustrated the ability for the design to withstand the worst, so far, that the elements can throw at it. Thankfully, a major earthquake hasn’t tested us yet, but the engineers say the structures should be good for even a low seven magnitude shake. 

There is still a lot to do of course. The town centre is largely complete (although it seems expansion will be necessary in a few years), but many homes further inland still need to go up. For some locals it has been too expensive, or they just don’t want to live a few swaying metres above the ground. 

On the other hand, it has attracted many newcomers to move here. Either to fulfill a fantasy of living in a tree house, or because of the new jobs brought about by the construction, and the on-land fish farming ventures (there’s more than three and a half metres of rain a year now that can be put to productive use). 

I thought we’d have a big problem making the town accessible for the elderly and those with disabilities. However, that’s been less of an issue thanks to the self-stabilising technologies built into the skyways, and the latest exoskeletons and smart sticks for people.

One of the unexpected benefits of being so innovative is that companies are coming to us with big discounts to help showcase their technologies, so it’s less costly for residents. 

And, of course, the tourist benefit has gone through the crown (we like speaking in tree similes now). 

However, the big challenge will always be the roads down here. We’ve got the bridges sorted, but we still need the roads, and they are still firmly on the ground. We just stay in our trees when they need repairing and enjoy the view!

Robert Hickson

By Dr Robert

Dr Robert Hickson is a futures speculator; that is, one who does not predict the future but examines trends, and history, to imagine what non-bleak futures may be possible. Author of the foresight blog Ariadne, he works with many New Zealand organisations to improve foresight thinking. He holds the view that in New Zealand, we don’t do enough looking forward.

The thoughts expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those held by the Industry Transformation Agenda.