Coolest Little Sustainable Capital in the World

“I see Wellington has potential to be the coolest little sustainable capital in the world”

Mark Amery chats to someone new at Letting Space: the remarkable Laurie Foon, new Urban Dream Brokerage broker, about the changing face of Wellington, and why she’s dedicated to it.

You’re someone who’s a real advocate for Wellington as a city. What makes Wellington a special city for you?

Well, it’s a good question. I’ve asked many other people this. It’s not one single thing. It’s the magical blend that we have with our environment: our beautiful green spaces and then our built up spaces. But I think to me what really gives Wellington that x-factor – isn’t the coffee, although that does help! – its the magic that we get through the diversity that we have of people coming together in a close space.

It’s an intimate space, isn’t it?

It’s a very intimate space and I would be surprised if anyone could be truly isolated in Wellington City.

Did you grow up here?

Well, not quite. But I did grow up very close – over the hill in Wainuiomata. We used to make lots of trips into town with Mum, and go to James Smith’s and the D.I.C. She had layby accounts everywhere. And I always loved those trips. As soon as I was independently able to get over that hill I was on any set of wheels that I could to get into the big city. So this has always been my space.

A lot of people know you from your involvement in setting up an independent fashion label in Wellington, Starfish. Were you from the get-go dedicated to wanting to stay in Wellington and do something here?

Well, interestingly enough, that is something else that I’ve seen… When I was growing up in Wellington, we only knew what we knew and actually Wellington was quite a dark space. There wasn’t really a lot going on here, and I would describe it as being grey. Having said that, it was what we knew so we loved it and we made good with what we had.

I did have the amazing opportunity of going overseas and I am so pleased I have had a good three-year stint in Europe living in different cities in Europe, and I was always entrepreneurial. And I quickly realised that it would be so much easier for me to kickstart business back home. So after three years – and with the Gulf War starting – I made that move after trying to start little businesses in all sorts of places: in Denmark and Portugal and Italy. Um – and I came back.

I knew that the Wellington Market was there. It was a really important part of developing a business – an early fledgling business – to have easy start up spaces. Spaces where you could experiment and really get into your groove, and be live! Be live from the word go, rather than this thing that was coming up. And the other thing we were able to do from a small fledgling experimental space was – grow.

You started from the markets, didn’t you?

Yes! I grew from a market stall to three retail stores, wholesaling to other stores throughout NZ and exporting. It’s quite an amazing process to have gone through.

Your business’s growth marked a really interesting time in Wellington, the 1990s. It was very vibrant in its growth of diversity in the arts and use if new spaces, but then a lot of artists got forced out of the city by the property market. Do you see Starfish’s growth and then demise paralleling that?

Well, that space that I spoke about which was quite bland I describe as being a blank canvas. Because there wasn’t a lot going on that meant that things could flourish. The music scene was starting to flourish and small businesses were also popping up through the market. In the art scene Taki Rua Depot Theatre was so strong at that time. It was a very exciting time to be alive in Wellington.

Out of that flourishing came all of these small businesses – and I guess what was a real milestone in that flourishing and the changes that were going on was when the motorway bypass was proposed to come through Wellington. I couldn’t see the logic. All I could see was sprouting vibrancy and unique, amazing, creative businesses – it was bubbling! I couldn’t see why you would want to almost put a road bock on that - not allowing that to come to its full potential.

So, is that what’s kind of led you here? To the Urban Dream Brokerage and other work you do?

In my last business we were a clothing designer, but actually we sprung from retail. I really felt that retail was a vital part of the community development in Wellington. And when I say retail, it was that we always looked at our shop as not just about selling things but as a community space for people who had a common interest.

Clothes was one thing but also we had a lot of political and creative common interests

A commons space as we like to say.

Yes, nice. That’s how we saw our store.

Is that what drives your interest with being involved with Letting Space?

Yes – I can see the value of connectedness, the value of space being interesting, exciting and being used. I have a little bit of a stake in the ground on local projects and local business, so that’s really important to me.

But the other bigger, bigger goal that I work to now is that I see Wellington has potential to be the coolest little sustainable capital in the world. We have our environmental problems, but they cannot be dealt with without our social connection as well. So, to me, this is such a vital place of people having a voice, projects being able to be ventured. For all types of seedling local business or local projects, pilots, to use the space that is available. I am very much proud to be a part of seeing that happen here in Wellington.

As well as Urban Dream Brokerage you’re involved with the Sustainable Business Network

Yes. I’m the coordinator for the Sustainable Business Network. The environmental and sustainable part of having a business became very important to me. What I love is seeing these amazing initiatives and projects coming out of Wellington. How do we support their journey? How do we get the word out about what these amazing projects are? And see them flourish here as well.

Transcription by San Featherstone. her photography of Wellington can be viewed here.