The Walking Access Awards of 2014

If you haven’t heard, the Walking Access Commission (WAC) is requesting nominations for its 2014 Walking Access Awards. If you have any ideas for individuals, organisations or other entities to nominate, head over here and follow the instructions. Nominations close on 18th July.

The Walking Access Commission was formed with the Walking Access Act of 2008. Its main role is to provide leadership and coordination for negotiating (for example) access across private land and, where possible, aiming to facilitate trusting relationships between people on both sides. One of the coolest and easiest-to-appreciate things which has come out of the Walking Access Commission so far, however, has been the Walking Access Mapping System, also known as the WAMS.

In its early days, the WAC asked recreationalists what the most useful things were that it could do to help people access public spaces. A popular response was that it was very difficult to find out where we’re actually allowed to go, especially in the midst of private land that often surrounds the conservation estate. If you didn’t already know for some reason that there was meant to be public access in a certain place, it wouldn’t always be obvious to try and find out. In 2009, the responses caused the Walking Access Commission to commission creation of the WAMS as one of its first tasks.

If you reach the end of the road and there’s a gate, is it legal to walk through the gate or is it a boundary for private property? Is there a public easement for walking a line across someone’s property to the land behind it? Does a fence mean that the land behind it belongs to someone, or have they built it in the wrong place and happen to be making it appear that access is illegal when it isn’t?

Until fairly recently, most of this type of information was scattered across largely internal databases held by authorities. Immediate and easy information would often be unheard of, especially for anyone trying to plan a trip far away from home.

With the WAMS, the Commission has managed to collect all available digital information from local government and national government, consolidate it into a single database, and provide a clean, relatively intuitive interface for all of New Zealand which anyone can browse and determine if it’s okay to walk across a piece of land.

There are limitations. For example, information in the WAMS is only as reliable as the information that’s digitally held by the various authorities. This means that some public access ways aren’t necessarily marked clearly in the system. There are also plenty of patches of private land for which the land-owners are usually very happy to allow access for careful and responsible people as long as permission is obtained, but information about these is not readily available in the WAMS. Sometimes there are also ambiguities about boundaries, where land might not have been recently surveyed, but that’s all the more reason to encourage land to be properly surveyed in places where there should be public access-ways and when there’s an interest.

What I’d like to do for the Walking Access Awards is to nominate the Walking Access Commission for having provided the Walking Access Mapping System to begin with. It’s a very helpful tool that’s made it much easier to zoom into an interesting looking part of New Zealand, and quickly identify likely ways of accessing it to explore.

Nominating the WAC for the WAA thanks to the WAMS probably isn’t what the WAC has in mind, however. Has anyone any other ideas?

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