Innovation in Council-Community Relations Award application

Ōtumuheke Stream revitalisation

Ōtumuheke hot stream is a popular free visitor attraction in Taupō’s Spa Park. It is located on a picturesque bend of the Waikato River, close to well-used walking and cycling trails.

The natural hot springs are of cultural importance to local iwi as an historic bathing and meeting place. The site is also a habitat for rare native ferns, that thrive in the geothermal environment.

Over the years Ōtumuheke has experienced a significant growth in visitor numbers, from around 500 a day in 2005 to 1,500 a day in 2016. This was causing erosion, an increase in theft and threatening behaviour, bush toileting, damage to the rare ferns, and reduced awareness of the cultural significance of the site. The site’s lack of infrastructure exacerbated these issues.

After several years of planning and consultation with key stakeholders, including local iwi Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Taupō District Council completed the Ōtumuheke Cultural and Ecological Enhancement Project in August 2018. 

Strategic Context

The need: 

Growing visitor numbers at Ōtumuheke Hot Stream had been causing riverbank and stream edge erosion, bush toileting, theft, and destruction of rare ferns. The site, also known as Hipapatua (Landing Bay), had been used in the past as a canoe landing area and sacred place of gathering, cleansing and karakia. Visitor surveys (approximately 500 visitors a day in 2005 vs 1,500 a day in 2016), police reports of increasing theft and threatening behaviour issues, an ecological assessment showing a decline in rare native ferns and growing concern from local iwi all indicated a pressing need for restoration and protection of the Ōtumuheke site.

Anticipated outcomes: 

The objectives of the Ōtumuheke Cultural and Ecological Enhancement Project were to:

•   Protect native vegetation (including rare ferns) and reduce erosion and waste.

•   Reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.

•   Improve visitor understanding of the site’s cultural significance.

•   Improve relations with key stakeholders.

Relationship with Strategic Direction

Taupo District Council’s long-term district strategy outlines five priority areas, including promoting economic development. The redevelopment of Ōtumuheke Hot Stream encourages people to visit Taupō and spend money in the district. The new café at the site also provides training and employment opportunities for local iwi. The project epitomises the Council’s commitment of ‘looking after the places we love’.

Risk Mitigation 

This project had previously been on hold due to concern voiced by stakeholders, so consultation was absolutely vital to this project’s success. Local iwi Patuiwi were a significant voice as both a landowner and culturally affected group. Therefore, Trust representatives were involved each step of the way, through frequent hui and īmēra.

Additional stakeholders were also consulted, including Department of Conservation, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, New Zealand Police, Taupō District Council, Mercury Energy, Waikato District Council and Central Government (through the Regional Mid-Sized Tourism Facilities Fund).

Project Management

Project Management approach:

The project was managed using the Taupō District Council project management framework. This gives team members specific roles and accountabilities, and a clear line of decision making to help resolve conflicts and allocate resources. The framework provides clear gateways to move through the initiation, planning, delivery, and closure stages.

Evaluation Framework: 

The evaluation framework was based on two objectives:

  • Meeting technical and legislative requirements.
  • Meeting needs and expectations of adjacent landowners and stakeholders.

Key Risks Idenitifed: 

The project scope changed following feedback from key stakeholders and evolving issues at the site. The number of interested parties, funding sources, and project objectives led Council to allocate a principle project manager to the Enhancement Project. This role oversaw the design, planning and construction process, and directly managed stakeholder relationships (without using a separate intermediary).

Implementation timeframes were tight. Construction needed to occur in the low season (winter) to reduce disruption. Therefore, time and weather were project risks. Strong working relationships with the construction contractor and Mercury Energy (who control the river levels), meant construction timelines were achieved despite a wet winter.

Another risk included aligning the budget approval, consenting, and construction timelines. Support from Council’s legal and consenting team and close relationships with the key construction contractor meant the project opening date was met.

Continuous Improvement: 

Feedback from key stakeholders was sought throughout the project, resulting in design and implementation changes including:

  • Fence below bridge – To avoid damage to rare native ferns, Waikato Regional Council wanted to discourage visitors climbing upstream. A kanuka palisade fence was subsequently installed below the bridge to deter visitors while allowing for storm-water flow.
  • Diving Board – Ngāti Tūwharetoa voiced safety and cultural concerns about a planned diving board over the river, so this was not installed.
  • CPTED Design – Local police knowledge of CPTED design ‘crime prevention through environmental design’ was incorporated into the project plan to help reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.

Quality Assurance:

The project was completed to best practice standards, which were put in place by the project manager (a qualified landscape architect). A strong presence onsite provided a high level of quality insurance that produced adherence with Stakeholder expectations including the carver.

Relationship Management

Building trust through relationship management was vital to the success of this project. Before commencing the design process, the Project Manager spent time finding a contact within each stakeholder group that had decision-making authority and a clear understanding of their group’s views. This was particularly important for iwi, who at times had voiced opposing views on the project. Aspects such as land access, location and design of amenities, and water levels for river-bank construction relied on these relationships.

Key Stakeholders: 

  • Patuiwi – landowner and cultural guardian
  • Department of Conservation - landowner
  • Ngāti Tūwharetoa –Waikato River kaitiaki
  • New Zealand Police – public safety
  • Taupō District Council –Funder and land manager
  • Mercury Energy – Waikato River water levels
  • Waikato District Council –Biodiversity and water quality
  • Central Government –Funder (Mid-Sized Tourism Fund)

Additional Audiences:

Visitors – users and potential promoters

Local residents – ratepayers and users

Riverbank homeowners – homes overlook Ōtumuheke site

Communication Methods: 

Initially, communication methods included one-on-one meetings to gain feedback on the project plan. Giving stakeholders the opportunity to share concerns and aspirations with the Project Manager in a non-threatening environment proved invaluable in the later stages of project implementation.

This was particularly important for those representing the views of local iwi, who needed time to consider the long-term impact of decisions.

Throughout the project key stakeholders were invited to attend regular hui and received weekly stakeholder updates during construction. At times the site was closed to visitors, and notifications of these closures along with project updates were distributed through Taupō’s tourism network and local media.

Communicating with the 'hard to reach' groups

Many iwi members do not connect with communication channels such as social media, local newspapers and public consultations. Meeting directly with hapu representatives ensured the hapu’s collective views were heard.

Taupō’s network of local tourist operators were briefed about project goals and site closures, so they could communicate directly with tourists travelling through the region.

Continuous Improvement

Designing for long-term sustainability was a central objective of this project. A smaller budget ‘quick fix’ plan was initially mooted, however Council soon realised this would not meet stakeholder needs or stand the test of time.

Lessons learnt

The most important lesson learnt from the project was to allow time, budget and patience for stakeholder engagement. This was particularly important for iwi, who subsequently became a true partner in this initiative. Taking people on a journey of change can be difficult and shouldn’t be under-resourced. The Project Manager led these meetings so that concerns could be heard first-hand, and plan adjustments could be made in real-time. Although it was difficult to have one person leading both construction and stakeholder management, the approach greatly improved project outcomes.   

It was also important to have input from diverse backgrounds – specialists in finance, law, engineering, policing, biodiversity, kaitiaki, and communications all provided unique insights in the project planning process.

Having a strong project sponsor was also invaluable. As the sponsor was separate from the daily project tasks, they were able to spot issues and opportunities before they became insurmountable.

Sharing learnings: 

A meeting was held with Council, contractors, and key stakeholders at the end of the project to share learnings. Learnings were also shared at a quarterly meeting of all Council Project Managers. Councillors and the community were informed of outcomes through Council meetings and local media stories (social media, newspapers, Council Annual Report etc).


The stakeholder management approach of this initiative has been shared with the Council’s team of Project Managers. There are a number of current projects that have already benefited from the learnings, including the planned Taupō to Turangi cycleway.

Project Success

Erosion, bush toileting, theft, and destruction of rare native ferns at Ōtumuheke hot stream was a growing issue for Taupo District Council. Visitors were complaining about the site and local iwi were becoming increasingly distressed about this culturally significant place of gathering. Council’s initial project plans were for a simple ‘quick fix’, but through stakeholder feedback it became clear that a bolder vision was necessary.

A new landscape design was approved, which included:

  • Public toilets and changing rooms connected to town electricity, water and waste water systems.
  • Fencing, boardwalks, contouring and planting to mitigate erosion and protect rare plants.
  • A bridge to increase visibility of bathing areas and safety.
  • Culturally appropriate signage and design features to recognise the site’s history.
  • Space for an iwi-owned café – improving visitor safety and providing employment opportunities.

Barriers Traversed: 

The first hurdle for the project was to obtain approval for additional funding. An application to Central Government’s Regional Mid-Sized Tourism Fund was successful, and a financial contribution was also received from Environment Waikato. Councillors reviewed the project’s business case and agreed that Taupō District Council would meet the unbudgeted shortfall.

The next hurdle was to obtain support from local iwi for the project. Historically this site had been a point of tension between iwi and Council. As outlined in the ‘Continuous Improvements’ section, iwi became a true partner on this project. Not only was consultation extensive, the site’s physical design, sculpture, and signage were all created with local iwi input. Examples include:

  • Pou at the site entrance carved by a local iwi representative.
  • Wooden palisade fencing reminiscent of pa fortifications.
  • Signage telling the intertwined story of both European and iwi history at the site.
  • Inclusion of an iwi-managed café close to the bathing area.

Wet weather during the winter construction period and tight timelines between budget approval and resource consenting meant that construction needed to be tightly managed in order to meet the opening date. This barrier was overcome through precise project management and a strong relationship with contractors and stakeholders.

Programme Improvement: 

See points covering continuous improvement in the ‘Project Management’ section.


Several innovative design features were used in this project. Wooden lounging platforms have been located on the edge of the bathing area, reducing erosion and encouraging visitors to stay in the central bathing area. The toilet block roof is covered in wooden decking and acts as a viewing platform across the area. A bespoke kanuka fence hangs beneath the new bridge, encouraging visitors to remain downstream from rare native plants while allowing stream debris to flow during heavy storm events.

However, the real innovation of this project lies in stakeholder engagement. Although there were a large number of local, regional and central government stakeholders involved in the project, engagement with iwi was critical. Representatives from Patuiwi became true partners in the project, guiding key design features, granting land access during construction, and installing an on-site café. From an initial place of concern and scepticism, the project approach developed trust and respect between iwi and Council. These enhanced relationships will last long after the project completion date, creating a platform for future iwi-Council partnerships.

Outcomes and Transferability: 

The objectives of the Ōtumuheke Hot Stream Ecological Enhancement Project were to:

  • Protect native vegetation (including rare ferns) and reduce erosion and waste.
  • Reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.
  • Improve visitor understanding of the site’s cultural significance.
  • Improve relations with key stakeholders.

Due to successful native plantings and visitor use of paths and bathing platforms, erosion on the stream and river bank has dramatically reduced. Visitors are no longer polluting the site with litter, and the reticulated toilets are being put to good use during the busy summer period. The number of police complaints have dwindled and reports of anti-social behaviour are now rare. The addition of story-boards telling the history of the site and the inclusion of cultural references such as pou and palisade fencing have improved visitor and local understanding of the site’s history. Most importantly all key stakeholders are delighted with the project outcome. Here are some quotes that demonstrate the depth of feeling about this project:

  • Patuiwi Maori Reserve Trust Chairman, Matiu Heperi Northcroft, said the respect for cultural awareness throughout the project had restored Ōtumuheke cultural integrity. "It also provides confidence and confirmation in knowing that the Taupō and Ngāti Tūwharetoa community can come together in collaboration, and choose to amicably acknowledge and respect each other's culture in good faith for a common purpose. The world has now become our oyster to go forward positively from here, and achieve historic milestones in the best interests of all."
  • Dame Georgina te Heuheu, Deputy Chair of the Tūwharetoa Maori Trust Board, who cut one of the ribbons at the opening ceremony on behalf of descendants of Ngatoroirangi, said the development showed what could be achieved by working together. "It [the project] has resulted in something very significant, and I want to congratulate the partnership. We have a beautiful community and this is an example of how we can work together to make sure that we care for what we're given and carry [this] through to the next generation."

This stakeholder engagement approach can be readily applied to other local authorities – taking the time to find the right representative from each key stakeholder group, creating opportunities for genuine face-to-face engagement between the Project Manager and these representatives, and being open to changing plans and designs based on feedback through the construction process can all be adopted by others. Valuing the process of engagement as much as the outcome has ensured Taupō District Council’s Ōtumuheke Cultural and Ecological Enhancement Project will stand the test of time for many years to come.

Stakeholders attend the opening Ōtumuheke Hot Stream Redevelopment