Life story

Life Story: Malcolm Douglass, One of Christchurch’s Unsung Heroes

OBITUARY: Over a long career as an engineer and town planner, Malcolm Douglass has made significant contributions to his profession and to the city of Christchurch.

The Center des arts, in its cultural heart, and the parc de la ferme du mont Vernon, in its recreational periphery, owe their existence to his unwavering perseverance. Despite repeated attempts by those who worked with him, Douglass’ efforts were never publicly acknowledged.

On meeting Douglass for the first time at the former offices of the Regional Planning Authority in Worcester St, a colleague recalled the care and purpose he had brought to the mundane task of packing a computer punch card set, to send to the United States for processing.

Care and purpose: this was characteristic of everything Douglass undertook. The systems he developed to gather information became models for the future, and until the end of his life he cared about the usefulness and accessibility of his accumulation of ordered files.

Douglass died on March 4, 2022.

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He was a good, generous, witty, hard-working and principled man, always cheerful and, true to his upbringing, willing to resolve differences through discussion rather than argument.

Malcolm’s parents, Arthur and Ethel Douglass, were brought from England in 1929 by the Society of Friends (Quakers) to be co-headmasters of the Friends of Wanganui School.

Born on January 23, 1932, he always liked that unlike his two older brothers, he was a Kiwi, born and bred. At the progressive coeducational boarding school, he was part of a close-knit community. The self-sufficiency offered by vegetable gardens, an orchard and a small farm certainly helped through the Depression and the war years and Douglass was eventually put in charge of the chicken coop.

Like his brothers, he lived with the boarders and enjoyed free roaming on the 38-acre school grounds and camping holidays with his parents in the summer.

For his secondary education, he cycled 6 km every day to Wanganui Collegiate School, then graduated as a civil engineer from Canterbury University College in 1957.

Malcolm Douglass pictured in 1954, the year he met his wife Judie Joyes.


Malcolm Douglass pictured in 1954, the year he met his wife Judie Joyes.

Douglass lived in College House and threw himself energetically into college life, rambling, skiing and thrilling escapades – he may have been the originator of the Avon Bike Race – and was certainly able to sidestep the walls of the Great Hall without touching the ground, a notorious rite of passage.

He was elected vice-president of the Students’ Association for 1953-1954 and subsequently made an honorary life member.

Judie Joyes first met Douglass in 1954, about to start college, she traveled to Wellington on the Wanganui bus, and he helped carry her luggage up the road to the Christchurch ferry . However, it was a later encounter when he offered her a voiceover on his bike that sparked the romance.

They married in 1957 and moved back to Wanganui where Douglass resumed his work for the city council as a design engineer and town planning officer.

In 1960, then with little Joanna, they traveled to England, and Douglass earned a master’s degree in transport from the University of Birmingham. The M1 had just been inaugurated, private car ownership was growing rapidly, and Douglass relished being able to learn from those leading to rethink the role of transport in urban planning.

This has remained a dominant interest in his professional life and in 2007 he published A wheel at each corner recording the achievements of the IPENZ transport group. Later, he encouraged employers to subsidize young engineers to extend their studies.

Douglass returned to Christchurch in 1964 as a regional traffic engineer and then deputy director of the Canterbury Regional Planning Authority, developing long-term growth policies for Christchurch and Canterbury.

Influenced by his background in traffic engineering – and his knowledge of the art scene through Judie – his ideas were sometimes seen as unconventional, but he could always concede defeat gracefully.

In 1970, he studied full-time at the University of Auckland for a degree in town planning, the opportunity to consolidate the knowledge and experience of nearly 15 years in the trade. He found it particularly enriching to find himself with a group of mature colleagues all seeking to reflect on their practice.

Nicola (Nicky) was born in 1962, a lively redhead like her sister. Family vacations with Douglass’ brothers Kenneth and Brian and a growing cohort of cousins ​​continued, often at Long Bay on the Banks Peninsula, or at Bealey Spur near Arthur’s Pass.

When she was just ten years old, Nicky was diagnosed with cancer and died five years later, lasting grief for the family.

Judie and Malcolm Douglass in 1992, shortly after moving to Wellington.


Judie and Malcolm Douglass in 1992, shortly after moving to Wellington.

In 1975, Douglass joined Gabites Porter and Partners, a firm of architects, engineers and town planners. They have provided consultancy services to over 40 local authorities and numerous private clients across New Zealand, including rural and river catchment planning, regional and district planning plans, urban development and city ​​center design, traffic and transport engineering and energy research.

He and Judie lived in Wellington for part of this time, and Judie continued to extend her professional acting career.

In 1984 Douglass returned to the public sector as chief executive of Canterbury United Council, which in 1989 became Canterbury Regional Council, bringing together the functions and staff of 33 councils and councils for an area spanning 400 km from the Waitaki River watershed to the Conway.

It was never going to be easy, in an environment where many people could not see beyond short-term needs or problems, or beyond the next election.

Moving to Wellington in 1991 to become director of planning and strategy for Porirua Town Council was a radical move, but Douglass enjoyed being part of a young, multicultural town, visibly developing its center and with maturing second-generation suburbs. He led government submissions on issues such as health, employment and transport reforms.

Then in 1998, he went freelance and founded Douglass Consulting, returning to Christchurch, where he truly belonged. He got involved in issues close to his own backdoor with Mt Vernon Farm Park and the Port Hills Trust Board.

Douglass’ involvement in theater began supporting Judie in Wanganui and continued with the Christchurch Repertory and then the fledgling Court Theatre. At first this included the “hammer and nails” activity, until it became fully professional.

He is remembered at the Court Theater with great affection for his warmth and humour, and a keen interest in all that was going on. From 1970 to 1981 he served on the Christchurch Theater Trust, which administers the Court Theatre, his constant governance being perhaps one of the reasons for the continued success of over 50 years.

Malcolm and Judie lived in a number of homes in Christchurch and Wellington and always created a pleasant and welcoming garden, often with a particular feature designed by Malcolm – the circular brick courtyard (completed on New Year’s Eve by torchlight because he had sworn to finish it by the end of the year), the cliffside path, the curved brick wall and, more recently, Monarcho Lodge, the butterfly nursery, where the chrysalises were carefully transferred to their twigs in small hatching cages, guaranteed fresh swan supply by rotation and netting.

Douglass has been fully involved in the organization and governance of professional associations related to his multi-faceted career, and has been a Fellow and Life Member on multiple occasions. He has advised on district and regional development projects and served as a commissioner and advisor at planning hearings.

The IPENZ Turner Award for Professional Engagement of Engineers is perhaps the most telling of its many awards. Another that gave him particular pleasure at the very end of his career was being voted best lecturer by his students at Lincoln University.

Douglass was no practitioner of the arts – short of counting vigorous, flamboyant performances on his beloved pianola – but he was a facilitator, an adviser who tirelessly gave his time and energy to the causes to which he believed, and he never gave up.

He was one of the driving forces behind saving the old university buildings as the Christchurch Arts Centre.

Malcolm Douglass with his wife Judie, pictured in Nelson in 2021.


Malcolm Douglass with his wife Judie, pictured in Nelson in 2021.

As a civil engineering student, he had an intimate knowledge of buildings and he knew from his involvement in the Court Theater that an engineering laboratory could be transformed into a theater space. By then an experienced urban planner, he knew what steps needed to be taken to secure the site as an arts centre. He knew how to pressure and persuade, not just because of his undeniable charm, but because he knew what he was talking about.

In 1981, the Royal Theater was threatened with demolition – he mobilized a small committee, put pressure on the council and the government, saw to the constitution of a trust and sat there for several years.

Few people can have left a more tangible legacy to their city than these magnificent historic buildings. Malcolm Douglass is one of Christchurch’s unsung heroes.

He and Judie moved to Nelson after the earthquakes and made another garden. While he still could, he enjoyed walking in the hills with some of the nephews whose escapades he had always delighted in and who helped him celebrate his 90th birthday in January. He died less than six weeks later.

He is survived by Judie, Joanna, his grandchildren Luke and Bridie, and his great-grandchildren George, Malcolm and Casey Nicola.

Sources: Judie Douglass, Oscar Alpers, Peter McCombs, Andrew Macbeth, Alison Douglass, Di Lucas, Sylvia Allan and Christchurch Center for the Arts: Then and Now by Glyn Strange.

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