Si­mon Wil­son: De­sign­ing a city for the 21st cen­tury

Sixty years ago when ba­bies boomed, so did Auck­land. That growth is here again and the coun­cil is aim­ing to make a new city fit for this cen­tury

Weekend Herald - - Front Page - Si­mon Wil­son AT THE IN FACT,

There’s a big thing go­ing on in Auck­land right now. Call it the Auck­land Project: that’s not an of­fi­cial name but it does the job. The Auck­land Project is the trans­for­ma­tion of a city de­signed in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury into one fit for pur­pose in the 21st. It may sound like a slo­gan but it’s real. Auck­land has out­grown its use­ful­ness as the city it used to be.

This has hap­pened be­fore. The last time was 60 years ago when World War II ended, ba­bies boomed and new suburbs were laid out, full of stand­alone hous­ing, with big new ar­te­rial roads and mo­tor­ways to con­nect them. The tram tracks of the old city were ripped up, the har­bour bridge was opened and, in the years that fol­lowed, an ur­ban mi­gra­tion of Ma¯ori and then Pa­cific Is­landers joined the throng­ing work­force.

It was car-cen­tric growth and it cre­ated a city so fit for pur­pose, so hum­ming with its own pos­si­bil­i­ties, that Auck­land gained a greater con­cen­tra­tion of this coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing, trade, fi­nance, in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural life than al­most any city in any coun­try in the world. Over a third of ev­ery­thing.

This cen­tury, with new waves of mi­gra­tion, that growth has come again. Auck­land is home to 55 per cent of New Zealand’s new pop­u­la­tion. With them come jobs and eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, and a flour­ish­ing cul­tural rich­ness. But this time around the sew­ers can’t cope and nor can the roads, or the hos­pi­tals and schools. The prop­erty mar­ket is a night­mare. The wel­fare state, sab­o­taged in the 1980s and 90s by the state it­self, has not re­cov­ered and is now plainly dys­func­tional.

We live in one of the most beau­ti­ful cities in the world and most love that beauty, but we know the city is bro­ken. The so­cial dam­age is not hard to find. An­gry driv­ers, cyn­i­cal ci­ti­zens, agen­cies that tell us the same story: poverty makes life too hard.

At the level of First-World prob­lems, there are peo­ple who look at road cones and see not con­struc­tion that will fix or im­prove the city, but the work of id­iots try­ing to block their way. Much more se­ri­ously, the rate of deaths and se­ri­ous in­juries on the roads has shot up, far faster than the na­tional av­er­age. Men­tal ill­ness is up, sui­cides are up. Im­pris­on­ment rates are a na­tional shame and obe­sity is at cri­sis point too. An in­fec­tious dis­ease that should no longer ex­ist is rag­ing through parts of the city.

The Auck­land Project has been an evolv­ing re­sponse to this. It spans the public and pri­vate sec­tors, it cov­ers trans­port and busi­ness, so­cial life, com­mu­ni­ties and the en­vi­ron­ment, and the goal is to re­tool the city. To make it fit for this cen­tury, just as the mo­tor­ways and suburbs seemed to make it so fit for the 20th.

Auck­land Coun­cil they don’t ac­tu­ally think of it as a project. The chief ex­ec­u­tive, Stephen Town, says call­ing it that sug­gests an end point, but this thing is on­go­ing.

Still, it’s a project be­cause of how it asks us to think. If your ap­proach is merely to man­age prob­lems as they arise, in­cre­men­tally and end­lessly, it’s too easy not to think about new so­lu­tions and new ways of think­ing. Too tempt­ing just to keep widen­ing the roads, build­ing an­other wing on the hos­pi­tal, adding more carparks.

That’s not how they thought in the 1950s. Then, they asked: how do we trans­form this old town into a new city? How do we house and con­nect a big new pop­u­la­tion, how do we cre­ate a more wel­com­ing, more ef­fi­cient, more car­ing and more op­por­tu­nity-filled city for all?

This cen­tury, the Auck­land Project asks th­ese same ques­tions again.

We have the same pres­sure of fast pop­u­la­tion growth and, our in­fra­struc­ture is no longer fit for pur­pose. But we also have some­thing new, some­thing big­ger than all of that. We have cli­mate change.

The Auck­land Project is about trans­for­ma­tion. Cre­at­ing new so­lu­tions, and set­ting aside some of the old ones, even though they used to work, be­cause they can’t help us face the fu­ture. But which ones?

Per­haps the most ob­vi­ous, be­cause it’s al­ready hap­pened, is the old idea that we wouldn’t need much public trans­port on the har­bour bridge. Ev­ery­body drove.

Be­cause that idea was re­jected 15 years ago, we now have the North­ern Busway. The re­sult: pri­vate ve­hi­cles on the bridge in peak time have barely grown in num­ber, but for­mi­da­ble growth in com­muter num­bers has been picked up by the buses. Nearly four in ev­ery 10 peo­ple cross­ing the bridge in the morn­ing peak is rid­ing a bus. A thou­sand bus trips a day.

On Onewa Rd, join­ing the mo­tor­way from North­cote and Birken­head, the fig­ures are even more stark. The cars with sin­gle oc­cu­pants are as clogged up as ever, but 80 per cent of com­muters on that road are in the T lane: mov­ing smoothly be­cause they share their rides or are on the bus.

The North­ern Busway is an early ex­am­ple of the Auck­land Project in ac­tion. You can also see it in the re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion of the wa­ter­front and the re­cre­ation of the One­hunga fore­shore. It’s there in the town cen­tre plans for Taka­puna, Hen­der­son, Manukau and a good 20 more ur­ban cen­tres around the city.

It’s in the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of rail, the roll­out of cy­cle­ways, the open­ing of the Water­view Tun­nel and the com­ple­tion of the ring road around the city. In the dig­ging they’re do­ing now: to cre­ate our first un­der­ground rail­way; also to es­tab­lish the new Eastern Busway, just like the North­ern, from Pan­mure to Botany; also to sep­a­rate the city’s main stormwa­ter and sewage sys­tems.

And it’s there in the new apart­ment blocks ris­ing on the edge of the cen­tral city, near town cen­tres and train sta­tions and on rapid bus routes. There were 14,000 build­ing con­sents is­sued last year, up from

4000 just 10 years ago, and 80 per cent of them were for apart­ment dwellings.

And it’s there in the ar­gu­ments. What’s the fu­ture of this park? How come that build­ing will block my sun? Build more so­cial hous­ing. Don’t build it near me. Light rail or heavy rail? Ur­ban plan­ning is never easy.

Is the project go­ing well enough? Nope.

Is there even a plan? Yes, there are many plans, many goals, and the one big thing that joins them all is that big new thing. Cli­mate change.

that’s what the coun­cil elec­tion is about: cli­mate change. Not many can­di­dates will say it; pos­si­bly, not many of them even know it. But think about your rub­bish. Some can­di­dates, in­clud­ing may­oral hope­ful John Tami­here, want the cur­rent col­lec­tion regime to con­tinue: weekly for gen­eral rub­bish and fort­nightly for the re­cy­clables.

Add a de­cent re­cy­cling pro­gramme, which every­one agrees we should, and they say the setup is both con­ve­nient and en­vi­ron­men­tally sound. Add elec­tric trucks and, as Tami­here pro­poses, a “waste-to-en­ergy” sys­tem, and it’s all good.

But the coun­cil is chang­ing the setup. In Pa­pakura and parts of the North Shore, they’re tri­alling a weekly col­lec­tion of food scraps for com­post­ing, with fort­nightly col­lec­tion for the rest. The com­post­ing cap­tures meth­ane, thus help­ing re­duce green­house gas emis­sions. Food ac­counts for 40 per cent of gen­eral house­hold rub­bish: take it out and most of us won’t need a weekly col­lec­tion for the rest.

The trial is sched­uled for city­wide roll­out by 2021, but in Pa­pakura, it’s a hot-but­ton elec­tion is­sue and that will spread. So which ap­proach is bet­ter?

Tami­here wants to stop the trial “un­til it has been proven to be ef­fec­tive”, which is a touch con­fus­ing, but he has sev­eral other good points to make. So does Mayor Phil Goff.

But note this: the ar­gu­ment is not about what peo­ple are used to, or pre­fer right now. It’s about the kind of waste dis­posal regime we want to es­tab­lish for the com­ing decades.

It’s a cli­mate-change ar­gu­ment. The best so­lu­tion is the one that’s best for the planet.

This is a fea­ture of the Auck­land Project. The twin chal­lenges of cli­mate change have in­fused them­selves into ev­ery po­lit­i­cal is­sue: how do we re­duce our con­tri­bu­tion to global warm­ing and how do we man­age our lives in a world chang­ing fast be­cause of it?

There will be pain, so how much and who is go­ing to bear it? How do we min­imise it? There will be op­por­tu­ni­ties, too: who will ben­e­fit from them? How do we build equity into our re­sponses? How do we make our de­ci­sion-mak­ing sys­tem more open and more ro­bust, so that it strength­ens demo­cratic pro­cesses and also al­lows for ef­fec­tive ac­tion?

Th­ese are the is­sues we’re ar­gu­ing about now. The is­sues we need our politi­cians to un­der­stand and be ar­tic­u­late about.

You can phrase it all an­other way: if we’re go­ing to do this ef­fec­tively, how much do we have to change?

COUN­CIL DE­CLARED a cli­mate emer­gency in June. The vote was unan­i­mous. Pre­sum­ably, when they found them­selves con­fronted di­rectly with the ques­tion, “Is this a cri­sis?”, none of the coun­cil­lors could find a cred­i­ble rea­son to say no. You’d have to be a de­nier to do that.

But what are they go­ing to do about this emer­gency? That’s the real ques­tion.

It’s easy to as­sume they’re not do­ing any­thing be­cause so far noth­ing much has changed. But don’t be fooled. On the mo­tion of Coun­cil­lor Cathy Casey, they agreed, as of right then, that all pol­icy pro­pos­als com­ing be­fore them would need a cli­mate change im­pact re­port.

Coun­cil has also adopted a Cli­mate Ac­tion Frame­work, which is open for con­sul­ta­tion (you can have your say on the coun­cil web­site). It cov­ers the whole city, not just the coun­cil’s own ac­tiv­i­ties, and in­cludes ev­ery­thing that uses en­ergy, pro­duces emis­sions, af­fects how we think about the fu­ture. At least, that’s what it should do.

Chief ex­ec­u­tive Stephen Town says the next step will be to draw up an ac­tion plan and em­bed it in bud­get plan­ning. “In 2020,” he says, “coun­cil­lors, and every­one else, ac­tu­ally, will have seven to eight months to have some big con­ver­sa­tions about this. How to in­clude the cli­mate emer­gency in the new long-term plan.”

He says adopt­ing that plan, also known as the LTP or re­freshed 10-year bud­get, will be one of the most im­por­tant tasks of the coun­cil we elect next month.

And that’s coun­cil in a nut­shell. Im­por­tant things go­ing on, mostly away from the public glare, wind­ing through pro­cesses, re­ports be­ing writ­ten and plans be­ing made that might or might not make a ma­te­rial dif­fer­ence to some­thing.

Is it trans­for­ma­tional change or is it a bunch of of­fi­cials kick­ing a ball around, keep­ing them­selves in work?

Crit­ics say the public trans­port roll­out isn’t big enough, es­pe­cially into poor ar­eas in the south. The bike lobby is dis­ap­pointed at the piece­meal ap­proach to the promised cy­cle­way net­work.

What about op­po­si­tion to denser hous­ing de­vel­op­ments, which used to be the big­gest plan­ning is­sue all over town?

“The most noise is com­ing from trans­port now,” says Town. “It’s the fo­cus of con­cerns about change. I think what hap­pens is that the more

We live in one of the most beau­ti­ful cities in the world and most love that beauty, but we know the city is bro­ken.

Photo / Dean Pur­cell

Stephen Town

Phil Goff

John Tami­here

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