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
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.