NIMBYs riot at Designing Auckland, the Auckland Writers Festival session with Sue Evans, Garth Falconer and Patrick Reynolds.
My elderly doctor was moaning to me about the plans for Auckand’s growth the other day. “I live in Mount Albert,” he said. “It’s lovely there. I don’t want some big block of apartments to go up next to me.” If he hadn’t been about to examine me with something that looked a bit pointy, I might have said, “But you have several children, don’t you? Where did you expect they’d all live when they grew up?”
We all know Auckland’s growing, but which way is it going? Up? Not in my doctor’s back yard. Well what about sideways, to Huntley? Young people will love living out there, right? Our increasing size is also making it harder for us to lumber around. Should we take the bus or the train? Should we ditch the gym and use our bodies (and our bikes) to get from A to B? An acquaintance of mine (just slightly younger than my doctor) viciously demeans public transport use. He spent good money on his urban tractor and he’s going to get around in individualised, air-conditioned comfort or not at all, thank you very much.
Hundreds of people of a similar demographic (and a handful of young’uns), crowded into the Auckland Writers Festival ‘Designing Auckland’ session on May 16 to gain more insight into Auckland’s design problems - and learn what can be done to solve them. Designer Tommy Honey, who chaired the session, opened with a tongue-in-cheek vision of Auckland in 2040, a time when “there’ll be a tunnel from Devonport to Remuera that terminates in Mike Hosking’s garage,” and “the Unitary Plan consultation is about to close.”
Tommy then handed over to the panel of experts Sue Evans, Garth Falconer and Patrick Reynolds for their thoughts on Auckland. Sue Evans, Senior Urban Designer at Housing New Zealand, warmed the cockles of the hearts of many of the NIMBYs in the audience by reminiscing about the Auckland of her mother’s childhood - a time when holidays were spent in baches at Browns Bay, people got around on horse-drawn trams and food was produced locally. She contrasted this with the Auckland of today - an unsustainable “energy-hungry beast”. In Sue’s opinion, the way towards a sustainable Auckland is through the ethical choices that each of us make each day. She closed by saying, “We get the city we deserve. We’ve got to be a demanding market. We need a combination of good leadership and powerful citizenship.”
Garth Falconer, Director of Reset Urban Design, gave his vision for Auckland - a city with joined-up public transport and an inclusive public realm, where people can share equally in the bounty of the city. He noted that although some people are clinging to Arcadian, individualised lifestyles, plenty of other people are ready to embrace a more urbane, European approach.
Patrick Reynolds, urban photographer and Transport Blog contributor, opened by saying, “I want to start by poking you all with a bit of a stick. Aucklanders don’t really believe that we live in a city, or that it could be a good thing. We have a mental block about urbanity in this country - but the trouble with Arcadia is that there are no humans in it.” He went on to say that the dream of each of us living on a quarter acre section with a milk cow, a shed and a car is mathematically impossible, and that being near each other is necessary for social and economic exchange. “Auckland has the potential to be the best urban place on the planet,” Patrick said. “It’s damn hear the right size - there’s enough scale, and we’re also small enough to be nimble. Growth is a problem but it’s also an opportunity. We’re now on a trajectory forward and we need to keep going.”
Tommy then asked each of the panelists what their one wish for Auckland would be. Garth said that the biggest issue for Auckland is that it’s a divided city. “You can draw a diagonal line between the haves and the haves nots on a map,” he said. “We created South Auckland, and it’s a massive issue that we’ve got to face up to. We’ve got to make the city liveable for all inhabitants.” Patrick added that accessible transport is key to an inclusive city, saying that improved public transport will give better access to education and opportunity. “It also creates spatial efficiencies,” he said. “The City Rail Link is equivalent to 12 lanes of traffic. There’s nothing more spatially efficient than an underground system. We need a fast, efficient, high-volume traffic system with a feeder network of cycleways going to every station. It’s been done all over the world. Our current dependency on cars is expensive, daft and dumb.”
Tommy was next to provoke the audience by bringing up the vexed issue of how to pay for these much-needed improvements. Predictably, this resulted in a lot of mumbling about rates from the audience. Patrick pointed out that rates are microscopic compared to the weekly increases in house valuations. This prompted a lot more grumbling from the audience, which inspired Tommy to jump in with an impassioned rant. “Talk to the generation that’s going to inherit this city, generation zero, and find out what matters to them. Get some perspective people!”
But by then audience members were rising to their feet and shouting. Luckily the session came to a close before hoards of angry NIMBYs rushed the stage. The audience put on quite a display - but possibly not the display of powerful citizenship that Sue had in mind.
Regardless of who you voted for, you’re likely to be worried about child poverty in New Zealand.
The centrepiece of today’s budget was the Child Hardship Package – a package that appears to give to low-income families with one hand, while taking with the other.
110,000 families will receive benefit increases of up to $25 a week. Additionally, childcare subsidies for eligible families will rise from $4 to $5 an hour for up to 50 hours a week.
But sole parents who are currently expected to return to work when their youngest child turns five will now have to find work when their youngest child turns three – and they will have to work 20 rather than the current 15 hours a week.
At last weekend’s Auckland Writers Festival event Shameful Poverty, Child Poverty in New Zealand co-author Jonathan Boston addressed a full house. He opened with the Nelson Mandela quote, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Jonathan said that twenty four per cent of New Zealand children lived in poverty last year – a quarter of our kiwi kids. Six times as many of our children live in poverty than our elderly (those aged 65 and over), and Jonathan argued that this is not accidental – it reflects the policy choices we’ve made as a society.
The state pension is fully indexed to the median wage but social assistance is not, so low income families have become poor relative to average living standards. Unemployment, sole parenthood and housing costs have risen as benefits have shrunk in real terms since the 1990s. Given the social problems that come with poverty, “the net outcome of benefit cuts is likely to be in the negative – but no one has done that detailed analysis,” Jonathan said.
Poverty in New Zealand is about lacking the goods and services that most people regard as essential – shoes, a winter jacket, a bed of your own or a daily school lunch.
Poverty matters because it costs us in so many ways. It leads to lower educational achievement, ill health and shorter life-spans. It causes stress and anxiety in parents, which in turn contributes to increased rates of mental illness and separation. All of this creates costly ripple effects through society.
Jonathan argued that we need a different mind-set, philosophy and moral vision. He would like us to commit to having child poverty rates comparable to those for elderly by 2025. He would like us to increase the stock of social housing, improve the quality of rental housing and have benefits indexed to wages.
“Reducing poverty is a sound social investment. It will lead to a fairer, more cohesive society and a stronger economy with long-term fiscal returns,” he said. “We need to look at this through an investment lens. Poverty lowers everyone’s quality of life. We need to build human capital so that society as a whole is better off. We need a bold vision and an evidence-based policy package – our long-term future depends on it.”
Today’s budget may be a soothing balm to our collective guilty conscience, but it seems far from a bold vision. An additional $25 per family per week is unlikely to be the sustainable, cost-saving transformation we need to drastically improve living standards for our most vulnerable citizens. It doesn’t reflect our egalitarian history, and it doesn’t bode well for our future.
If you don’t believe the budget has gone far enough to support kiwi kids in poverty, there are practical steps you can take. Find out how you can get involved by checking out the Child Poverty Action Group or KidsCan.
If you have other ideas for ways in which people can help kids in poverty, please share them in the comments.
Kathryn is the author of short story collection Pet, and the winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Short Story Prize.