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.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.