Auckland is striving to reinvent itself in the face of growing inequality and the economic fallout of a global virus. By Catherine Masters.
During the next two decades, 700,000 more people will live in Auckland. Already, for every Aucklander who leaves, another five take their place. Although Covid-19 may slow this influx of people to the country’s biggest city, there’s no indication the flood will halt.
Auckland was already intensifying pre-Covid – there are nearly 100 cranes in the CBD alone – but the trend was not confined to Tāmaki Makaurau. The regions were booming, too. It’s said more than 80 per cent of the New Zealand population now live in cities and towns.
For many, what Covid has done is kickstart a conversation they were already having about how cities work and what we want from them in the future. Some, though, want more than a conversation. Some say Covid is the chance to push the reset button on how we live and work, and they are worried that as a largely Covid-free population gets back to business as usual, we will miss that opportunity.
In Auckland, where the future may hold fewer cars, more bikes, much higher population density, more diverse communities and better transport systems connecting the sprawling metropolis, the post-Covid trend will probably be new patterns of people movement.
Instead of workers heading into the CBD in droves each morning, many will move outwards and across the city to new zones of activity, or they will just stay home. In other words, the suburbs are tipped to come into their own as businesses look to relocate from the centre and more people embrace working from home, at least for some of their week.
At the same time, more people are looking to move into the CBD to live in the many apartments that have sprung up and in repurposed office buildings, a trend Mayor Phil Goff says will keep the city alive and vibrant.
The counter-trend is Aucklanders leaving town as house prices skyrocket – they rose 17.4 per cent in the year to December to reach a median of $1.04 million – commuting times lengthen and contagion fears fuel a desire to live in lower-density parts of the country.
Stats NZ figures show that to June 2020, all 16 of New Zealand’s regions experienced growth. But while the big cities – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton – absorbed international migrants (an inflow that has stalled because of Covid), they also had significant net outflows of residents to other areas.
None of that, nor our ageing population and national sub-zero fertility rate, will make much of a dent on the growth of our biggest city, says Massey University sociology professor Paul Spoonley.
The pandemic hasn’t slowed house building and housing developments across the city, either. In the year to November 2020, a record 16,293 dwellings were consented by Auckland Council. Many of those consents were for higher-density homes such as terraced houses and apartments rather than traditional standalone dwellings.
Into a fiscal hole
This might be positive for easing the housing crisis but, for now, the council is under stress as it faces a $1 billion Covid-related financial hole and hundreds of job cuts. The effect on the city’s budget will be widespread, affecting all manner of projects through delays and deferments, from efforts to combat kauri dieback disease to the clean-up of harbours.
Also to be faced is the rise of the urban poor. Suburbs in the south and west are already home to some of the city’s most financially insecure, and people in those areas are among the hardest hit by Covid-caused job losses.
Spoonley worries about what lies ahead for them. “One of the issues we have is we get areas of deprivation concentrated in parts of the city economy and that will be exacerbated.”
The urban poor are now on their third significant job-loss wave, he says. The first came in the 1980s with Labour’s deregulatory Rogernomics policies, which saw the beginning of inter-generational dependency. The second came with the global financial crisis of 2008 and the third is the pandemic.
“I think they compound,” Spoonley says. “The question becomes, what hope do they have of ever earning a liveable wage or doing a job that is satisfying or having children who will do well?”
This is a matter for the Government to address, he says. “How do you give them enough income so they can live with some dignity in a very expensive city economy?”
The issue of the urban poor is important because 60 per cent of the country’s population growth in the next two decades is forecast to take place in Auckland. Wellington, Christchurch, Tauranga and Hamilton will also grow but Auckland will bear the brunt.
“Already, 54 per cent of our total population live in a line north of Tauranga and Hamilton, so not only has the population of New Zealand moved north, it’s increasingly based on the golden triangle of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.
“Already, it’s home to a third of all New Zealanders. The net migration loss to other regions really does not dent that.”
When cities get big enough they become self-perpetuating. Spoonley refers to the “agglomeration effect”, in which city economies gain people and jobs and these feed off each other. The city grows, and that’s what has happened in Auckland.
“If you look at new jobs over the past decade, Auckland is responsible for certainly more than a third and in some years over half of all the new jobs that occur in New Zealand.”
In a way, that makes problems in Auckland national problems, says Spoonley, because it is the only city economy with real depth. “Elsewhere, the economies are quite shallow. They are very dependent on a few employers and a few industries, leaving aside the larger cities like Wellington and Christchurch.”
According to Stats NZ figures from last year, Auckland’s contribution to the national GDP was steady at 37.9 per cent, whereas Wellington’s had dropped to 13 per cent and Canterbury’s to 12.4 per cent.
Spoonley says Covid has further exposed the vulnerability of regional economies, and centres such as Queenstown, which are dependent on international tourism, will suffer significantly.
“We were soon to hit four million tourists arriving here each year, so when we talk about 50,000 returning New Zealanders, or tens of thousands of New Zealanders seeing their own country, that’s a big contrast.”
Rather than Aucklanders fleeing to Queenstown, we could see Queenstowners moving north, and it’s likely more than half the returning New Zealanders will head to Auckland because of its robust economic activity and the depth of the labour market.
But it’s also likely that over the next few years, both Auckland’s and the country’s growth will be subdued because of the slowdown in migration from 2019, when it accounted for about three-quarters of population increase.
We need immigration, Spoonley argues, to counter the demographic trends of a below-replacement fertility rate combined with ageing. Although Auckland has a younger population than other parts of the country, many people who were beginning to have children may be rethinking their future given the pandemic and its resulting job insecurity.
“In the US, the Brookings Institution has calculated there will be 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births, directly related to Covid. We don’t know what that figure is likely to be in New Zealand but my expectation is fertility will be lower.”
On the upside, Auckland will continue to become more diverse, which Spoonley says is changing the nature of the city. Migrant populations from such countries as India, China, the Philippines and Korea are maintaining strong connections with their homelands. A new arrival might live in Auckland’s Mairangi Bay, for example, but have a business in Shanghai, Mumbai, San Francisco or London.
“I think the 21st century sees this incredible international connectedness, and I think for many quite recent immigrant communities in Auckland, the link to their homeland is probably stronger than their connection to other parts of New Zealand.”
But with a growing city comes pressure on infrastructure and services such as healthcare and education, and the need to adapt to a changing job market. Technology will ensure that about 40 per cent of jobs that exist now won’t in 2030, says Spoonley, citing Australian research, and about two-thirds of the jobs a secondary student will do in their working lifetime are yet to be invented.
Planning a response
Urban planners grapple with these issues, too. Errol Haarhoff, co-founder of a future-cities research hub at the University of Auckland, says an efficient transport system is one of the most important focuses.
The emeritus professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, who has a PhD in urban planning, says cities go through phases of change resulting from innovation. In the 19th century, the steam engine powered factories and led to the construction of railways, and in Auckland that kick-started urban sprawl.
In the 20th century, the advent of cars reduced railways’ significance and led to large-scale road building, which accelerated the sprawl. The solution in the 1970s and 1980s was to build still more roads, which filled up and resulted in today’s much-complained-about traffic congestion.
You can’t just keep building roads, says Haarhoff, who also has big concerns about the urban poor. Even from a planning point of view, they miss out. One of his PhD students looked at the access people had to public open space in Auckland and found it was a much easier walk to better facilities in affluent suburbs such as Remuera than in the city’s south.
And he adds a cautionary note to the work-from-home revolution, saying people in poorer neighbourhoods miss out again. “If you look at the professions of people who work from home, they tend to be from the more-affluent parts of society, the professionals, but not everybody can work from home. Port workers have to get containers off ships, people who work in sewage plants and clean the streets and collect garbage – they can’t do that from home.”
City planners and politicians have plugged away for 20 years to turn Auckland into a more compact, liveable city – with more intensive housing around town centres and transport nodes, and “mixed-use” development allowing people to “live, work, and play” in close proximity.
The theory, which calls for much-improved public transport and less use of cars to get around, unclogging motorways and reducing pollution in the process, sounds fine. But progress has been painstakingly slow; not least because residents in house-and-garden suburbs generally don’t welcome redevelopment. And frustratingly, developers have continued to snap up cheap land further out.
The architecture school’s deputy head, Lee Beattie, doesn’t believe Covid will fundamentally change cities, but nor does he think there will be a return to business as usual. He thinks now is the time to bring about Auckland’s decades-old ambition for more liveable, resilient and sustainable communities. “What worries me is with Covid, we have a really good opportunity to do that, but I don’t think we are.”
Beattie is keen on the “20-minute city” concept for Auckland, something Hamilton is keen to implement. The idea is by cycling, walking, busing or catching trains, people can live, work and play within 20 minutes of everything they need.
Taking back the streets
When people went into lockdown in March last year, the 20-minute city almost arrived by proxy when Aucklanders reclaimed their streets. “You could walk down the street and you didn’t have to worry about cars,” says Beattie. “You could ride your bikes with your kids and just do your thing. Short term, we could use this as an opportunity to actually deliver on this idea.
“If you’re living in Silverdale you shouldn’t have to commute into the city, unless there’s a reason for that, such as coming to the university or the theatre.
“Instead of investing billions of dollars in inter-regional travel through motorways and other types of infrastructure, we should be investing that money in ensuring people can do that sort of thing.”
Beattie understands the arguments behind shovel-ready projects to get the economy going, but says it’s short-term thinking. “For me, it’s more a question of taking a step back and saying, ‘can’t we use this as an opportunity to look at our urban fabric, how our cities are actually growing and redirect them?'”
A certain magic
That may not be so easy, because cities, and especially inner cities, offer a certain magic. In the 1970s, Philippa Howden-Chapman used to have lunch in a small park in London, only to discover the park used to be a “plague pit”. The Great Plague of London, ended by the Great Fire of London, claimed an estimated 100,000 lives in the 1600s and there are mass graves dotted all over the city.
Cities survive, says Howden-Chapman, who heads the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainable Cities, because people love them and in New Zealand 87 per cent of people live in them. She doesn’t see that changing.
“There’s historical evidence going back millennia that people like cities because they’re creative clusters. People like to get inspired by talking face-to-face. A city is a place where they can more easily find a partner and meet friends and we know clusters of people in the arts, film, universities and business headquarters are most often found in the middle of the city.”
When you try to shift those things out of the inner city, it doesn’t work, she says. In the 1970s, Britain tried sending businesses and government departments to “new towns”, but that didn’t last long because of the dense connections and networks that exist in the city centres.
For Frith Walker, of Auckland Council’s Panuku Development wing, the buzzword is “placemaking”, or creating places that are good for people.
Walker manages Panuku’s placemaking team, which was formed because a lot of city planning wasn’t designed with humans and connectivity in mind. “It was for infrastructure, or, let’s be honest, cars.”
For her, Covid is an opportunity to push the reset button. The city’s systems weren’t working for everyone before the pandemic, she says, and it should be seen as not so much a missed opportunity for change but as a dress rehearsal for more shockwaves.
“A member of my team keeps reminding us we started 2020 with red skies because Australia was on fire, and then we had a truck hit the harbour bridge. There are all these things that are happening, and okay, Covid’s the big guy, but there are lots of little things going on giving us a little shake.”
The pandemic, she thinks, gives people permission to speak up about what they want from life and from their city. “There’s a message coming through, a zeitgeist, about priorities that were a bit skewed and maybe that the separation between work and life was a construct.”
A city is never finished, she says, but is “an organic thing that constantly moves”. For Walker, too, addressing the issue of the urban poor is a big part of the conversation.
“That’s a big thing to unpack, but maybe we need to remember we made it. All of the conditions we find in the city were made by human beings. If we can acknowledge the systems in these places that are not going well were made by humans, then maybe we can put our heads together and find ways out.”
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