Auckland: Sprawling southwards

By John Roughan

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Southern Motorway, Otahuhu and Otara with Manukau in the Background. Photo / NZ Herald
Southern Motorway, Otahuhu and Otara with Manukau in the Background. Photo / NZ Herald

The Harbour Bridge had been open four years and the North Shore was booming when its representatives on the Auckland Regional Planning Authority made a determined effort to stop the growth of South Auckland.

People were "appalled at the extent of urban sprawl in Auckland but nothing is being done about it," said Fred Thomas, later to be Mayor of Takapuna.

"Compare Auckland's density per square mile with that of any of the world's great cities and the lack of proper planning or controlled development is clearly shown."

A Devonport member of the authority, R.H.D. Wilcox, chimed in. Fully serviced inner suburbs were being "left to rot", he said, "while more and more food-producing land falls to the creeping canker of urban sprawl."

By that time, 1963, it was too late. Any hope that the fertile farmland of south Auckland could be preserved, and the city's growth channelled entirely to the poor northern clay, had disappeared before the bridge was built.

Fifty years earlier, when Manukau County was established, just 5000 people lived in the rolling landscape south of Otahuhu and east of the Tamaki River. Many parts of Manukau could still be reached only by boat or horseback in 1913.

Within 20 years the county's population had quadrupled. Papatoetoe, Manurewa, Papakura and the old soldier settlement of Howick were becoming distinct towns. When Auckland started its big expansion after World War II, Manukau's future was powerfully influenced by three big public projects.

First, Auckland's sewage was diverted for treatment on the mudflats at Mangere. Then the Government chose a Mangere site for the new international airport. Finally, and perhaps most fatally, in 1955, the Ministry of Works announced it intended to acquire 3693 acres of rural-zoned land at Otara and Mangere for state housing.

The Auckland Regional Planning Authority reacted immediately, calling for an urgent conference with the Ministers of Housing and Agriculture. Its chairman, J.H. Luxford, complained that the state could not "go solo", disrupting the plans of local authorities by acquiring rural land cheaply and leaving councils to clean up after it.

He added: "The curse of state housing is that it has congregated a class of houses in huge masses and given a distinct psychological outlook in one area."

But the county council could not complain too much. By 1955 it had allowed urbanisation to occur at Mangere East, Mangere Bridge, Takanini, Weymouth, Bucklands Beach, Maraetai and Beachlands.

Before the year was out it had agreed to rezone the 1600-acre Otara block near Papatoetoe. It was promised that a planned community of at least 5000 homes would have five schools plus parks, shops, churches, businesses and light industry.

The following year the council had second thoughts, pressing for special legislation to make the costs of Otara's services a charge on the development and not the county. By 1959 Otara's older residents were complaining about rate increases as they waited for the new community to arrive.

Meanwhile, the proposed airport at Mangere was promising to be costly too. Auckland councils were being asked to raise half the $4.5 million required for international standards.

Manukau County chairman Hugh Lambie said Mangere had been the Government's choice. "The local bodies," he said, "would probably be prepared to stay at Whenuapai."

And while Auckland celebrated the Waitemata's narrow escape from a sewerage treatment plant, rewarding its leading opponent, Dove Myer Robinson, with the mayoralty, southern suburbs suffered a frequent stench from discharges on the Manukau mudflats.

In 1956 a meeting of ratepayers at Panmure Bridge, east of the Tamaki River, voted to form a county town to be called Pakuranga. Four years later it too was a site for a planned urban development, this time by the private sector.

The Fletcher Trust and Investment Co Ltd had designed a $4 million housing project for 1100 homes around a 30-acre commercial centre with shops, light industry and civic amenities.

The town centre, which the Herald called "American-style", would be set well back from the road, with car parks around it and paved courts and arcades within.

Its amenities would include a medical centre for doctors, dentists, pharmacies and Plunket rooms, plus a cinema, public hall and municipal offices.

Fletchers would control the building of the houses but some sections would be sold and homes could be built to the buyers' design.

At the end of 1960, Manukau had 80,000 people and was ready to become a city.

Papatoetoe, Manurewa, Papakura and Howick had long since become self-governing boroughs.

The county asked the Local Government for a merger with all of them, and Otahuhu, to create an envisaged city of 250,000 people.

Manukau's location astride the new southern motorway and main trunk railway, and the coming international airport, was predicted to give it a rate of urban and industrial development unprecedented in New Zealand.

But first there was the problem of those smells. In the summer of 1961 the county threatened the Auckland Metropolitan Drainage Board with legal action unless it stopped the stink coming from sludge lagoons at the Mangere purification plant. It complained about midges too.

In February 1962 the county was calling for a royal commission of inquiry into the Mangere treatment plant.

In September 1963, not long after the call from North Shore to stop urban sprawl, the county approved a Ministry of Works plan for state housing at Mangere. It would provide an expected 20,000 people with seven primary schools, two intermediates and two secondary schools, a main centre and eight local shopping centres. It would be completed in 10 years. Otara meanwhile was due for completion in 1968.

A year beyond that date the council was still divided over paying for a planned community centre.

By that time Manukau would be a city, but Manurewa was the only borough to join the city voluntarily. Otahuhu, Papatoetoe and Howick hung out until forced into one of the four cities created in 1989. Papakura somehow survived even then, and only now faces incorporation in a single city.

Manurewa was immediately rewarded. In 1966 the Southmall shopping development was started and plans were laid for a further 47,000 people to live to the west and south of the town.

It was in 1966 Manukau City employed social workers to organise recreational activities in areas such as Otara. "I think we are breaking new ground," said Mayor Lambie.

The following year an assertive young councillor, Jim Anderton, complained that there was little the welfare officer could do about problems that unemployment had created. There were at least 140 men unemployed in South Auckland, he said. "Last year there were none, or one or two."

Those men were having to support a wife and family on a benefit of $10 a week.

In August 1970 a commission of inquiry into housing led by Robin Cooke QC heard that Otara was becoming a "Polynesian city". Schools in the area were 75 per cent Polynesian. Manukau City Manager Ron Wood said the state houses were not large enough for Polynesian families.

The design of Mangere was better, he said. More grass reserves had been provided there.

Just before the 1971 municipal elections, the Manukau Council considered reducing Otara's representation and increasing that of near equal-sized Pakuranga. Otara had only 6850 electors enrolled out of a population of 22,000 while Pakuranga had 12,400 out of a population of 21,000.

In 1971 the city announced plans to build a striking new civic centre near the rapidly growing industrial area of Wiri. Describing the plan as another St Lukes (the recently opened shopping mall in Mt Albert), Ron Wood said it would be the "biggest, brightest and best city centre in New Zealand".

And Wiri, he predicted, would be supplying South Auckland with all its industrial needs by 1986.

- NZ Herald

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