Peter Chapple: Joys of larger population overtaken by reality

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Given that the Auckland transport system can barely cope with the existing population, it's a little difficult to imagine quite how it would cope with more than five times as many daily travellers. Photo / Greg Bowker
Given that the Auckland transport system can barely cope with the existing population, it's a little difficult to imagine quite how it would cope with more than five times as many daily travellers. Photo / Greg Bowker

Periodically, calls are made for a rapid expansion of the population of New Zealand - 15 million has been identified as a desirable target by the NZ Institute of Economic Research, and John Roughan, in the Weekend Herald, echoed the call. The argument is generally that the national income would be boosted by injections of new talent and by more companies enjoying economies of scale.

This projection is very probably true. And of course, New Zealand has plenty of wide open spaces ... But what would a country of 15 million be like to live in?

The most obvious point is surely that, unless patterns of immigration changed dramatically, most of the wide open spaces would remain largely untouched - but the main centres, above all, Auckland, would see a rapid rise in population. To make a wild guess, I'd say that of the 15 million, something approaching 10 million would be in Greater Auckland.

Would our lives really benefit from that kind of population scenario? Certainly a small number of individuals would become exceedingly rich and could afford a very pleasant lifestyle. And the majority who would not become exceedingly rich would also benefit from a modest trickle-down effect. Yet in Auckland I suspect that any increase in pay packets would be more than outweighed by a staggering increase in housing costs.

Where would the 10 million live? At present, large-scale developments -I think, for example, of Millwater, at Silverdale - are focused almost exclusively on large, single-storey houses. This kind of land-wasting urbanisation would have to stop forthwith and be supplanted by large estates of high-rise apartment blocks. "Pack them in" indeed, to quote from Roughan's article. Living in houses would become as much of a luxury as it is in Asian and European cities, not an option for the average family. The alternative would be to let the city sprawl almost beyond imagination, and entertain the irrational hope that somehow everyone would find a way of getting to and from work.

Given that the Auckland transport system can barely cope with the existing population, it's a little difficult to imagine quite how it would cope with more than five times as many daily travellers. There'd have to be huge investment in rail transport, a metro, a couple of new harbour crossings, possibly a second airport somewhere, not to mention hundreds of kilometres of new motorways ...

Would the new migrants really generate enough extra income to pay for infrastructure on this massive scale? Certainly not until after they'd got here, and the whole place had already ground to a complete standstill.

It's not just transport, of course: water supplies, sewage, electricity - they'd all require vast injections of cash. Wouldn't we need a big new power station (somewhere, operating on something)? And then there'd be the new schools and other public services.

Access to the parks and beaches would have a very different character. I can imagine a dual carriageway to Piha, with multi-storey carparks charging $10 a day. At Long Bay, you'd be shoulder to shoulder on the beach - if you could get there.

For the nouveaux riches, of course, everything would be fine. They'd be able to afford chunks of pristine land way out of town for their weekend residences. A handful of farmers would do very well selling off large areas of land for exclusive golf courses and country estates.

Meanwhile, back in town, the whole metropolis disappears in a cloud of smog.

Fanciful scaremongering? Well, I have at least tried to envisage how it would all pan out. How do the enthusiasts for a large population see it working on the ground, so to speak?

It's sometimes suggested that a larger Auckland would be a livelier and more cosmopolitan place in which to live. But isn't it already lively and cosmopolitan?

If it's not cosmopolitan enough, or insufficiently bustling, may I suggest that, instead of trying to transform it to suit their preferences, the high-population enthusiasts decamp, say, to Sao Paulo or Shanghai, which would surely meet all their expectations, and leave this dreary, lifeless, impoverished place to those who prefer it more as it is?

- NZ Herald

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