On Thursday, the new Auckland Council will start its largest task - drawing up a document that is supposed to shape the character and growth of Auckland for the next 20-30 years. Called a "spatial" plan, it might not be markedly different from town planning of old, but the formation of a single council gives it more power than previous plans.
It has certainly attracted more Government interest than local body planning of old. The Government has beaten the council out of the blocks with the release of papers outlining its strategic priorities for Auckland. If there is resentment of this in council circles, there should not be. The papers point out that the Government spends eight times as much as local government on the city.
This is only to be expected since a third of New Zealand's population lives in Auckland. The $20 billion the Government spends here is slightly less (31 per cent) than the population share but capital expenditure (roads, schools and the like) is estimated to be 37 per cent of the national total.
So the Government has a natural interest in the demands that Auckland's future shape and character will present.
Its interest should also be welcomed by the public, if not by city planners, because the national policy makers are not inclined to accept conventional planning lore uncritically. A healthy debate may be in store on accepted wisdoms such as the containment of "sprawl", the virtues of higher density housing, the superiority of public transport.
There will be no dispute, though, that on present trends Auckland's population will double by mid-century, and increasingly it will be Asian. Government officials say the city has one of the world's highest proportions of immigrants, behind only Toronto and Vancouver. By 2050 the number of Maori in the city will have risen by 39 per cent, the number of Pacific ancestry by 65 per cent, the number of Asian descent by 168 per cent.
Most households will not have children. About 60 per cent will be occupied by a single person or a couple. An ageing population, rising fuel costs, new technology may produce a more compact city, less sprawl, smaller properties, less travel, more economical modes of transport. But only if most people really want them.
A big city is important to a national economy. They can attract skills, investment and generate activities that need a large number of customers nearby. The Government notes that a disproportionate number of the country's high-growth industries are in Auckland and labour productivity is 45 per cent higher than elsewhere. But it also notes that the value of output per person in Auckland ranks as low as 84th out of 116 cities in the OECD. Melbourne and Brisbane do better.
Auckland's infrastructure has "struggled to match and capitalise on its scale and rapid growth", according to the officials. They blame in part its previously fragmented local government and see one city, one plan, as an opportunity to catch up.
The Auckland Council has said little about its priorities for the plan. The mayor, whose office will lead the public exercise, says he has a "vision" to make this "the world's most liveable city". His priorities seem to be social, environmental and cultural whereas the Government's are economic. There will be no argument, though, that social, environmental and cultural life is what attracts people to an urban economy.
What infrastructure does Auckland need to build to make it prosper? This is not a question for dreamers or empire builders. Planners need to be hard-headed about what people do - as distinct from what they say to surveys. If realism guides this planning exercise, Auckland will be better and the whole country will reap the rewards.