John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

Auckland: A place apart

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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.

Auckland has changed from a capital city to a city of capital. Photo / Greg Bowker.
Auckland has changed from a capital city to a city of capital. Photo / Greg Bowker.

Go to a provincial rugby match in any New Zealand stadium and it will be immediately apparent which is the home team. Any stadium but one. At Eden Park half the crowd may be supporting the visitors. Auckland is different.

One reason? Look around the table at the next Auckland dinner party you go to. Chances are, at least half the guests grew up somewhere else.
Listening to them, you might not guess they have lived the greater part of their lives in Auckland. The doyen of Auckland historians, Emeritus
Professor Russell Stone, recalls that his late wife Mary spent all but the first 10 of her 60 years in Auckland. Yet she always said she was "from Otago".

For a century or more Auckland has been the primary destination of two powerful demographic trends: northward drift and urban drift. The population has moved north for warmer weather and from the countryside to cities for opportunities in business, education, careers and the attractions of urban life.

But those who came to the biggest city have been strangely ambivalent about their adopted home.

Or they pretend to be. It may be that Auckland's natural blessings are too obvious for words, or that speaking of them to the less fortunate would be insensitive. Whatever the reason Auckland has no provincial identity to speak of and no need
of parochial loyalty at Eden Park or elsewhere.

This of course does nothing to endear it to those who firmly believe Aucklanders cannot see beyond the Bombay hills. It is the fate of the largest cities everywhere to be regarded as a place apart. New York, Americans say, is a different country. London, Berlin, Sydney, are subtly different from their hinterland.

Auckland, Professor Stone has written, was different from the beginning. Wellington, Nelson and other New Zealand Company settlements were founded by private enterprise with a social ideal. Canterbury and Otago were founded by the churches of England and Scotland.

Auckland was a government creation, resented from its birth by the NZ Company who, having forced the British Government to colonise New Zealand, assumed the capital would be their Wellington settlement.

Their disappointment turned to disgust when the first auction of Auckland building sites saw prices grossly inflated by speculators
from Sydney and opportunists who included some of the Government's officials.

Thereafter, writes Stone, "The attempt to reap a harvest of capital
gains by speculating in land became so naked and so well developed
a characteristic that it gave rise to the southern jibe that Auckland settlers seemed more interested in trading land than farming it."

While the other settlements spawned the pastoral economies of Canterbury, Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay and Otago-Southland, Auckland built an economy on imported merchandise and financial services.

Southern MPs, soured perhaps by the long sea journey to Onehunga for sessions of Parliament in Auckland, called the city a "tadpole" - a head with not much body to sustain it.

The idea that Auckland is a consumption centre sustained by the country's productive farming has been an enduring rural resentment. But when all goods and services are taken into account, Auckland's population produces more than its share of the nation's wealth.

It is now home to 1.3 million people, 30.5 per cent of the national
population.

An increasing proportion of residents are international migrants. Their number doubled between 1991 and 2006. At the latest census 37 per cent of Auckland dwellers were born overseas, compared with 23 per cent for the country as a whole.

Over the same period, 1991-2006, internal migration has declined
and since the 2001 census more people have left Auckland to live elsewhere in New Zealand than have moved into the city.

The northward and urban drifts may be continuing but Auckland is no longer the destination. The change may be attributable to the rocketing cost of real estate in the period 2001-2006. Or it may be that an aging population is retiring to quieter places. Or it may be the traffic.


The combined trends of increasing international immigration and net internal migration are creating a city that is visibly more ethnically diverse than the rest of New Zealand.

Visit the inner city on a Sunday, or attend a secondary school prize giving and the growth of the Asian population is apparent. Asians comprised 19 per cent of the city's population at the 2006 census, up from 6 per cent in 15 years.

Auckland is different in ways that might not be so apparent. It lacks the statues of provincial founders that feature prominently in other centres, perhaps because it was the colonial capital for its first 15 years and its leaders were governors of the whole country.

It lost capital status as a consequence of war and gold. Discoveries
of gold in Otago boosted the South Island population at the very time that deteriorating race relations were disturbing the north.

Maori resistance to further land sales, especially in Taranaki and Waikato, was becoming more determined and, in the view of many in Auckland, rebellious.

The city went on war footing when Governor Grey sent troops down his newly built Great South Rd to challenge the King Movement.

The war was frustrating and costly. The increased South Island population produced a parliamentary majority for the removal of the capital to the more peaceful and central Wellington in 1865.

The loss of the government and the withdrawal of imperial troops were a temporary setback. Auckland recovered within two years when gold was discovered at Thames.

Auckland changed then, in Stone's phrase, "from a capital city to a city of capital". The city turned its back on politics, not caring even to preserve the buildings of that era. Old Government House survives
in the grounds of Auckland University but all that remains of the
Parliament is the name of a side street.

Today Auckland's conversation still does not dwell on politics. Few of its commercial leaders are comfortable in open public forums. Auckland values enterprise more than intellectualism, individualism before communalism, progress above preservation.

Some say it is a city without soul. It has certainly become a collection of suburbs without a centre, connected by motorways that have sacrificed whole communities to the private car.

Its growth has defied town planning and urban limits, sprawling along coasts indented with sheltered bays that give many dwellings a sea view and a fine beach within easy reach.

It is a city of sails, sun decks and barbecues, kauri and mangroves,
subtropical temperatures.

Warmed by prevailing winds, cooled by proximity to oceans Auckland never freezes or suffers intense heat. It owes its climate, coastline and lifestyle entirely to its place in the world. The forces that have given Auckland its fortunate location and other natural features are the subject of the first part of our story.

Reference: Auckland Business 1841-2004, Russell Stone.
Myth and Reality, in City of Enterprise, eds Ian Hunter and Dianna Morrow pp.233-244.

- NZ Herald

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