Walt Glazer: City's future is bright-don't lose its identity

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Remuera, Auckland. Photo / Martin Sykes
Remuera, Auckland. Photo / Martin Sykes

In 1975 I was the Visiting Fulbright Professor at the University of Auckland. Coming from Pittsburgh, my family and I loved living on the beach, meeting the friendly people, walking Queen St and exploring the surrounding suburbs.

At the end of my nine-month paid-vacation, the Listener asked me to write about my impressions, as an American academic specialising in urban development, of Auckland.

My article was positive about the city's attractions and optimistic about its future, which created some attention. Many Aucklanders had an inferiority complex about their city and town planners were critical of "suburban sprawl".

I tried to point out its advantages: the varied seaside communities, multicultural population, and relaxed lifestyle where homeowners enjoyed living on their quarter-acre sections.

And I addressed the debate about the city's "growth alternatives". In 1976, most planners favoured limited expansion and higher density housing.

They were very critical of suburbs for physical and psychological reasons. They seemed to follow fashionable thinking from overseas rather than see clearly what was special and valued in their own community.

I predicted that "by the year 2000 Auckland will be one of the world's most prosperous and popular new breed of cities - 'suburban centres in the sun' ... with more than a million people spread from Wellsford to Hamilton". I concluded that "with plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and clean water ... I am betting on it".

Indeed, we decided to stay as permanent residents. For 10 years I lived in Whangaparaoa, Herne Bay, Remuera and Northcote Pt and worked as a consultant in social planning on a mix of local, regional and national projects and conducted public opinion surveys on topical issues. Several members of my family now remain as Kiwis.

I detail my background to establish my interest and experience in Auckland's development. I have read about the proposed new Unitary Plan and the controversy over its adoption. It is a commendable document with detailed reports, clear graphics, explicit goals and measures. But to accommodate an expected 1-2 per cent annual growth, the plan proposes growing "a bit up, a bit out", providing a variety of housing choices that critics claim will allow zoning half of the residential area for multi-storey development that could destroy the essential character of the communities.

This reminds me of the 1976 planning debate. In both cases, the planners focus on the (very real) physical challenges the city faces but in ways that can threaten the (very special) social advantages it enjoys. To accommodate its future growth, they risk its current identity.

I understand the Auckland Council has solicited input on the proposed plan from residents and has had more than 22,000 comments. This is good but this kind of feedback tends to represent the extremes pro and con. Perhaps it would be better (and vital on such an important question) to conduct an independent, professional opinion poll to capture representative views from all Aucklanders.

My impression of Auckland today is that my prediction has been realised. Auckland now has 1.5 million residents and is recognised as one of the most "liveable" cities in the world, based, in part, on the attributes I described in 1976.

I feel the new development plan should focus on and be evaluated according to how well it preserves and enhances its residents' quality of life and values. New housing and infrastructure are important, but not at the expense of the environment and lifestyle residents enjoy. Constant growth is not necessary or inevitable.

Finally, a new prediction: before 2040 the world will be largely urbanised, with hundreds of multi-millionaire cities, high-density high-rises everywhere and pervasive air pollution, problematic sources of clean water and scarce food supplies. New Zealand can avoid this and become a very desirable oasis in a congested, polluted desert.

The challenge then will be deciding how to control Auckland's growth. My advice: think twice about this future and assume the city will attract more people than it can accommodate.

Plan carefully for controlled growth based on maintaining/enhancing the special advantages you already enjoy.

Walt Glazer is a retired American historian living in Cleveland Ohio. From 1975-85 he taught at the University of Auckland, worked as a social planning consultant and oversaw survey research for the Auckland Research Group.

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