Auckland consistently ranks highly in lists of the world's best cities but is never number one. So what would it take to turn Auckland into a first-class city? This week the Herald begins a 10-day series examining some of the biggest hurdles Auckland faces, from housing and transport to entertainment and education. We look at what we are doing, what we need to do, and why Auckland's success matters to the rest of the country. In the second part of the series we look at the environment

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WORLD CLASS AUCKLAND - Part 1: Housing

What's in the way of Auckland realising the clean, green, dream? In short, we are - urban sprawl is our biggest environmental challenge. Science reporter Jamie Morton analyses the issues.

Nature

Auckland might have a low population compared to most cities in the world, yet it covers the second-largest area of land per head of population.

All of that sprawl means the pressure of urban intensification affects more and more of our green backyard.

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And we're seeing it happen at a frighteningly rapid rate.

Our city is the fastest growing city in Australasia and its hinterland of agricultural land and natural forest is gradually being peppered with subdivisions at great distance from employment hubs.

Against the backdrop of ongoing biodiversity loss is another worry - beautiful natural spaces on Auckland's back doorstep, like Tawharanui's rolling hills and white sandy beaches or the bushy tramping tracks in the Waitakeres, simply aren't being appreciated by city-dwellers.

Recent research has shown knowledge, confidence and ability of city-dwellers to enjoy simple things like camping and tramping was dropping.

Auckland University ecologist Dr Margaret Stanley put this down to a "nature deficit disorder".

People didn't get out of the city, she said, so there was a need to connect them with nature.

But just as important as getting Aucklanders into their own wilderness was encouraging them to really value it.

The One Tree Hill obelisk towers over Cornwall Park. Photo / Richard Robinson
The One Tree Hill obelisk towers over Cornwall Park. Photo / Richard Robinson

With development slowly taking its toll on biodiversity, now was the time Aucklanders needed to understand what was happening to our natural surrounds.
A major study published this year, and led by Dr Stanley, showed poor protection was threatening the urban tree cover in the Auckland isthmus.

Across that area, the amount of tree cover was just six per cent, and of that, 63 per cent were on private land and 15 per cent - few of them native - were protected.

"The housing crisis means more people, meaning more houses, meaning intensification, meaning a loss of green spaces - and this will only get worse," she said.

Trees lost to development were too often replaced with weedy palms or low maintenance shrubs.

"And as native fungi and insects are often host-specific to native plants - and native birds also often preferentially feed on native plants - it's more than just trees we lose."

Research has shown that trees benefit us in ways we've perhaps never considered - in big cities, their very presence has been shown to improve the health of pregnant women, speed up recovery times among hospital patients and cut the use of anti-depressants.

They also suck hundreds of tonnes of pollution from the environment each year and reduce stormwater run-off.

And of course, it isn't just us humans who need them.

Trees can serve as corridors or so-called "wildlinks" to help birds and other wildlife move between natural areas.

While there are projects to create these link-ups around the city - the joint North-West Wildlink project has now been building a green bridge between the Waitakeres and the gulf islands for a decade - much more needs to be done to help our trees, Dr Stanley said.

She suggested a range of other simple measures, such as rates rebates for properties with large trees, more control of weeds and pests, turning roads, rail corridors, schools and sports fields into biodiversity hotspots, and, of course, more awareness.

Air

The view over the Auckland port towards Devonport and Rangitoto Island. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The view over the Auckland port towards Devonport and Rangitoto Island. Photo / Brett Phibbs

With its comparatively smaller population, little heavy industry and geographic isolation, Auckland can boast air quality which is relatively clean when ranked against other major cities.

Yet the air that we breathe each day is laden with potentially harmful agents that range from pollen to hydrocarbons and dust - and the levels in some cases are higher than we might expect for a developed city approaching 1.4 million people.

The World Health Organisation classified our air quality as "high" - the second best ranking - and we look good compared with three other cities of similar size, Perth, San Diego and Shenzen in China.

Shenzen's air quality is ranked "very low" by the WHO as it has a particulate pollution level four times higher than Auckland, largely because its a highly urbanised and industrialised region home to over 15 million people, while San Diego has levels 75 per cent higher and Perth's picture is nearly identical to our biggest city.

We might think that it's all of those cars and trucks on our streets and motorways which does the damage - and this is true over summer - but by far the biggest contributor is domestic heating emissions largely caused by wood burners over winter.

Perhaps paradoxically, another big part of potentially harmful airborne particles comes from our own natural environment.

Plants release pollen seasonally and this can cause allergy, along with an often under-appreciated source of allergens is microorganisms associated with the natural environment and human populations.

These create allergens called endotoxins and beta glucans that can be a major cause of allergy, and were emerging particularly prevalent in house dust.
As for would happen in the future, the math was simple - a higher population meant outdoor air pollution would increase.

To improve our outdoor air, AUT University ecologist Professor Steve Pointing believed the best solution was to develop the natural filters we already have to improve air quality.

"Trees and parks are the lungs of any big city, and so a careful plan to ensure we retain green spaces as the city grows is essential," he said.

Indoor air quality, meanwhile, could be improved with more natural products such as timber in workplace design, and more plants that act as natural air filters.

"The workplace in particular is basically a massive reservoir of plastics and other man made products that are leaking hydrocarbons into the air and into our lungs," he said.

"I also think the general trend towards air conditioning is not good for us, aside from wasting energy in our very tolerable climate, air conditioning ducting acts as a reservoir for potentially harmful microbes and recirculates these.

"Carefully designed natural ventilation and thermal regulation strategies in new buildings will save energy and save lives."

Auckland Council presently measures a range of particulates and chemicals and meets all current international standards for these.

But Dr Pointing felt an obvious gap was producing a quantitative index on allergens that the public could relate to.

"This needs to reflect known allergens such as tree pollen, but also take on board recent research that shows microbes are a major source of allergens in urban environments."

Water

Oakley Creek waterfall in Waterview. Photo / Nick Reed
Oakley Creek waterfall in Waterview. Photo / Nick Reed

Look at the state of Auckland's beaches on the interactive Land, Air, Water and Atmosphere (LAWA) map and you'll notice a scattering of blue and green dots on the ocean coastlines, but a group of yellow ones around the inner harbour areas.

These indicators tell two stories - that while our coastal beaches are relatively healthy, many of our inner-shore areas - yellow means "caution" - aren't faring so well.

As for the health of the estimated 16,500km of permanently flowing rivers which run through the region, Auckland's waterways sit in the poorer half of New Zealand's rivers and streams for nitrogen and phosphorus - and the worst quarter for bacteria.

Much of this can be blamed on one thing - sediment.

After heavy rains in Auckland, it's typical to see a surge of brown sediment-laden water gushing into the sea from many of our rivers.

It's sediment - usually the result of land activities like development, forestry operations and grazing - that stands as the biggest threat to the region's precious marine ecosystems.

Once the storm passes over, the sediment remains, settling on the seafloor, smothering plants and animals that live there including shellfish and seagrass.

Too much sediment may be the culprit behind the loss of many shellfish beds, including those for example at Cheltenham Beach.

Areas of particular concern are the Mahurangi harbour, due to its significance as a fish nursery area, and the Wairoa River, because sediment from here is pouring into the Tamaki Strait reaching as far as the Te Matuku marine reserve.

As a result, sediment is almost certainly reducing the productivity of Auckland's marine area and its ability to support flourishing fish stocks as well as healthy populations of a wide range of marine species.

In terms of toxicity, the biggest threat to marine life are heavy metals such as zinc and copper, which wash into the marine area from roads, which have residues from tyre and brake wear, and unpainted galvanized roofs.

Most stormwater is channeled directly into the marine environment in an untreated form so there is no opportunity for these contaminants to be removed.

From time to time, raw sewage is also discharged into the marine environment from overflow of a combined wastewater-stormwater system which exists in the older parts of central Auckland.

While these overflows probably aren't having a significant impact on ecosystems or species, excess nutrients marine systems can lead to increased plankton growth and decay, resulting in oxygen depletion and acidification of seawater.

As the city grows, bringing more vehicles to our roads, pressure on the surrounding marine environment will grow.

If they aren't well managed, Aucklanders could expect to see muddier seawater and beaches, shallower tidal rivers and estuaries, more mangroves and less shellfish, finfish and other forms of marine life.

So what can be done?

Environmental Defence Society policy director Raewyn Peart said the problem could be eased by removing contaminants at source, good management practice and innovative use of infrastructure.

"Overall, the development of a compact city as Auckland grows, would help to reduce the impacts of the urban footprint on the marine environment."

Sediment production could be slashed through the application of careful practice during vegetation removal and earthworks and use of green infrastructure such as planted riparian areas and berms, constructed wetlands, and rehabilitated floodplains to enable the sediment to settle out of the water before it reaches the sea.

Where there wasn't enough room for green options within established urban areas, infrastructure such as sediment traps and stormwater diversion and treatment could be used.

Other simple measures included permeable surfaces, which helped to reduce the flow of stormwater and keeping galvanised roofs painted.

The joint Seachange - Tai Timu Tai Pari project was looking at these issues from a gulf-wide perspective and was expected to pin-point a series of actions, Ms Peart said.

"Ultimately, progress will require strong provisions in the Auckland Unitary plan, significant council investment in infrastructure and enforcement, and well-educated development and rural business sectors."

Sustainability

Five years ago, a major report threw up some tall hurdles for Auckland to jump when it came to being more sustainable.

Auckland didn't have a public transport system suited to a low-density city suffering from nasty traffic jams and it wasn't doing enough to adapt to a world where we pay more for energy, waste, water and greenhouse gas emissions.

It also wasn't encouraging businesses to think how their consumers value sustainability.

But today, the city is making some meaningful gains toward being cleaner and greener.

The low-cost, low-energy business case for green buildings has become increasingly clear, with a dramatic increase in demand - and a corresponding rise - in Greenstar certified and registered office buildings over the past couple of years.

Auckland has also just joined what's called the Compact of Mayors, the world's largest co-operative effort among city leaders to slash greenhouse gas emissions, track progress and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

This work has seen Auckland Council launch an effort to replace around 40,000 streetlights with energy-saving LED lights - saving $36 million in electricity costs - along with a "greening" of its vehicle fleet to hybrids and electric cars, and an overhaul of its offices.

A retrofit of its 135 Albert St base is expected to save $2.7 million each year for the next decade.

More ambitious is Auckland's target of lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2040 and reducing the amount of waste going to landfill to nothing - a goal that will be partly realised with a new organic waste collection programme to eventually be rolled out across the city.

In a trial that kicked off last year, around 2000 households have been having organic waste - such as food scraps, paper towels and tea bags - collected weekly and turned into compost.

A more efficient transport system - enabled by an eventually completed City Rail Link doubling the rail network's capacity, just-launched electric trains, more electric vehicles and better cycling infrastucture - will also fill a big part of the puzzle.

While Auckland doesn't feature on existing global indexes that compare sustainability, this formed an important part of the Mercer Index and Economist Intelligence Unit reports which last year ranked the city at third and 10th respectively.

The council's chief sustainability officer, John Mauro, saw three major priority areas for the city - having confidence in ourselves, including everyone in the effort, and reframing the concept of sustainability itself.

"Getting less bad - less energy use, carbon emissions or toxic inputs into our air and waterways - doesn't sound that aspirational and surely isn't what the Aucklanders we serve are expecting of us," he said.

"So what if we aim for 100 per cent good instead?

"Sustainability then becomes about restoration, resilience and revitalisation - of our natural systems we love and rely on, of the social fabric that binds us all together and of our economy that creates enduring prosperity and opportunity for all."

"We need to ask ourselves the questions: what kind of Auckland do we want to live in and what do we want our kids and grandkids to think when we hand them the reigns? That's the kind of thinking that gets everyone on board and when that happens, we'll be unstoppable."

ENVIRONMENT: AT A GLANCE

Where we are at:

The biggest threat to Auckland's environment is arguably its rapid growth. Other big problems include a lack of tree cover and tree protection, sediment and stormwater run-off flowing into our marine environment, too many people in cars and a weak connection with nature. Auckland has good air quality but has poor water quality compared to the rest of the country.

What we are doing: Len Brown has recently joined the Compact of Mayors global programme which will bolster the city's green credentials. It has many goals of reducing carbon emissions, upping green and public transport use, and slashing waste to landfill amounts to zero. It is seeking to reverse degradation of the Hauraki Gulf's marine environment through the SeaChange drive for a marine spatial plan.

What we need to do: The biggest problems can be addressed with a move to a compact city. Auckland needs smarter planning, better regulations, and greater awareness of and interaction with the environment. It also needs ambitious goals around everything from waste management and public transport to carbon emissions reduction and green housing and development.

Street poll: How often do you get out into nature - and what holds you back?

"I last got out into the bush probably 18 months ago, to Manukau Heads. I'd like to get out of Auckland more but there's just not enough time." - Mark Jarvis, Northcote Point

"I used get out much more when I lived in Maraetai. These days I do every couple of months - more so in summer then winter - and the last park I went to was Tauwharanui (Regional Park). - Adele Graham, Takapuna

"I love bush walks and getting outdoors, just reading books. I'd like to get out of the city as much as I can - I just need to find a friend who has a car and can drive me." - Allia Kennedy, North Shore

"I used to get outdoors a lot more when the kids were little. These days I do it at least twice a month. Auckland has some beautiful regional parks." - Karen Robinson, Wattle Downs

"I'd say I'd get away from the city at least four to six times a year, but I'd like to have more time to do it more. The Waitakeres are actually really good for bush walks." - Chris Lindsey, Swanson

"I don't as much as I'd like to, because living in town is so expensive. If I could I'd go camping out in the Waitakeres, but I don't have a car and public transport is a nightmare to use further out of the city." - Elize de Jager, CBD.

Auckland's key environmental issues in numbers

19

- the annual mean of PM10 particulates - small airborne particles associated with various health problems - per cubic metre of air. Vancouver, with a much larger population, has a level of 11.

6 per cent - the amount of urban tree cover left on the Auckland isthmus, 63 per cent of which is on private land, and of that just 15 per cent of trees are protected.

16,500km - the area of permanently flowing rivers which run through the Auckland region. Its waterways sit in the poorer half of New Zealand's rivers and streams for nitrogen and phosphorus - and the worst quarter for bacteria.

40 per cent - the rate by which Auckland Council wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2040.

95 per cent - the rate of all buildings which Auckland Council aims to have meeting sustainable design standards equivalent to a 6 Green Star rating by 2040.