Don’t panic, Auckland can be fixed. Greg Dixon talks to the author of a new book on New Zealand urban design about the 10 things we need to do to make it truly liveable.
Buck up, Auckland, you're in better shape than you think.
The rates might be going ever higher, the traffic might be appalling, the housing fearfully expensive and the Ports of Auckland snatching more of our precious harbour, but Garth Falconer reckons there are a few good reasons for us to be cheerful.
The Auckland landscape architect and author of Living In Paradox, a new book on the history of urban design in New Zealand, says the list of what the city has got right in its 175-year history isn't as short as some might think.
For a start there's location, location, location. Captain William Hobson, who founded Auckland in 1840, chose a particularly nice spot for a city which, in 2012, was number three in the world in the Mercer quality of living survey.
"[Auckland's] a First World city," says Falconer. "It is rated one of the most attractive places to live in the world - that's amazing."
There are other things we've got right, he says, including the amalgation into the so-called Super City in 2010, which means there is now one plan for all of Auckland, the creation of the Auckland Urban Design Panel for reviewing big building projects, and of course the city's extensive parks system. Auckland has over 4000 parks - some 15 per cent its land area - a legacy which begins with the Victorians.
These may seem obvious accomplishments for Auckland. However, some of the things that make Falconer's list aren't quite so conspicuously good, such as the "eco city" work done by the old Waitakere City Council and, ahem, the Mangere's sewage ponds.
"What's so great about them? Well the alternative was that we had pipes going off Bastion Pt, just where Kelly Talton's is. They were pumping raw sewage, poos and wees, straight out, and it was coming right back in. So in 1953, because the city was opening up Mission Bay and Okahu Bay and selling it off and it wasn't too pleasant, they thought 'what'll do is get a longer pipe out to Browns Island and we'll stick it out there'.
"Dove-Myer Robinson, who was a menswear retailer [and later mayor], said, 'No, this is crazy'. He got some mates together, they got themselves elected into council and went overseas and found out that the best sewage system was what we've got there now: oxidation ponds. He got the best info and bought state of the art facilites. It was way ahead of its time and who thinks about it now?"
This is rather the point of Living In Paradox. The book, which is a weighty, fascinating, handsomely illustrated affair that was eight years in making, is Falconer's way of addressing the vacuum in our knowledge, not just about Auckland's history of urban design, but of the country's.
The European settlement of New Zealand actually began with the creations of cities, rather than rural settlements, and we are now one of the most urbanised societies in the world - 87 per cent of us live in cities, a higher proportion than even the Dutch or the Japanese. Yet, says Falconer, there is a yawning gap in the information about how we got to where we are today.
"We have this continual run of overseas experts coming in to pontificate about how we should be living and we try to cherry-pick the best ideas and make them work. What I'm saying is 'listen we've got a really rich and specific history [of our own].'
"I wanted this book to fill a void, a big gap, because right now we're making really important decisions about the rebuild of Christchurch and about [the spending] of $1 billion a year on transportation for Auckland for the next 10 years. That's what we're arguing about right now. And we have people with TB in South Auckland and crappy houses that leak: we have major issues and we've got virutally no information."
For Falconer the Mangere poo ponds, or rather how they came to be back in the mid-1950s, are a great example of what modern Auckland should be striving for too: public participation, environmental concern, good leadership and state of the art technology leading to the best in urban design.
Instead, the city, particularly since the 1960s, has suffered from short-term thinking and going for the cheapest option. But, thanks to the amalgamation and the development of the Auckland Plan, the city is now on the cusp of change, he believes. The key will be well-thought-out urban design plans. He uses Barcelona as an example.
"Barcelona backed the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and had 50 years of Franco punishing them for it. Less than 20 years [after Franco's death] they staged the Olympics and they are now the second-most-visited city in Europe, second only to Paris. And what did they do? They had a programme. Firstly they developed something like 50 town squares, places where people could meet because they didn't have the money to do the buildings. So they [changed the places] where people meet and intersected each other. Then they did some key buildings with some key designers, then they started work on the waterfront and got some major events [like the Olympics in 1992] and used them as a lever to do [more development].
"They're so proud now ... Auckland can do it too, we just need to want it."
And it doesn't need to be top-down change either. Falconer says the proposed "Skypath" for the Harbour Bridge, a project which Falconer's company has done the design work for, is an example of leadership from the ground up. "It's a very good example. That makes me optimistic that we can do things [in Auckland]."
So what does the city need to do to fix its big problems? At Canvas' suggestion Falconer has identified 10 urban design changes that he believes would make Auckland a truly liveable city.
The first is the need for a better relationship with central government. "Government have to step in and fund infrastructure because we cannot do it ourselves. We're way behind on water, we need more work on sewerage, transportation is the major... And what is good for Auckland is good for the country."
Secondly the city needs more development agencies like Waterfront Auckland. Setting up that council controlled organisation, charged with sorting out the waterfront, was a "no-brainer", Falconer says, but the council needs similar agencies "focused on the hard to do stuff" as well.
Number three is that there needs to be a greater focus on South Auckland. "South Auckland is a festering sore," Falconer says. "The Auckland Council's 'Southern Initiative' is spending $180 million over 10 years, that's nothing. They need to fully fund it and they also need a physical development programme as well, because physically [South Auckland is] really deprived."
Fourth on his list is likely to have wide public support: Falconer says we should move the port. "Everyone's talking about how we should push it out here or there. No one's thinking about 50 years from now and what the master plan is for the inner city and the harbour. I think we should relocate the port either to Whangarei, or possibly to the Kaipara and use that strategically to develop satellite towns in Helensville and Wellsford which are connected by an upgraded rail system which would open up that whole back
area of Auckland."
Auckland needs to get serious too about being a cycling and walking city not just talking about it. "Currently 2 to 3 per cent of New Zealand Transport Authority's [NZTA] budget goes for cycling in Auckland. It's an absolute pittance. In Copenhagen 40 per cent of all trips are made on cycles. We need to get really serious about it and to do it well. We've got to create the whole infrastructure, don't just create a couple of miles and then tip people off into the bottom of Grafton gully where they're up against container truck and trailers. It's a simple thing: we shift our priorities like Generation Zero and Transport Blog have been saying for a long time. Shift our priorities, do it right - this is liveability. And it's healthy: you don't have the emissions problem, it's available for all ages and it's really social."
Next, Auckland needs to create a city housing office. "Our stock of housing is crap in places: poorly insulated, poor materials, a lot of the stuff built in the 70s is now falling apart. There is overcrowding, just a whole bunch of stuff. So we need a real focus on providing quality housing and a range of options for living and that needs to be consolidated [by a housing office]."
Seven, eight and nine on the list are the need to celebrate our cultural mix, to champion sustainability and resourcefulness - "That's the Waitakere City thing, just being smart with our resources, really putting that out there, again with leadership" - and to repair and restore and preserve our natural landscape.
"[My company] presented some concepts for Shoal Bay and Hobson Bay, where we've got big infrastructure whacking through this wonderful intricate coastline. It is hugely modified. So what do you do? Well we've done nothing and it is not accessible and it looks awful. So with design work, we're now planning with NZTA a walkway 4km long in Shoal Bay, which is just from an idea we had when we talked to them. We're going to rebuild the ecology of the wetland and marsh areas as well as an amazing cycleway and walkway: the best views of Auckland."
Falconer's final suggestion is a small but significant one, he says: the city needs to create a City of Auckland Museum. "I think we suffer from cultural amnesia. Let's create a dedicated museum - though I don't even know if museum is the right word for it. The City of Sydney has got one and it is a lively place, [with] art installations and so on.
"It's where you get to engage with the city - and it's a celebration. If we could do it, that could turn that whole kind disparaging-of-the-place thing on its head. I think we want to be progressing to a city that is 'most loved'."
Living in Paradox (Mary Egan $75) is available now.
As part of the Auckland Writers Festival, Garth Falconer will join former Auckland Council urban designer Sue Evans and architectural photographer and blogger Patrick Reynolds to talk about Designing Auckland at the Aotea Centre on May 16 at 1.30pm.