COMMENT: There's a big thing going on in Auckland right now. Call it the Auckland Project: that's not an official name but it does the job. The Auckland Project is the transformation of a city designed in the middle of the 20th century into one fit for purpose in the 21st. It may sound like a slogan but it's real. Auckland has outgrown its usefulness as the city it used to be.
This has happened before. The last time was 60 years ago when World War II ended, babies boomed and new suburbs were laid out, full of standalone housing, with big new arterial roads and motorways to connect them. The tram tracks of the old city were ripped up, the harbour bridge was opened and, in the years that followed, an urban migration of Māori and then Pacific Islanders joined the thronging workforce.
It was car-centric growth and it created a city so fit for purpose, so humming with its own possibilities, that Auckland gained a greater concentration of this country's population, manufacturing, trade, finance, intellectual and cultural life than almost any city in any country in the world. Over a third of everything.
This century, with new waves of migration, that growth has come again. Auckland is home to 55 per cent of New Zealand's new population. With them come jobs and economic opportunity, and a flourishing cultural richness. But this time around the sewers can't cope and nor can the roads, or the hospitals and schools. The property market is a nightmare. The welfare state, sabotaged in the 1980s and 90s by the state itself, has not recovered and is now plainly dysfunctional.
We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and most of us love that beauty, but we also know the city is broken.
The social damage is not hard to find. Angry drivers, cynical citizens, agencies that repeatedly tell us the same story: poverty makes life too hard.
At the level of First-World problems, there are people who look at road cones and see not construction that will fix or improve the city, but the work of idiots trying to block their way. Much more seriously, the rate of deaths and serious injuries on the roads has shot up, far faster than the national average. Mental illness is up, suicides are up. Imprisonment rates are a national shame and obesity is at crisis point too.
An infectious disease that should no longer exist is raging through parts of the city.
The Auckland Project has been an evolving response to this. It spans the public and private sectors, it covers transport and business, social life, communities and the environment, and the goal is to retool the city. To make it fit for this century, just as the motorways and suburbs seemed to make it so fit for the 20th.
At the Auckland Council they don't actually think of it as a project. The chief executive, Stephen Town, says calling it that suggests an end point, but this thing is ongoing. He's probably right about that.
Still, it's a project because of how it asks us to think. If your approach is merely to manage problems as they arise, incrementally and endlessly, it's too easy not to think about new solutions and new ways of thinking. Too tempting just to keep widening the roads, building another wing on the hospital, adding more carparks.
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That's not how they thought in the 1950s. Then, they asked: how do we transform this old town into a new city? How do we house and connect a big new population, how do we create a more welcoming, more efficient, more caring and more opportunity-filled city for all?
This century, the Auckland Project asks these same questions again.
We have the same pressure of fast population growth and, also the same, our infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose. But we also have something new, something bigger than all of that. We have climate change.
The Auckland Project is about transformation. Creating new solutions, and setting aside some of the old ones, even though they used to work, because they can't help us face the future. But which ones are they?
Perhaps the most obvious, because it's already happened, is the old idea that we wouldn't need much public transport on the harbour bridge. Everybody drove.
Because that idea was rejected 15 years ago, we now have the Northern Busway. The result: private vehicles on the bridge in peak time have barely grown in number, but formidable growth in commuter numbers has been picked up by the buses. Nearly four in every 10 people crossing the bridge in the morning peak is riding a bus. A thousand bus trips a day.
On Onewa Rd, joining the motorway from Northcote and Birkenhead, the figures are even more stark. The cars with single occupants are as clogged up as ever, but 80 per cent of commuters on that road are in the T lane: moving smoothly because they share their rides or are on the bus.
The Northern Busway is an early example of the Auckland Project in action. You can also see it in the revitalisation of the waterfront and the recreation of the Onehunga foreshore. It's there in the town centre plans for Takapuna, Henderson, Manukau and a good 20 more urban centres around the city.
It's in the electrification of rail, the rollout of cycleways, the opening of the Waterview Tunnel and the completion of the ring road around the city. In the digging they're doing now: to create our first underground railway; also to establish the new Eastern Busway, just like the Northern, from Panmure to Botany; also to separate the city's main stormwater and sewage systems.
And it's there in the new apartment blocks rising on the edge of the central city, near town centres and train stations and on rapid bus routes. There were 14,000 building consents issued last year, up from 4000 just 10 years ago, and 80 per cent of them were for apartment dwellings.
And it's there in the arguments. What's the future of this park? How come that building will block my sun? Build more social housing. Don't build it near me. Light rail or heavy rail? Urban planning, everywhere, is never easy.
Is the project going well enough? Nope.
Is there even a plan? Yes, there is. In fact, there are many plans, many goals, and the one big thing that joins them all is that big new thing. Climate change.
In fact, that's what the council election is about: climate change. Not many candidates will say it; possibly, not many of them even know it. But think about your rubbish. Some candidates, including mayoral hopeful John Tamihere, want the current collection regime to continue: weekly for general rubbish and fortnightly for the recyclables.
Add a decent recycling programme, which everyone agrees we should, and they say the setup is both convenient and environmentally sound. Add electric trucks and, as Tamihere proposes, a "waste to energy" system, and it's all good.
But the council is changing the setup. In Papakura and parts of the North Shore, they're trialling a weekly collection of food scraps for composting, with fortnightly collection for the rest. The composting captures methane, thus helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Food accounts for 40 per cent of general household rubbish: take it out and most of us won't need a weekly collection for the rest.
The trial is scheduled for citywide rollout by 2021, but in Papakura, it's a hot-button election issue and that will spread. So which approach is better?
I'll leave it to the advocates to do their best to convince you. Tamihere wants to stop the trial "until it has been proven to be effective", which is a touch confusing, but he has several other good points to make. So does Mayor Phil Goff.
But note this: the argument is not about what people are used to, or prefer right now. It's about the kind of waste disposal regime we want to establish for the coming decades. It's a climate-change argument. The best solution is the one that's best for the planet.
This is a feature of the Auckland Project. The twin challenges of climate change have infused themselves into every political issue: how do we reduce our contribution to global warming and how do we manage our lives in a world changing fast because of it?
There will be pain, so how much and who is going to bear it? How do we minimise it? There will be opportunities, too: who will benefit from them? How do we build equity into our responses? How do we make our decision-making system more open and more robust, so that it strengthens democratic processes and also allows for effective action?
These are the issues we're arguing about now. The issues we need our politicians to understand and be articulate about.
You can phrase it all another way: if we're going to do this effectively, how much do we have to change?
Council declared a climate emergency in June. The vote was unanimous. Presumably, when they found themselves confronted directly with the question, "Is this a crisis?", none of the councillors could find a credible reason to say no. You'd have to be a denier to do that.
But what are they going to do about this emergency? That's the real question.
It's easy to assume they're not doing anything because so far nothing much has changed. But don't be fooled. On the motion of Councillor Cathy Casey, they agreed, as of right then, that all policy proposals coming before them would need a climate change impact report.
Council has also adopted a Climate Action Framework, which is currently open for consultation (you can have your say on the council website). It covers the whole city, not just the council's own activities, and includes everything that uses energy, produces emissions, affects how we think about the future. At least, that's what it should do.
Chief executive Stephen Town says the next step will be to draw up an action plan and embed it in budget planning. "In 2020," he says, "councillors, and everyone else, actually, will have seven to eight months to have some big conversations about this. How to include the climate emergency in the new long-term plan."
He says adopting that plan, also known as the LTP or refreshed 10-year budget, will be one of the most important tasks of the council we elect next month.
And that's council in a nutshell. Important things going on, mostly away from the public glare, winding through processes, reports being written and plans being made that might or might not make a material difference to something.
Is it transformational change or is it a bunch of officials kicking a ball around, keeping themselves in work?
Critics say the public transport rollout isn't big enough, especially into poor areas in the south. The bike lobby is disappointed at the piecemeal approach to the promised cycleway network. What's the point of building a cycleway through the Mt Albert shops, disrupting shoppers and enraging several of the shopkeepers in the process, if you then leave it unconnected, forcing cyclists back on to dangerous roads?
What about opposition to denser housing developments, which used to be the biggest planning issue all over town?
"The most noise is coming from transport now," says Town. "It's the focus of concerns about change. I think what happens is that the more people get used to change, something else comes into focus."
He also points to a lack of understanding about much of the construction work. "There have been complaints about why we're digging holes in the ground on Quay St," he says. "Those are rain holes. We're planting trees there that will be important to our ability to avoid future flooding. It's a good plan, but not everyone sees it."
The trouble is, Auckland Transport isn't as good as it could be at explaining itself.
The problem with the Auckland Project is not that it's happening, but that it's happening slowly and with not enough meaningful citizen engagement.
The explanation for the slow pace is that it's important to build popular support for change. But when the roadworks seem like they will never end, the rubbish plans look like endless fretting and the outcome of cycleways consultation is a mediocre compromise that pleases no one, the opposite happens. People just get fed up.
There's a happy medium between top-down autocratic bulldozing and endless consultation and compromise, and Auckland Council and its agencies are not very good at finding it.
We need to move faster. Most of the big plans to transform the city are on a 15 to 30-year timetable. Neither the Government nor the council, for example, is planning to have CO2 emissions from vehicles eliminated inside 20 years. That's too late.
The window to manage big changes without enormous pain is not coming in a decade or two. It's open now. By 2030, it could be closed.
So if we got serious about this, if we vigorously embraced the Auckland Project, what would it look like? Take transport.
We need to eliminate our use of fossil fuels, so we need to reduce our driving, build much bigger and better alternative networks, and change the vehicle fleet to clean energy options.
Those new networks will primarily be rapid transit: both bus and light rail routes and extensions to the existing heavy rail service. Also, many more "last mile" options feeding rapid transit, and a lattice of cycleways spreading out over the greater city.
Some of this work is progressing: the Northern Busway extension, that new Eastern Busway, the Puhinui Station Interchange that will allow a quick link from the southern and eastern rail lines to the airport.
But light rail is on an absurdly slow track and AT is building less than 10 kilometres of new cycleways a year. That's just laughable.
And those last mile options? People all over the city want more park and rides, but AT is reluctant because it sees them as an expensive, interim solution to a problem that will become less pressing when people have better ways to get between home and the station. But what are the better ways? Where are they?
That's a sign of confusion, of planning out of sync, and there are others. On Whangaparaoa Rd to the north, AT trialled a "dynamic lane", which changed direction according to demand, just as is done on the harbour bridge. Great plan: if you can make existing roads more efficient, there's less need to build new ones.
The trial was a "great success", reducing commuter times, and AT is now looking at other roads where it could work. But it also meant plans to put a cycleway along the road were shelved. Instead of joining up, the thinking breaks apart instead.
But, say some, enough of this. We just need to build some critical roads right now. And yes, it's true there are some critical roads that need attention. Some of them, like Mill Rd to the south, are getting it. But it doesn't follow that we should turn the priorities round. That would leave us, by 2030, with a catastrophe on our hands. We can't be that 1950s city any longer.
And it's not just because of climate change. There are many goals with transport: efficiency, safety, public health, community building. Fighting climate change addresses all of them. What's good for the planet is good for the city and good for commuters too.
Take congestion. It's now widely understood that it's pointless to maintain a supply-driven "solution" because that increases demand. As Goff is fond of saying, "No city in the world is trying to solve congestion by building more motorways."
But that means the alternatives to driving must become not just viable, but desirable. You can't just penalise motorists. You have to reward everyone else – with the quality (and cost) of their travelling experience.
There's another thing about transport: it's how we think about roads. They're no longer just conduits for cars. They're public spaces and in built-up areas they have all sorts of uses. Many different vehicles now use them and many more pedestrians do too.
The central city is commonly called the CBD, the central business district. But it also now has nearly 60,000 residents – that's far more than any suburb and larger than the entire population of most of our cities. It's the city's primary entertainment zone, and shopping too is undergoing a profound revival.
Understanding this is at the core of the Auckland Project. A city for all the people. A central city that treasures its public spaces, makes them safer for everyone to be in, places to have fun, relax, meet people, enjoy yourself.
Restricting vehicle access on Queen St and turning Victoria St into a tree-lined "linear park" will be a vital part of that. But those plans are also parked up for now. Budget, political will and creative engagement among politicians and many of the key officials are all in short supply.
This isn't about who to vote for. But it is about what we're voting for, with the mayor, ward councillors, local board members and members of the health boards and licensing trusts too. They're all part of it.
There are lots of ways to fulfil the potential of the Auckland Project. No candidates are across them all but many have good ideas. Go to meetings, read their material, ask them questions.
I think there are two litmus tests. One is this: do they talk openly about addressing climate change in everything we do, or do they say yes, of course, it's important, and then fudge it with "but" and "getting the priorities right"?
The other is this: will the policies they promote help or harm the poor? The Auckland Project has the potential to give us the city we need. It has to do that for all of us.