What do you think of when you think of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland? I asked a South Islander and they suggested the Sky Tower, Rangitoto and traffic jams. Ask an Aucklander and they may tell you about the beaches, art galleries, nightlife, talent and opportunity ... or they too may tell you about the traffic jams.
How do you get rid of traffic jams? Remove traffic.
Replace it with easier ways to get around. Despite all that convenience, we imply in talking about cars, when you're in one, absolutely everything else becomes an obstacle and an inconvenience. As a pedestrian, cyclist, wheelchair user, scooterer, parent with a pram or public transport user, you really do have the convenience of curiosity and the freedom to explore without 1000kg of steel in your hands.
George St is the arterial route in Sydney's city centre; its original high street connecting many of the city's most important buildings and precincts. Spanning from the harbour down into the city, it is home to the country's largest listed companies and skyscrapers.
In July 2020, a few months into the arrival of Covid-19, the City of Sydney started closing blocks of the street – a whole 4500sq m – to traffic. At first, people weren't using the space like planners may have hoped. So the City asked people why. It still looked like a street, people said, albeit a closed one, and therefore not a place people are inclined to hang out in, live their lives and make vibrant. That problem was quickly, cheaply and efficiently solved with street furniture, trees and activation. Clover Moore, Sydney's Lord Mayor, says this has been "transformational" as clogged city streets full of conga-lines of traffic are "long gone".
George St is 3km long. So is our very own Queen St. Until the 1950s, George St hosted trams before they were ripped out to make way for more motor vehicles, like Queen St. In 2015, the New South Wales State government started to build surface-level light rail down part of it. In Auckland, we've been having this fight since 1968 when Mayor Robbie imagined freedom for all to move around without the cost of an individual car and wedging ever more car parks into a finite space; last year the Government announced it would take it underground.
"Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die," an opposition politician declared during a debate with me in the 2020 election. His point was that everybody often agrees on the idea of things we want, but the change and perceived pain to get there is so often politically unpalatable. It involves risk, courage, constant relationship management and nimble, creative thinking and deployment of resources.
In practice, that means despite landmark plans launched at signing ceremonies with the accompanying press releases, getting that vision off the page takes political guts. More than that, it takes serious political buy-in to by-pass the inertia of the "business case industrial complex"; the risk aversion inherent in layers of bureaucracy, like layers of the onion, built out over decades to prevent any one person ever being responsible - for failure, or for getting anything done.
Trees cascading from Wynyard Quarter to Victoria Park, down Victoria St through to Albert Park and out across to Quay Park and the Domain. Visibility of the whakapapa of our city, its history of Māori settlement and trade, weaved into the fabric of how we tell our 21st-century story. Spaces people want to be in, where they don't have to compete with cars.
This vision was signed off 10 years ago. In 2012, the City Centre Masterplan showed us what it would look like for Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland to stop poorly mimicking Los Angeles in our city planning. It's time to live up to our communities' own aspirations and resource accordingly.
A city centre is not a museum and Queen St should not be a thoroughfare, but a destination unto itself.
What about all the disruption? It's here already. It's inevitable either way - and we have home-grown solutions. Gap Filler launched in Christchurch after the devastation of the first major quake. Its kaupapa was finding ways to make things work; to fill empty, sometimes precarious and often very short-term spaces with joy and people. Ten years later, they're a roaring, internationally awarded and expanding success.
At home in Auckland City, I've spoken to numerous landlords about short-term leases for artists, creatives, small businesses and risk-takers - they tend to say their banks with tight commercial mortgage lending conditions won't let it happen. I've then spoken to the banks who've said there are no such conditions, generally. Something's got to give.
This week, I'm writing to each of the publicly listed addresses of our major city centre landlords to ask they start actively engaging in the shared vision for our city. That means using the space we've got to do what we can right now. It's time to stop letting things happen to us and start making them happen.
Do we want our own George St-style success, or to keep kicking the 1000kg steel can down the road?
• Chlöe Swarbrick, Green Party, is the MP for Auckland Central.