How do you build a perfect city? Nothing's perfect, we all know that. But it doesn't stop the cricketer trying to bat the perfect innings, the cook trying to bake a perfect pie.
But what if it's a city? How do you do that? You start with a village, you turn it into a town, you push on.
It's a grey day in July when Charles Ma shows me around Auranga. Winter, even in dreamtown.
We're wrapped up and scootering along the path beside the creek: pūkeko and shags, the usual Auckland maze of mangroves and waterways. This is the Pāhurehure Inlet on the extreme southeastern reaches of the Manukau Harbour, where the water is brown, but it's mud, nothing worse. The path is wider than usual – 3m – because Ma wanted it to be easy for walkers and cyclists to share, and it follows the creek in graceful curves.
All around us sections are pegged out, pipes are being laid and houses at every stage of construction are rising from the fields. A thousand people already live here and there are many more times that to come.
Auranga is on the west side of the motorway by Drury, just off the road to Pukekohe, but it's not soil that would now be useful for horticulture. "It's not arable land," says Bill Cashmore, the outgoing local ward councillor who is also Auckland's deputy mayor. "The commercial value has been lost."
The old Papakura District Council zoned the land for residential development and it's mainly been lifestyle blocks for decades. Several such blocks still remain in the area, awaiting development.
But despite the flurry of construction, this place is about far more than houses. Ma's not building homes for people, he's creating a world for them to live in.
Developers don't always go about their work like this. All too often they dig in the services, up pop the houses and then, if you buy one, you wonder if anyone really thought about where the kids would play or you would shop.
Ma says some of the other developers "just build houses round a railway station. There's no economy, no reason for them to exist."
At Auranga, before the houses began, Ma built the pathway along the creek, added a jetty and planted 130,000 trees. He built a village playground, a pop-up community centre and an impressive bluestone bridge. The very first residents could see what they were going to be part of.
They also knew they were being invited to "have a relationship with the outdoors again". In Auranga, Ma says, "you can't help yourself but be healthy". The e-scooters we're riding are contracted from Beam and available for free use.
Also, he wants those residents to feel part of a community. "I want it to be a place where people can change. Where they'll love giving. Where they will be proud and dignified and feel part of the life here."
Back on the shared pathway, my scooter dies. These things happen. We walk on.
"Most pathways are straighter than this," he says. "But I went for a walk and got them to follow me with a spray can. The path goes where it's intuitive you would walk."
He's proud of the "drama": the path undulates, so you rise to meet the view then wander down again into a fold in the grassland, none of it too steep for a wheelchair.
Ma is a big-picture guy and a details guy. He's decided where everything will go and designed most of the public facilities himself. For a year, he trialled five options for the shared path: different concrete and aggregate colours and combinations.
There's a kayak tied up at the jetty. When summer returns, the water will be blue and there'll be kids here, maybe also some people pretending to be kids, running and jumping in. When the tide is just so, says Ma, the jetty is a very good height for bombs. The decking has a map of the Manukau harbour etched into it, showing Auranga and also the airport.
"The storm is coming," Ma told me the first time we met. He meant the climate, the economy, social life, the war in Europe, everything. "We need identity, as an anchor."
CHARLES MA likes to quote Buckminster Fuller, the mid-century American futurist who invented the geodesic dome and tried to reinvent the way we live. "To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete."
Born in Howick, the fourth of five siblings, Ma lived in China as a child and then was in school here. It didn't go well.
At Auckland Grammar, "It wasn't until I got to sixth form that one of my calculus teachers saw something in me." He started to work and "managed to gain just enough marks to scrape into university, but not enough to get into engineering, which is what I had set my heart on doing".
He went and sat outside the dean's office for three days until the dean agreed to see him.
"He looked at me, looked at his screen displaying my very mediocre school marks and then proceeded to tell me that I would never get into engineering because my grades would follow me for the rest of my life."
Ma did not despair. He doesn't do despair. He says he developed his own way of learning, led by "curiosity" and "passion", somehow got himself enrolled in a conjoint engineering and commerce degree, graduated with honours and then did "executive education programmes" at Harvard, and Stanford, and the London Business School.
Take that, Mr Stuffy Old Dean.
Still in his early 20s, Ma went into private equity, won a $50,000 bonus and went out on his own. "I initially brought 4ha with my mother, when we really couldn't afford it. I don't come from a wealthy family."
He bought another eight, and more, and more, raising capital as he went. Now he's 31, his company is called MADE and he calls himself a city entrepreneur. Ma has been working on Auranga for nine years.
"I'm a civil engineer, this is how I think. What can we do? We can't build a village, it doesn't solve anything. Doesn't answer any need. We have to build a city. All the services and everything, integrated with a new chemistry."
He visited 25 countries and 50 cities, "looking for good ideas. But I wasn't interested in copying anyone, especially not the likes of Sydney or Vancouver. In cities like that, you know, the expansion of commercial life has meant the heart and soul of the city are lost. There's more genius here than there."
We're in the MADE offices when he tells me this. It's a suite almost at the top of the new Commercial Bay building at the bottom of Queen St, where everything is quiet and deeply tasteful, except for the harbour far below, which is a riot of sun-soaked sparkliness.
"What I bring to the table," he says, sitting on an upright chair in front of an empty desk, "is my unbeaten youth and my energy and will." He talks about his values: community and individual freedoms. He talks about legacy. Stanford University was founded in 1885 as a legacy institution and he was so inspired by that he intends to do the same thing.
"I want to create something as large and internationally impressive." And later, "I want Auranga to be a global exemplar. An inspiration to the world."
He's got investors here and overseas, although he won't name them, and before long there will be billions tied up in this dream.
A few weeks later, I drive my ordinary little car half an hour down the motorway, park behind his classic Ferrari, which he says has "a V12 naturally aspirated authentic engine" that "I consider to be heritage", and we do the Auranga tour.
THE FUTURE, says Charles Ma, will not be megacities. "It will be lots of small cities. And there will be affordable living, not just affordable housing." Also, "Density is key: when we live close together it's easier to get around,"
He's so enthusiastic. On the ride, he keeps turning around to ask me what I think we will come across next. What would the perfect town have at this point?
A dog park is the answer. Then, a family barbecue area. A retirement village, a playground, "eco islands" in the river, a lake on the edge of what will be a shopping centre. A natural amphitheatre for performances in the paddock on the other side of the lake.
From the start, there's been a heart to the village: containers set up around a covered wooden deck with trestles, with an information kiosk, a drop-in centre for parents and little kids, a green to play on, a fountain and the Better Way Cafe.
Nic Powell runs the cafe. "I've been here a year, it's so cool, people come and I love all the stuff people talk about. It's a proper community. I told Charles I wouldn't do it if it was just a cafe."
His wife, Peony, is the community manager: she does events, looks out for the kids, holds meetings for residents to keep them briefed on progress and hear their concerns.
Ma and the Powells put on "Sunday feasts": meals that are free and shared, and vegetarian, because that's part of their belief system. It's like they're pilgrims in the new world, with Moroccan lentil soup.
"This is community," says Ma. "There's a deep longing for it."
He says Hobsonville Point is the proving ground and everyone can take great heart from its success. "Hobsonville proves New Zealanders will accept density if it's well designed and there's greenery and good access to nature."
But Ma did something at Auranga that didn't happen at Hobsonville Point: he was committed to social housing. "Settlements need all kinds of housing," he says. "Including social housing."
There are KiwiBuild homes here too, many of them built before any others and snapped up by teachers, police officers, nurses, public servants, tradies and "a young church pastor". Ma calls these people his "champions" and says they build diversity into the community from the start and "add value that others can't".
He pointed to a row of houses and asked me to pick which was a KiwiBuild house. I got it wrong.
Auranga is a made-up word but they like to say it means "a life force that inspires".
BIG-PICTURE guy, details guy. Just along from the Better Way Cafe is Auranga's first monumental feature: the stone bridge on Bremner Rd, the main road connecting the town to Drury. The bridge spans a creek leading down to the main waterway and Ma designed it.
There are three types of bluestone, quarried locally. The builders told Ma the bridge pillars were taller than they needed to be, but he told them it isn't just a bridge and didn't they know engineers like him are allowed to have grand plans?
At 29m, it's also far wider than it needs to be. This is because "need" means something different to Ma. Much of the bridge surface is given over to verges, swales and a wide central median, all of them planted with trees and grasses. Vehicles, bikes and pedestrians are all given space to function freely, while the overall feeling is nature-focused and people-friendly.
Dignified and lovely, functional and leisurely, built to last: in case you missed it, the bridge is a symbol of the city to come.
All of this – the bridge, the community centre, the pathway along the creek, the first houses – is at the eastern end of Auranga. Further away from the motorway, at the western end, there's a lake and many stands of mature trees. Over the next 10 years, this is where the town centre will be built.
Supermarket, shops, blocks of mixed-use offices and apartment blocks, entertainment and hospitality, a four-storey arts centre, community swimming pool and central piazza: 76,000sq m of floor space on 13.4ha. That's about two-thirds as big as Sylvia Park, but Sylvia Park doesn't sit beside a picturesque lake.
Ma says he's searching the country and the world for enterprises that will want to be part of this centre and he's not interested in the likes of Costco and Ikea. "We're looking for the hidden brands we can help." He wants the values of a circular economy to prevail.
Bill Cashmore suggests the wider Drury catchment is going to need a new hospital. Ma is keen on a "health and wellness innovation hub" and is already working with public health agencies to create integrated medical, physical, rehabilitation and pharmacy facilities for the area.
One day, he also wants to build a university.
There'll be 15,000 new jobs in Drury soon, or 20,000, depending on who you talk to, and before too long a whole lot more. The detail hardly matters. As Cashmore says, Charles Ma spotted that the steel mill land at Glenbrook, 25km away, would one day be repurposed as a general industrial zone. Penrose industry will be forced away by rising land values and the demand for housing closer to town.
The jobs will flow south. This is the economic bedrock on which tens of thousands of new homes are coming to Karaka, Auranga, Paerata Rise and the entire region from Drury to Pukekohe.
FOR ALL the developers, the opportunity is to build new homes and new communities. Charles Ma goes further. He wants to do it so his residents won't need to drive. "The future is not EVs," he says. "It's live, work and play close together."
He thinks of Auranga as a campus: why drive when it's more fun not to?
This means macro and micro transport planning. At the macro level, work is well under way to electrify the rail line from Papakura to Pukekohe. The trains will run so often, no one will need a timetable.
The Government has also approved three new stations for that long last section of the Southern Line: Drury East, Drury West and Paerata Rise will complement Pukekohe itself.
Drury West will be near the Auranga town centre. Buses already service the area.
The micro level is even more critical. It's safe to cycle anywhere in Auranga, because there are bike lanes on every street. Not promised or "coming soon, perhaps", as would be the case almost everywhere else: they're already there. "If you go too slow with that kind of infrastructure," Ma says, "everyone has already bought their cars."
Walking and cycling are at the heart of his vision. "It's the value of walking. I don't want to rob people of the right to do it. So there are no cul-de-sacs in Auranga, because they're pointless for people out walking." Also, they turn into car parks.
This upends the principles on which many other new towns and suburbs have been planned. Hobsonville Point, in many other respects a model town, is littered with cul-de-sacs stuffed with cars.
Ma takes special pride in his bike lanes, which are designed for safe negotiation of intersections. Auckland Transport, he says, liked what he'd done so much it copied him on Karangahape Rd.
The free e-scooters are set up on several street corners: it's a trial. "There's a level of experimentation in all of this," he says. Big Street Bikers will provide e-bike services.
In a rare lapse of his usual hands-on management, Ma left it to the Ministry of Education to design the street layout outside the new primary school, and they did it to favour cars. Ma was terribly upset.
A large childcare centre is already open and the school will be completed in time for term one next year. It cost $60 million, which is quite a lot, and is built on land he sold to the Ministry of Education. Ma designed the basketball court and insisted that, unlike almost every other school in the country, there will be no perimeter fence.
Auranga is not a gated community and neither is the school. Auranga Primary is to be a community hub, retrofitted with safe streets, open to all.
A new secondary school, servicing the entire Drury area, will be built nearby.
Ma is also developing a "complete food strategy" with "artisan farm-to-table" food outlets. He'd like visitors to Auckland to get off the plane, or turn off the motorway, and head over to experience a "world-famous food destination".
In those 50 countries he visited looking for inspiration, did he find any? "We can't copy Dubai," he says, which seems like a good thing.
"And we can't look to the cities of China, either. We can't afford to do what they do. The one place that rises above the rest is Israel, with their strategy to innovate their way out." He says Singapore and Switzerland have something of that, too.
"I want this to be a national pride thing, like the All Blacks." Winning, and taking risks to do it. (We were talking, remember, in July.)
WHY DID Charles Ma choose a greenfields development? However much he might wish it otherwise, greenfields always add urban sprawl to a city.
He talks about "the advantage of not having too much history". This is the problem with brownfields developments, which are inside the existing urban area, where residents don't want their roads changed, the water services might be in the wrong place and there's always a clamour about apartment buildings.
With greenfields you can plan things the way you want. If the bike lanes go in before the people arrive, no one's going to object.
And yet it hasn't been that easy.
Ma wrote last November that he was "mocked" for years by city planners and others because he aimed higher than other developers. His aspirations made him untrustworthy. He "battled" through the Environment Court to regenerate his "eco islands" on the Pāhurehure Inlet.
He says he had to redesign Bremner Rd seven times "because we insisted, rather than a wide road for fast-moving cars, on pedestrian- and cyclist-oriented streets".
He was thrilled when the Government announced the second railway station for Drury, but that turned to dismay when KiwiRail decided to locate it further west than anticipated.
The station will be too far away for Auranga residents to get to easily by bike or on foot, so they'll be tempted to drive, either to the station or just on to the motorway and away. That would destroy a central purpose of the town.
Ma was furious. "The shift in the Drury West railway station," he wrote last November, "is a clear example of the lack of leadership and understanding our public agencies have for what it takes to deliver good outcomes."
He added, "The most shocking thing now is that our public agencies have decided that Drury should be a sprawl city, where people will leave and stay in the motorway traffic for hours to go to work and back, where increased emissions from cars is the climate reality, where it costs more to live, where public health and safety are compromised, and where people get left behind by a lack of community."
Councillor Chris Darby, who chairs the council's planning committee, says it's not that simple. He points out that the station will service a larger area than just Auranga: inevitably, wherever it's located, some households will be too far away.
The reality is that all the new developments in the city's far south are overwhelmingly made up of single houses. The sprawl is endless, with almost no density planning along the rail corridor.
The one place where that's not true is the proposed Auranga town centre on the edge of the lake. It will contain a thousand homes, mostly in apartment blocks, and become a big employment centre too. Ma's whole concept assumes people in the town centre will walk to the train.
And yet the station will be in the wrong place for them. Ma is so angry with KiwiRail, he got his lawyers to initiate a judicial review of the decision. He wants to "get the truth out".
Auranga's plan change allowing this density became operative this week, which means work on the town centre should start within months. It was the only project to get this green light, without attracting complaints. Council is appealing against all the east Drury developments.
IF THERE'S going to be greenfields growth at all, is this the way to do it?
Is building a perfect town like baking the perfect pie? Or is it more like trying to raise a perfect child: an inherent contradiction in terms, of because humans have to experiment and make mistakes or there's nothing to learn from?
Should the perfect town be perfectly organised, or is that also wrong?
"The storm is coming," Charles Ma had told me. So he came out here and started with a wandering path by a river and containers in a field. A place to walk; coffee and a place to meet. While I talked with Ma and Nic and Peony Powell, parents with toddlers wandered in and out, some of them settling with toys and books.
Pretty soon, on the vacant lot next door, there'll be a "building for worship", although Ma seems reluctant to use the word church. They never mention it in the promotional material, but a sense of faith is never far from the surface in this place.
The fountain, which Ma designed, set in a paved courtyard right by the café. In summer, he says, it's hard to keep the children out of it. And there are words, which he wrote, carved into the pavers.
for a better country;
to live as citizens
better way together.
we are one body,
so if one suffers,
we all suffer,
giving is better
so if one rejoices,
we all celebrate.
is the servant of all;
in green pastures and
beside still waters,
He restores our souls.
on these sure
we await a city
and builder is God.