Thrown to the wolves

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    ACT local government minister Simeon Brown may, as he said recently, “live and breathe Auckland” but (as always when you get to the ‘but’, especially in political rhetoric) went on to say, “it’s critically important that our biggest city, a third of our population, 37-38 percent of our GDP, is succeeding for our country to succeed, and that is so important if we want to achieve the economic objectives we’ve got as a government.”

    Personally, I would put the bloodless economic objectives of a well-heeled political party way down the list of how an exquisitely beautiful, historic city that wraps around a truly magnificent harbour can be saved from financial and environmental ruin.

    I first heard the same specious reasoning back in 2010 when the newly-minted mayor of the second Auckland supercity amalgamation model was put firmly in his place by then prime minister John Key. In a speech mostly about the colour of their respective ties, the prime minister whacked the very idea of a Central Rail Link for the sclerotic city into the 2020s.

    Len Brown was talking up Auckland as the world’s most liveable city. National party politics then, as now, demanded it be an economic powerhouse. Nearly 10 years of National governments saw social housing in desirable areas eviscerated, tenants thrown to the wolves and Auckland’s housing stock traded like pork-belly futures.

    Wellington and Auckland’s respective bureaucracies used the absence of the Auckland Regional Council for this new, ripe-for-plunder supercity to keep trawlers trawling and fish farms sanctioned in the heart of the Firth of Thames. Fish stocks and marine mammals now starve.

    Meanwhile, Simeon Brown, as the minister for local government, is shaping policy for “city deals” to set out long-term infrastructure investment with councils and, as transport minister, is touting four-lane “Roads of National Significance” in the city. 

    Apparently the city needs “less visionary thinking and more projects done cheaply and quickly”.

    Actually, the shortcomings of Auckland’s original cities, boroughs and regional council only ever existed as a self-serving perception from Wellington, enabled by centralisation’s disproportionate grip on the city’s purse-strings. Ratepayers paid the price of both the 1989 and 2010 amalgamations, both of them entirely political.

    Neither was ever taken to the public and subsequent plans to take the model to other regions were roundly defeated. Societal aspirations, the safety of historical assets and quality of life for citizens were never in the mix.

    Worse, when the $5.5 billion city rail link project did come up to the starting gate, half the price was offloaded onto Auckland ratepayers. Not so the recently-announced second Mt Victoria tunnel in Wellington which is a plum from the National government to a city that already has an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of public transport options.

    “Simply providing more cash, it doesn’t actually fix the problem,” the eponymous government minister for local government said on the day. Too true. We’ve noticed. 

    On the other hand, sequestering it for party political advantage never fixed real problems either.

    So even a maverick mayor of a basket-case city seems to have derisory power at Wellington’s high table that is again locked in outdated ideological cant and calling the shots on raw ideology.

    We need some hope, but can we get angry enough to take back democratic power and force a workable, grassroots model?

    Socially, we naturally fit into spiderweb collections of networks: for work, leisure, purposeful community initiatives, family, schools, theatre, sport, contribution. The fundamentals. Dialogue gets things done and builds consensus. 

    We aren’t beasts in the field. Or automata.

    In an article last year in Architecture Now, masterplanner Anthony Vile said urban design goes beyond architecture and involves understanding the complex layers that make up a city and finding the balance between the scale of the city, the neighbourhood, the individual buildings, the spaces between them and how the community uses them.

    “This approach should extend to all aspects of urban infrastructure, including housing. Housing is not just a design issue; it is a cultural and economic issue,” he said. “We need robust discussions on how to ensure housing is seen as a basic human right and need, rather than a retirement investment.

    “By depoliticising projects, we can focus on developing the best solutions for our communities.

    “Balancing the preservation of historical architecture with the need for modernisation and development is another challenge. In Auckland, historical architecture is already scarce due to the cultural barbarianism of the past,” he said.

    “The remaining historic fabric should be respected and integrated thoughtfully into future developments. Nostalgia should not impede progress, but if a place has cultural significance, we must preserve and enhance it. Taking a place-based approach to design allows us to deeply understand the history and culture of a location, ensuring that future projects are respectful and meaningful,” he said.

    Great cities can be a great way to live in harmony – or they can be a squalid hell of entrenched inequality. • Liz Waters

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