The Moxie Sessions: From moar roads to the far canal: helping Auckland grow big gracefully

Opinion

Vaughn Davis

Productivity Commission chairman Murray Sherwin

Productivity Commission chairman Murray Sherwin on what Auckland needs to successfully grow

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I was put on the spot by a radio host the other day (karma, huh?). Out of nowhere, at the end of one of those “panel” hours radio stations have been running since shortly after Marconi invented the thing, the guy asked me what I thought  the biggest challenge facing the government in 2016 was.

Had I had the benefit of some of that fancy “media training” people seem to be into these days I would probably have prevaricated for a minute or so before settling on a sage and possibly witty response. Instead, I just blurted out the first thing that came into my head. 

“Auckland.”

Specifically, the relationship between central government in far-off Wellington, and the 1.5 million of us who live and work in New Zealand’s biggest city (which Statistics New Zealand predicts will top two million in 20 years).

Bravely, I shared this opinion after the show with my 13,000 closest Twitter friends and was roundly slapped for my trouble. What about poverty? What about climate change? What about obesity? Employment? Water quality?

And the thing is, the more my position was challenged, the more I became convinced it was right.

Solve poverty in Auckland and you solve much of the poverty in New Zealand. Change the way Auckland uses energy – especially the way it travels – and we begin to pull our climate-change weight. Build the Auckland economy and watch national unemployment fall. 

None of these are easy fixes, of course, but sitting around a table eating chips and discussing them is a pretty good first step. So, just before Christmas, the Productivity Commission’s Murray Sherwin, Patrick Reynolds from Transport Blog and Metro magazine’s Simon Wilson joined a dozen other crystal ball gazers at Karangahape Road’s BizDojo to ask: is Auckland ready to be a city of two million? And if not, what do we need to do? 

For Patrick – and headline writers for the last five years at least – housing is the major issue. The way we’re doing housing – building suburbs in the wops, on old airforce bases or even down holes – spreads the city further and adds to the traffic problem. Patrick says the planning choice can be (over) simplified to “up or out,” and despite some tinkering with central city apartments we’re still focused on “out,” concerned citizens rally to argue against “up”, and we all suffer the transport burden that comes with those choices. 

Concentrating people in the centre also has a productivity upside, Patrick says. As our economy shifts from “making things and moving them around” toward collaboration and creativity, ideas become more important than goods, and proximity becomes far more important than mobility.

Murray Sherwin, not surprisingly, is also a big fan of cities as powerhouses of productivity (a view The Moxie Sessions largely endorse, as covered in this recent column that offended all 12 residents of Ohura). For him, then, Auckland’s successful growth is a national issue, not just a local one. 

Big cities aren’t just important for the economy; done well, they’re better for the people who live in them. Education, jobs, healthcare and housing are all usually better in the city than in the country.

But that only works if there are enough places for everyone to live, and people can afford to live reasonably close to where they work. And Auckland is failing at housing at the moment, not because of a lack of land or an excess of growth, but because of problems with regulation and planning.

“At their core,” Murray says, “our existing policy settings are not sustainable and create enormous problems, especially for the poor, with the cost of living in a growing city.”

Simon Wilson, as Metro magazine editor-at-large, acknowledges the importance of policy both local and national but takes a more creative view of the problem. For him, the road to a bigger better Auckland is paved not with resource consents and light rail tracks, but ideas. 

What kind of ideas? Anything from the pragmatic (focus on making Auckland the Pacific’s best city for students) to the progressive (transform Great North Rd into a Parisian boulevard of apartments, cafes, bicycles and pedestrians) and even the possibly preposterous (reimagine Quay St as the Venice of the Pacific, a meeting place of boats, people and presumably pigeons).

For Simon, the Productivity Commission and city-shaping government bodies such as the New Zealand Transport Agency should be complemented by a Creativity Council – an agency tasked with thinking differently about Auckland’s place in the world, unconstrained by its current state and past thinking.

For that to work though, Simon believes the power balance between central government and the Auckland Council needs to shift. There are also many other agencies that are enormously important too, like NZTA or the council-owned organisations, but they are not directly controlled or coordinated to a single plan. 

Build the centre, limit the sprawl, shift the focus from how people travel to where they live and work, reframe the relationship with Wellington … and think creatively. How hard can that be?

By the end of this year, Auckland will have a new mayor. By the time we hit two million it may have had another five of them. I’d like to think somewhere in that half dozen is the leader this city needs to become the city all New Zealand deserves. 

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see http://themoxiesessions.co.nz

Thanks to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for their generous sponsorship that helps to make The Moxie Sessions possible.

Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.

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