Postcard: Auckland

DSCF2918 Greetings from New Zealand’s largest city, the focal point of an agrarian nation’s ambivalence about urban life.  If you’re a young North American who wonders what Seattle was like 40 years ago when I was a tyke — before Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks — Auckland’s your answer.   To a visitor accustomed to North American or European levels of civic vanity, it often seems that Auckland still doesn’t know how beautiful it is.  That’s always an attractive feature, in cities as in people, even though (or perhaps because) it can’t possibly last.

Like Seattle, Auckland occupies a spectacular hilly ithsmus, a landscape that constantly reveals surprising water views.  But unlike Seattle or San Francisco, Auckland has resisted the temptation to build on its hilltops, so the barriers to cycling and walking are relatively moderate given such scenic terrain.

DSCF5489 The bright green hills that dot the city, almost all protected as parks, are volcanic cones, remnants of various eruptions from the active lava fields below.  On most of the Pacific’s ring of fire, we are advised to worry about specific, well-identified mountains that might erupt.  Auckland, by contrast, could erupt pretty much anywhere.  Rangitoto Island (pictured), a dramatically symmetrical cone rising out of the harbour, is less than 1000 years old, and there’s no predicting where the volcanic field will punch the next Rangitoto, or when.

Perhaps because the landscape is so unpredictable, New Zealand political and economic life seems often to err on the side of serenity.  There is noticeably less turbulence and rage in political debates than you’ll find in North America or even in Australia, as New Zealand parties compete mostly for a broad and pragmatic centre of opinion.

DSCF0195The economy is never spectacular but never devastated either; the relative absence of huge boom-and-bust cycles has spared Auckland the ravages of what Jane Jacobs called “cataclysmic money,” historical moments (such as the 1950-60s in America) when there is so much money to build things that a city is transformed too fast, too heedlessly, without time to notice the side-effects.  So you can still find the complex layering of different periods, and different levels and types of prosperity, that are essential to an interesting urban environment.

Transit?  Primitive if you compare it directly to Seattle or Vancouver or Brisbane or Perth, let alone to a European peer.  UK-style privatisation means that a tangle of private bus companies charge incompatible fares.  A historic commuter train network still runs diesel trains at poor off-peak frequencies.  But at dinner last night with some Auckland transport friends — including Joshua Arbury, who manages the very thoughtful Auckland Transport Blog — the consensus seemed to be that the basic ideological battle in favor of public transit has been won, even if many of its fruits are not yet visible on the ground.

DSCF5461 But there have certainly been some triumphs:  The Northern Busway, designed in emulation of Brisbane’s high-end busway network, is helping to organize land use and transit planning on the North Shore, and extensions of it are planned.  Electrication of the rail network, which will modernise the trains and make more frequent service viable, is funded and moving ahead.  Planning of the bus network is gradually being centralized.

The most remarkable transformation now underway — about which all the Aucklanders I know are a bit ambivalent — is the consolidation of the entire urban area, and its inner ring of surrounding rural districts — into a single enormous City of Auckland.  Such a step is barely imaginable in Australia and inconceivable in most North American contexts.  The Royal Commission that designed the scheme studied many cities worldwide, and finally resolved that the single, strong mayor and council — modelled most effectively by London — was the thing Auckland needed.   This means that a range of existing regional agencies are about to turn into city departments.  Auckland Regional Transport Authority, for example, will be submerged into the transport bureaucracy of the new city, while Auckland Regional Council will disappear into the city’s (land use) planning department.  Nobody is quite sure whether it will work, but the die is cast, and the results will be an important study for similar consolidation efforts anywhere else in the developed world.

So anyway.  Hello from Auckland.  Like Seattle and Vancouver, it’s often chilly, gloomy and wet, but if you peer under the low cloud cover, there’s a lot going on.

19 Responses to Postcard: Auckland

  1. David in Ottawa May 5, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    “The most remarkable transformation now underway […] is the consolidation of the entire urban area, and its inner ring of surrounding rural districts — into a single enormous City of Auckland. Such a step is barely imaginable in Australia and inconceivable in a North American context.”

    It might just be ‘inconceivable’ in an American context, but it sure isn’t inconceivable in a *North* American context.
    In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were wholesale municipal amalgamations in the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The most prominent were those of the large metropolitan areas, but all sorts of towns, townships and villages disappeared while many counties were completely reorganized from two-tier to single-tier municipalities (no longer strictly “counties” but the title often remained in the name of the new entity). Forced annexations of developed rural areas to the central town or city were also part of the mix.
    Toronto became a ‘megacity’ (often “mispronounced” as “meg-ass-i-ty”) when the old City of Toronto and five surrounding suburban cities were amalgamated in 1998. Ottawa followed suit in 2001, as did a number of other Ontario municipalities. Montreal and several metropolitan regions in Quebec followed in 2002.
    Nor were these the first. Winnipeg and environs went through this in the 1970s.
    One would think that if one were writing about “consolidation efforts in the developed world” one would look to where it has already happened in the developed world rather than speak of one yet-to-happen as a future reference.
    Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg are all in Canada, btw. You know, the big country north of the US… the one where Vancouver is located. I dislike the sometime Canadian tendency to jump up and down waving maple leafs for attention, but seriously, sometimes it seems to be needed. This kind of ignorance is appalling, it really is.

  2. Corey Burger May 5, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

    David, don’t forget Halifax, which was merged in 1996. Interestingly, the Community Charter in BC now precludes the provincial gov’t from amalgamating municipalities without their explicit consent via a referendum.

  3. Alon Levy May 5, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    The US has examples of amalgamation in Columbus and Indianapolis, about which Aaron Renn has written in length on the Urbanophile.

  4. David in Ottawa May 5, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    Corey: I knew of Halifax’s amalgamation but had considered Halifax’s population a bit small for comparison. However, I do note that Halifax (like Ottawa) includes a significant rural ring in the amalgamated city, just like the Auckland proposal. Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg didn’t really have this extensive rural component in their amalgamations.
    One of the difficulties with these amalgamations is that they’re sort of like closing the stable doors after the horses have bolted. By the time the overseeing level of government gets around to carrying out these amalgamations, the metropolitan area has already sprawled and the outlying suburbs have already long engaged in beggar-thy-neighbour policies. Once their populations are brought into a single city they seem to think that they should continue to be able to enjoy urban services at suburban tax rates, and they vote accordingly. This happened in Winnipeg and it essentially happened in Ottawa. Toronto sort of suffered from this, but amalgamation there didn’t grab the second ring of suburbs (Mississauga, Markham, etc), either. I can’t even fathom what went on in Montreal since its municipal structure looked more like a map of 19th century pre-Bismarck Germany than a city. Really – I’m not joking:

  5. David in Ottawa May 5, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    Sorry, that was *after* the 2002 merger. This was what it looked like before:

  6. Jarrett at May 5, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    Thanks for the correction re Ottawa. I’ve softened the language slightly in response. I lived in Vancouver for a year, so I obviously know where Canada is. Any chauvinism in my knowledge is of an east-west variety, not north-south as David implies.

  7. Chris May 6, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    A similar sort of process to the amalgamation has started in the UK, except it’s much more tentative and bottom up. From next year the third and fourth biggest conurbations (Manchester and Leeds-Bradford) will be governed by new authorities created to manage regional issues including transport.
    This is a step to undo much of the damage done to metropolitan politics by the abolition of the metropolitan councils in 80s, so it’s more of an evolution than a revolution; but like in Auckland it will be interesting to see how the tensions between the city and the country are worked out.

  8. jarbury May 6, 2010 at 2:21 am #

    Great to have you here in Auckland Jarrett, and to meet you last night. Thanks for the kind words about my blog.
    A few comments on parts of your post.
    Firstly, we did have a “catastrophic money” phase during the 1980s where we demolished most of our heritage buildings in the CBD and either built ugly glass boxes to replace them or simply left the sites vacant for the next 30 years. Our central motorway junction ripped out whole inner suburbs leading to the odd situation now where our CBD is effectively an island surrounded by motorways.
    In terms of “has the battle for PT been won?” I would say ‘partly’. The rhetoric is very supportive, but when you delve into “where’s the money going?” the answer is usually around 85% for roads and 15% for public transport. That said, there are enough important projects underway now (such as rail electrification) that we’ve got enough momentum now it’s possible to be quite optimistic about where things are going. It’s just a shame that the Minister of Transport in central government is effectively a puppet for the trucking lobby.
    In terms of the local government reorganisation, or what we call the “Super City”, it’s hard to see how this will turn out. There are certainly some big advantages – in that urban planning and transport will be operated regionally, which is great. However, as part of the reorganisation we are seeing transport split off from council into its own agency – which will make integration between transport and planning very difficult.
    Hope you’re enjoying your stay. And also hope that you don’t get killed on the pedestrian unfriendly city streets!

  9. Brent Palmer May 6, 2010 at 3:29 am #

    @ David in Montreal: “I can’t even fathom what went on in Montreal since its municipal structure looked more like a map of 19th century pre-Bismarck Germany than a city”
    That map looks like your typical Australian state capital (although each level might have a different set of responsibilities in either country). The exception is Brisbane, where 20 councils were combined to create a “super-council” in 1925. A rare (perhaps only) occurrence of Brisbane being ahead of its time!

  10. Brent Palmer May 6, 2010 at 5:25 am #

    Could rail electrification eventually make re-introduction of trolleybus lines on the isthmus a possibility? Most of New Zealand’s electricity’s from hydro.

  11. Alexander May 6, 2010 at 5:32 am #

    Well Brent, the differences between Montreal and, say, Melbourne, is that nowhere in Melbourne is so dominant as pre-merger Montreal, but on the other hand there are no enclaves, exclaves, or otherwise discontinuous municipalities.
    Note that the councils in metropolitan Melbourne were merged in the 1990s; we now have around thirty. I don’t know how many we had beforehand, or if a simple comparison can be done.
    In Australia it kinda makes sense, because most states are so dominated by their capital city, that anything that can’t be done by local government, might as well get done by the state government. On the other hand, I would absolutely love it if planning near train stations and on major roads (i.e. those with decent public transport) was taken away from local councils and given to … well … even no-one (i.e. a developer free-for-all) would be better than the current situation, which amounts to parents and older childless people stealing from their children and other young people.

  12. Tom West May 6, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    Picking up the Canadian examples about how merging cities with their surronding suburbs is too late… in Alberta, the provincial policy seems to be that cities must contain land for future development *within* their boundaries, annexing land from surronding rural counties as needed. This means that any subrubs ar firmly within the city’s control (for better or worse). See Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, etc. (Edmonton/St Albert is the exception).

  13. Art Busman May 6, 2010 at 8:43 am #

    It’s nothing like Seattle or Vancouver except perhaps in the winter which is what it is now there. During their summer, the place is like Hawaii. While the Kiwi’s are drastically different from other Commonwealthers in their civility and almost Midwestern nature, unfortunately, they keep aspiring to be POMS. Centralizing the Auckland area under one strong City government and I’m assuming the City of Waitakere is the WRONG idea. The decentralization of government is EXACTLY why the place seems so in touch with nature and its habitat. Now you’ll have an unwieldly bureaucracy that will conspire with corporations to convert Auckland into a Seattle or San Francisco, an uncivil civic armpit.

  14. Art Busman May 6, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    It’s one thing to quote Jane Jacobs, but don’t forget Robert Moses her nemesis, the embodiment of Hitleresque urban planning, the centralization of vision and decision making, great master plans bulldozing small communities and neighborhoods. That’s exactly what Auckland needs huh.

  15. Dan S. May 6, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    Jarrett, I don’t recall Jane Jacobs talking about “catastrophic money” but she does talk about “cataclysmic money.” At least by calling it cataclysmic, we acknowledge that the money may have been intended for the greater good whether or not it lead to catastrophe. I feel that this is an important distinction.

  16. bzcat May 6, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    The urban consolidation is not foreign to the US… Our two largest cities were result of amalgamation: New York City was result of massive consolidation of several boroughs (e.g. equivalent of “cities”); and Los Angeles, which annexed the cities of Venice, San Pedro, and Hollywood as well as vast track of unincorporated land in the San Fernando Valley and the Harbor area.
    Anyway… change of subject…
    I used to live in Auckland and so I fully agree with Jarrett that the city is very beautiful. However, I think Jarrett is perhaps a bit glassy eyed because Auckland metro area is basically a LA-style suburban sprawl with multi-polar anchors in different corners. In land area, Auckland metro area nearly matches Los Angeles but with only 1/20 of the population. Low density sprawl type development predominates and public transportation system is rudimentary. The Western and Southern suburbs could use better commuter train service but I’m not sure how effective rail investment will be for the rest of the area. BRT is probably the way to go to link the spwaling Eastern suburbs (Mt Wellington, Pakuranga, Howick etc) and North Shore with city center.

  17. Jarrett at May 6, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

    @Dan S. re 'cataclysmic money".  Thanks, and corrected.
    @bzcat.  While some US cities do encompass much of their suburbia (Houston and San Antonio come to mind) I'm not aware of a major US city where literally the entire continuous urban agglomeration — the entire patch of lights visible from an airplane — is under a single municipal government, along with a substantial surrounding rural buffer sufficient to encompass most areas that benefit from urban proximity.  That's what's new about the Auckland city structure.
    I agree that Auckland has a lot of sprawl.  But as I've argued elsewhere, the multi-polar structure — with the outer highrise centres of Takapuna and Manukau and other such centres under development — is a positive feature for effective transit.  See:
    @Art Busman.  Auckland's winter lows are a little higher than Vancouver's, but summer is certainly not like Hawaii.  Wikipedia: 
    "The average daily maximum temperature is 23.7 °C in
    February, and 14.5 °C in July. … High levels of rainfall occur almost year-round with an average of
    1240 mm per year spread over 137 'rain days'."
    Main difference from Seattle/Vancouver is that rain is evenly spread around the year, whereas Seattle/Vancouver is relatively dry in the summer.  Summer nights in Auckland are also relatively cool, cooler than in Vancouver and certainly much cooler than in Hawaii.

  18. Matt Fisher July 7, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    Also in my native Newfoundland and Labrador. I lived in St. John’s and was born there, and in 1990, the town of Wedgewood Park (where I lived) and the town of Goulds amalgamated into the present city of St. John’s.

  19. Matt Fisher July 7, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    Oh, and also, most of Manitoba’s electricity is from hydro too. This would be ideal to run light rail in Winnipeg, as well as in Auckland over the Northern Busway (a switch of the BRT to LRT is planned).