Thursday, February 2, 2012

Are we there yet? Auckland welcomes 1.5 millionth citizen

we know where we're goin'
but we don't know where we've been.
And we know what we're knowing'
but we can't say what we've seen.
And we're not little children
and we know what we want.
And the future is certain
give us time to work it out.
We're on a road to nowhere
come on inside
(On the Road to Nowhere, Talking Heads)

Come in citizen 1.5 million
Auckland welcomed its 1,500,000th citizen on Wednesday 1 February. The Auckland Council decided that baby Ramonah Patience Toomalatai was the one. It was a symbolic choice, Ramonah, born of Samoan parents, reflecting Auckland’s multi-cultural face and future.

It was a gesture for the future: nominating an immigrant at Auckland airport would just not have been the same. Given the recent slow-down in migration gains, Statistics New Zealand was probably right anyway. It suggested that citizen 1.5m was more likely to arrive in a maternity ward than at a customs gate.

It was also symbolic, and maybe a bit embarrassing, that the New Zealand Herald had jumped the gun and already decided on Emily Van Wonderen, born a couple of days earlier.

Does it matter if we don’t know?
It doesn’t really matter what the choice is; that Wednesday – or maybe Monday – was the day the city hit this milestone. It was always going to be arbitrary and, apart from the photo op(s) not very meaningful.

Anyway, statistical estimates of the population are inevitably imprecise, and converge on some sort of reality only with the five yearly census. Unfortunately, the decision was made after the February 2011 earthquake in Canterbury to push the Census due that April back a couple of years. That's a pity. Just when we needed a benchmark entering what was bound to be a very volatile few years of residential and business adjustment we took the easy way out. And it adds a new level of imprecision to our current population estimates, and to our population projections.

It's a pity because if we are really going to understand our future choices we need a firm grip on where we are coming from.

Anyway, the arrival of citizen 1.5m, whoever she is, raised two issues for me.

First, you have to wonder what city the girls will grow up in.
Because beyond celebrating babies and their parents, I am not sure why we would even bother marking such a milestone unless we are really prepared to think in terms of the needs and choices of our future citizens and plan accordingly.

There is a chance that these girls will not stay here. That’s been an increasing choice for Aucklanders over recent years, especially if they are young, qualified, and ambitious. Or if they hope to buy a house and settle down. Sure, plenty of people have also been arriving in search of a better life. But don’t expect them all to stay if they cannot find it. Or to keep coming if it isn't all that better -- or different - after all.

And growing numbers are leaving - either for affordable bits of New Zealand or for destinations overseas.

Putting people on the road
It worries me, then, that Auckland’s plans appear to be more about structures than people. The future of the city is presented by the planners today as “up not out” – a mantra repeated by the Deputy Mayor on television last night. But that’s a policy built on a particular set of planners’ prejudices about the hardware of a city – the buildings and networks – and not about the software – the people who make it work. And its the software that is mobile.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that no matter how easily they role off the tongue, “compact city” and “affordable housing” just don’t seem to go together, at least not in Auckland.

And we really do run the risk of undermining what makes Auckland today a great place to be if we stick with arbitrary building targets and densities of the sort promoted widely in the 1990s and now promulgated in the draft Auckland Plan. We are having to offer up our green spaces to housing; our roads to congestion; our blue skies to high rise; all for the sake of ... actually, I am not sure for the sake of what, especially if all it leads to is higher costs, less choices, more congestion, and greater social disparities.

Maybe if we want our children in their time to enjoy Auckland’s real heritage of sea, sky, and landscape we should give low impact a try instead. Or simply watch them leave when we most need them to stay.

Second, should New Zealand have a population policy?
I raise this question because actually we do have a population policy – it just hasn’t been aired that widely. And it is simple - play the Auckland card. Interestingly, this was raised on television by Invercargill Mayor, ex-Aucklander Tim Shadbolt. Thinking about population issues – where and how people might choose to live and what role, if any, government has in influencing this – has been subjugated to yet another prejudice, that New Zealand will only do well economically if Auckland continues to dominate the numbers.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that concentrating consumption and big jobs in the city does not necessarily boost the country’s economy. In fact, it could have the opposite effect if it simply adds to congestion costs, inflates housing and the cost of employment, and drives up commercial and industrial land costs. Higher wages and higher rents do not really equate to a productivity advantage.

A bigger Auckland – cost or benefit?
High levels of consumption, the higher costs of services, and the increasing demands on public spending that they make do not add to national productivity. What might be seen as higher added value in Auckland may be little more than a cost to other parts of the economy. There is not a lot of evidence that Auckland’s higher costs add to our net export income or to our pool of innovation. So one has to wonder where this particular path is taking us (if not to Sydney and beyond).

Now I’m not advocating the sort of intervention we practiced (and I use that word advisedly) in the 1970s. This is not something that “Wellington can fix”. On the other hand, we need to be careful of policies that implicitly or explicitly favour Auckland, especially if the city’s own plans are likely to frustrate the very growth they seek to promote.

We're on the road to paradise
here we go
here we go.
We're on a road to nowhere
I’m really not sure where Auckland is heading at what is potentially a turbulent time for New Zealand and its dominant city. We certainly can’t predict an end point or steady state, so let’s not treat plans as blueprints.

And let’s hope for Ramonah and Emily’s sakes, we don’t impose a 1990s view of what a city should look like on Auckland in 2030.


Mark said...

All good points.

I think Auckland will head where it will head.

Council Planners like to think they can control and plan - but in reality it comes down to what people want. What Planners can leave behind are their failed attempts at control - eg 1960s Mt Eden sausage flats.

In some ways the fault lies not with the Planners - they've been through a "smart" growth University mantra - driven by a political agenda to "control". They then have a job in Council - where they have to "do" something.

In my view where we're being let down is at the political level - where we should be seeing more commonsense. Len Brown and co, have largely gone with the staff on these issues. Again it's understandable that's how the system usually works (hostage empathy:) )

But what we needed was a proper bottom up plan - a lot of research on what we wanted rather than the top down Planners will decide approach. And then a way of providing what we want. We're already a liveable city, so we know what that is, and what components achieve that.

In the end people will choose what is best for them - lifestyle / education /jobs. They will do that within Auckland.
The sad thing is the "up not out" really describes how many of those without choice will live. People with wealth will continue to choose exactly what they want.

Under this plan - we'll see the next lot of refugee families going into apartments in Hobson St! never to experience the kiwi lifestyle....

And if planners harm the current lifestyle, we'll see people moving themselves and their businesses out of Auckland. Either to Tauranga or beyond. And those happy to live with the up not out mantra, may as well move to similar locations overseas and take the appropriate pay packet to compensate for that lifestyle.

Shadbolt had some very valid points, and it does seem strange that Auckland is doing a 30 yr plan, while we don't have a country one!

It's the Govt that should be anticipating port needs, and which should grow. They should be looking at freight/port rail and general infrastructure.

Jo Jo said...
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