Essay

Primate city

NOT LONG AGO a TV current affairs program mounted a live studio debate about whether 'Auckland is sucking the life out of New Zealand'. Viewers were invited to vote and overwhelmingly agreed there was, indeed, an urban vampire in their midst. The studio audience – drawn from Auckland, naturally, since most of the national media are now based there – completely disagreed; if anything, Auckland was the real victim. As polls go it was hardly scientific. But it did point up the strange perceptual divide between much of New Zealand and its largest city.

More surprising than the result was that such a question was even being asked. Regional prejudice is one thing – denouncing the imagined Sodom and Gomorrah of the alpha city is a national pastime in many places – but what other country feels its very existence might be threatened? Even allowing for the hyperbole of primetime, the image of Auckland as a giant parasite was somewhat extreme. Conversely, what kind of city might inspire such paranoia and distrust?

That brilliantly misanthropic travel writer Paul Theroux offered this advice to the seeker of urban truths: ‘[The] only way to understand a city is to see its periphery, because that’s where the workers generally live, the people who are employed to maintain it…’ He was writing about the shanty camps of West Africa, where the edge of town tends to reveal unpalatable things about unsustainable migration, human desperation and the pitiless hierarchies of a slum planet. Were Theroux to apply his universal rule to contemporary Auckland, by contrast, the truth would be one of stultifying banality.

Built on a narrow isthmus between two harbours, the city’s growth is dictated first and foremost by geography. The central east and west are the oldest residential areas, flanked by the Waitematā and Manukau harbours respectively. So the thousands of people who move to Auckland each year tend to gravitate towards its northern and southern boundaries, where the process of urbanisation is devouring once supremely fertile farmland like some peculiar form of architectural blight.

The new housing developments rising from old pastures – with names like Dannemora and Botany Downs – are now intruding into rural pockets that were once the preserve of the Range Rover and polo set; vast streetscapes of ostentatious tract housing, ‘McMansions’, built to the permissible limits of their sections, with colonnaded porticos and arched entranceways, like the boastful family mausoleums you find in certain cemeteries.

Albany to the north is much the same. Once the city’s orchard belt, where as a child I would go with my parents to buy cheap fruit from the roadside stalls, it is now a conglomeration of steroidal subdivisions and sterile business parks, interspersed with the odd leftover green field, invariably staked out with developers’ billboards and  ‘for sale’ signs. I’ve worked in offices there, and was struck by the fact that the one thing everyone had in common was money – not so much the possession of it as the need to make it. There could be no other reason to be there.

At the inner extremities of Auckland’s sprawl lie more traditional working class suburbs, older ones to the west and newer ones clinging to State Highway 1 as it snakes southward through Manukau and Manurewa. These are the parts of town where the middle classes prefer not to venture, where backyards accommodate the giant feet of the power pylons feeding the city, and where the news media tend to look for hard luck stories that suit the stereotypes.

But the trouble with trying to understand Auckland by studying its periphery is that the periphery keeps seeping across notional city limits like spilt paint. Villages and hamlets are subsumed in the process, built over and around, soon lost in the tangle of motorway exits and shopping mall car parks. The true frontiers of this still young city are always open to interpretation.

When I was growing up in the early 1970s, having moved to Auckland from Dunedin (and before that from London), we once had a summer holiday in Browns Bay. It felt far enough away from our home in the inner east to be a genuine change of scene. There was a camping ground with family cabins, and all the things one still associates with New Zealand’s beach life – a dairy selling ice creams, people fishing from boats, a happy barefoot existence.

Browns Bay today is just another suburb on the city’s northeastern coast. It drains of commuters in the morning and fills back up again when the motorway finally unclogs in the evening. It retains a pleasant, laidback seaside air, albeit modified by having become a haven for white South African immigrants who’ve opted to take their chances anywhere but the rainbow nation. But the idea of driving there for a holiday from somewhere in the same city would be risible now.

Just fifteen minutes further up the highway (assuming Auckland’s notorious congestion doesn’t delay you) is the turnoff to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. If my parents had perhaps been quaintly English by choosing Browns Bay for a holiday, there was absolutely no doubt that the pretty coves and coastline of Whangaparaoa were sufficiently far from the CBD to qualify as another place.

My best friend’s father had done well in business and owned a holiday house at Arkles Bay on the peninsula. Taking off for ‘Arkles’ was a proper mission – the loaded car, the back seat packed with kids, the windows down – and most of the journey was along normal open roads, not arterial routes. Again, much of Whangaparaoa is now dormitory suburbia, mainlined into the Auckland commuter grid, and a relatively easy run to the low-rise business zones of the upper north shore.

Much of this expansion has been facilitated by the steady building of motorways, which is what generally passes for urban planning in Auckland. The city now reaches beyond Orewa in the north, and is closing in on Warkworth, a town that not so long ago marked an imaginary dateline as you drove north. In the south the urban maw is beginning to snack on the old market garden region around Pukekohe. The main highway has become a ribbon development of towns and inhabited hinterland all the way to Hamilton, 120 kilometres away.

WHERE AUCKLAND ENDS and the world begins, then, depends on your point of view. The rest of the country enjoys disparaging Aucklanders for not caring about – or even being aware of – what happens beyond the Bombay Hills (the low southern range that once demarcated the city boundary). Like most national clichés, it’s a half-truth that ignores its own petty chauvinism. But the more obvious absurdity of pretending its largest city is somehow separate from  ‘real ‘ New Zealand is the sheer demographic logic that Auckland is, in any number of ways, becoming New Zealand.

Such an utterance would almost certainly invite rebuke or maybe, in some particularly parochial parts of the country, an invitation to take it outside. Even avowedly metropolitan New Zealanders tend to cling to sentimental notions of national identity associated with a rural settler past and an enduring affection for the outdoors and the seaside.

To suggest to someone on the West Coast of the South Island, for instance, or in the Canterbury heartland, that the crowded, vain, acquisitive, gridlocked, polyglot, metrosexual metropolis to the north was at least as representative of New Zealandness as the woolshed or the small-town rugby club, would be the cue for a derisory snort at the very least.

If anything, in the minds of many non-Aucklanders, the city has come to emblemise everything that isn’t authentic. Its denizens are labelled Jafas – just another fucking Aucklander – and the city is demonised as slick, superficial, corrupt, a rat race and a basket case. The feeling is (on the whole) not mutual. Aucklanders’ attitudes to the rest of the country are as diverse as Aucklanders themselves, usually affectionate and often nostalgic. After all, the rest of the country is where so many of them come from.

Perhaps this is why Auckland’s sense of identity remains so opaque. Every so often the city council or some tourism lobby tries to build a campaign around ‘branding’ Auckland. It is inevitably greeted with a mixture of cynicism and apathy. One that has half stuck is ‘city of sails’, a reference to the high per capita boat ownership and nautical pleasures of the Hauraki Gulf. The fact that most Aucklanders don’t own boats, rarely sail on one, and, in the case of some of its less privileged youngsters, have not actually seen the sea, matters little. The motto simply isn’t held dear enough to bother quibbling about.

The parodic alternative, ‘city of snails’, a wink at the ubiquitous traffic jams, hits a better self-deprecating note. Aucklanders are rapidly realising their city’s ability to cope is being outstripped by growth and unmatched by any coherent political vision. While the city routinely tops international lifestyle surveys of desirable places to live, there is a dawning sense that smugness is no panacea for smog and wasted potential.

So where once the issues of urban planning, roads and public transport might have been the domain of council drears and local busybodies, now you will hear terms such as  ‘infrastructure’ and  ‘rail corridor’ and  ‘cycle way’ bandied about with real passion at bars and dinner parties. One of the most popular local websites is the Auckland Transport Blog, which is filled with wonkish debate and proselytising zeal. As usual, the people are well ahead of their politicians.

Auckland’s experience is not so unusual, of course. The exponential growth of cities, with all the challenges this presents, is a global phenomenon. Already half the world’s population is coastal and urban, with the proportion rising inexorably in the coming decades. The loss of the best growing land, the pressure on resources and infrastructure, the economic implications of too many people vying for too few places to live – these are as true of supercities from São Paulo to Lagos as they are of a relatively small and benign conurbation in the South Pacific.

What does distinguish Auckland, however, is the city’s size and pace of growth relative to New Zealand as a whole. With about 1.5 million inhabitants, the city represents a third of the country’s total population. Already three quarters of New Zealanders live in the North Island, with the bulk of them north of Lake Taupō, and most within the powerful gravitational field of Auckland.

Estimates of how fast Auckland is growing vary between fifteen and twenty thousand people each year (1 to 2 per cent of its current population). It has been said the city grows annually by the equivalent population of Oamaru (the South Island town perhaps best known as the childhood home of Janet Frame). Logic dictates this calculus can’t last, because Oamaru, like so much of provincial New Zealand, is experiencing population decline.

Damn lies and statistics being what they are, vested interests are prone to interpreting the projections to suit their own needs. Various Cassandras have suggested Auckland will have a million more inhabitants by 2030. The Auckland Council’s latest urban plan is also predicated on that assumption. If correct it would mean the entire country’s predicted population increase (to five million by 2030) will occur in Auckland, which would then account for precisely half the total national population. Good grief! Where will the children play?

Calmer minds have said this is an extreme interpretation of demographic trends. Still, there’s no disputing Auckland will be significantly bigger, in both sheer numbers and as a proportion of New Zealand in general, within twenty-five years. While this inevitability focuses attention on the bursting seams of the big city, you hear a lot less about its corollary – the likely impact on anywhere that isn’t Auckland.

There are many exceptions – thriving, well niched little towns with sound economic DNA – but much of provincial New Zealand is threadbare. The marketing fairytale of purity, wide open country, boutique wineries and adventure tourism is only part of the story. The other is boarded-up shops, derelict factories, rural ghettos and aimless youth. You drive through these places on the way to somewhere else.

Right now Auckland is more than three times the size of New Zealand’s next largest city (Wellington, followed closely by Christchurch). It is almost twice the size of the other main centres combined. It’s by no means inconceivable that Auckland will be five times larger than its southern siblings within two decades. Such relative critical mass attracts more than people. It draws capital, talent, youth, knowledge, ambition and innovation towards itself and away from other places.

THERE IS A term for this phenomenon: the primate city. Coined in 1939 by an American geographer, Mark Jefferson, it describes the kind of city that dominates a nation demographically, politically, economically and culturally. The most extreme modern example is Bangkok, which is many orders of magnitude bigger than any other city in Thailand. But it is a First World phenomenon, too, with Paris and London both belonging to the urban primate species.

The main criteria by which primate cities are measured is that they be at least twice the size of the next largest centre and, according to Jefferson’s original definition, ‘at least twice as significant’. There’s no doubt Auckland meets the first standard. While Christchurch and Wellington provide a modest counterweight to the country’s top-heavy population distribution, beyond that New Zealand is really a collection of little towns about the size of an average Auckland suburb.

If the second sounds like the sort of claim that lights up radio talkback lines, a very good case can be made for it. Auckland’s tax contribution alone means the country would implode without it. The country’s major airport and port are in Auckland. Since the 1980s nearly all the head offices of major local or multinational companies have moved to Auckland, if they weren’t already there. It is inarguably New Zealand’s only international city.

A large proportion of Auckland’s population growth comes from foreign migration. Almost unremarked on (other than by the odd xenophobic politician looking for a quick jump in the polls) the city has become one of the most diverse in the world (190 ethnic groups and counting). The sheer cultural energy this has generated, not to mention the business enterprise, is visible everywhere. Modern Auckland is immeasurably more interesting, as well as better fed, than the city I grew up in.

Auckland now accounts for nearly 40 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP. All of the main media companies, from print to radio and television, are headquartered in Auckland (Radio New Zealand is the exception, still based in Wellington, but with a large Auckland bureau). By any measure – employment, retail activity, consumption, discretionary income – it is hugely significant.

The one aspect of Auckland’s dominance that might be disputed is its political role. It’s a given that no government can be elected without winning Auckland, so in that sense it wields enormous influence. John Key, the current prime minister, is from Auckland, as was Helen Clark before him. The new leader of the Labour Party opposition, possibly the next prime minister, David Cunliffe, is an Aucklander. For all that, Auckland is not the capital (though it was once, briefly, from 1840 to 1865) and has long been at the mercy of decisions made in Wellington.

Right now we are in the middle of another typical power struggle as the current mayor, the mild-mannered but strong-willed Len Brown, pushes through a major program to complete and expand the city’s commuter rail service, and a  ‘unitary plan’ to curb the city’s ever-expanding girth by imposing new density codes designed to drive development up rather than out.

This grand scheme is the next phase of a massive restructuring of Auckland that began with the abolition of seven sub-city and district councils and their amalgamation into a so-called  ‘Super City’. The battle to control this new entity was fierce because the stakes were high – control of a massive budget and the influence and spending power that goes with it.

Even so, the projected cost of the rail upgrade is well beyond the means of Auckland’s ratepayers, already stretched by very high housing and living costs, meaning the central government will have to contribute. Wellington has taken an extraordinary amount of convincing that decent public transport is a priority for Auckland, and remains similarly sceptical about allowing more intensive housing development within existing city limits.

There’s little doubt the centre-left mayor is a thorn in the National-led government’s side. But Brown has such a strong and loyal support base in South Auckland, where he began his political career, that it will be very difficult to unseat him. The notion that political control now resides in the largely brown and working class south of the city has undoubtedly been unsettling for the entitled classes. But until they find a candidate capable of winning hearts and minds outside their own comfort zone in the leafier suburbs, they will have to bide their time.

This is not to say the new council has complete autonomy. The super city model was deliberately hobbled by a central government nervous about losing control of such a large social and economic bloc. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the very concept of a big city has been, and to some extent remains, alien and unnerving in an otherwise sparsely populated rural country on the edge of the world. Auckland’s growth hasn’t so much caught the rest of New Zealand by surprise as been willfully ignored.

THE ROOTS OF this haphazard development and strange neglect by successive governments go deep. Virtually from the moment New Zealand’s first governor, William Hobson, decided to move to Auckland from the Bay of Islands in the 1840s there was self-interested grumbling and jealous in-fighting, the likes of which have more or less defined national politics ever since.

Partly because the South Island was flirting with secessionist ideas in the mid-nineteenth century, and partly because of the travel difficulties in a raw colony, the proposal to move the capital further south gained currency almost from the start. Resentment and suspicion of Auckland are nothing new.

While the colonial government imposed a certain order on Auckland’s early development, it had limited expectations of the role of government. The settlers were too busy trying to make their fortunes to be much bothered with administrative responsibility, and when the capital moved south it was down to a local wealthy elite to fill the void. Auckland has always been a merchant town, with civic values and priorities to match.

The young city was also the major exception to a development model applied elsewhere by Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company. Land tenure was the means by which most towns and communities were founded, with the proceeds of sales used to fund infrastructure. Auckland’s development, however, was largely driven by speculation, a legacy visible now in its role as the country’s financial capital, its susceptibility to the boom and bust business cycle, and its inhabitants’ obsession with real estate values and capital gains.

Given this history is it any wonder Auckland became the natural home of a rebellious coterie of free market liberals implacably opposed to the statist instincts of Wellington’s nation builders? From their northern redoubt they watched and plotted and waited while the Labour government of 1935 to 1949 fought the Depression, established a welfare state and managed a Keynesian economy that delivered considerable prosperity. As one Labour politician observed after their eventual defeat in 1949, ‘They walked to the polls to vote us in and drove to the polls to vote us out.’

The National government of Sid Holland is remembered mostly for having crushed the militant trade unions during a waterfront lockout in 1951. But there was another decisive (if less dramatic) ideological act that would have a profound effect on the future of Auckland, and that was to throw out a fully conceived housing and transport plan created in 1946 by Labour. Had this not happened the city today might be vastly different.

The Auckland historian and urban planner Chris Harris has made a study of this crucial historical juncture, and noted the rich irony of Wellington, so much smaller than Auckland, having an immeasurably better public transport system.  ‘It is hard to imagine Wellington without its trains, trolley buses and car-free downtown environs,’ Harris has written, ‘as it would be to imagine Auckland without its motorway flyovers, inhuman streetscapes and rain-induced gridlock.’

The key to Wellington’s efficient alternative was a version of the state-led mechanism of using land value gains to pay for public transport and amenities – the very plan rejected in favour of a speculative model in Auckland. While it was a relatively orthodox form of state capitalism, it patently smacked too much of socialism for some. The very notion of development planning became suspect, and various fundamental policies inherited from the previous government, from state housing to a form of capital gains tax, were rolled back.

A plan to develop Auckland along transport corridors, with rail loops and bus routes linking the spokes, was ditched. Rail fell out of favour. Motorways and the private car were promoted as the way of the future. Land speculation, held in check by wartime price controls, gathered pace as developers snapped up cheap rural acreages that could be sold for handsome profits once the motorways arrived. Those motorways were funded from road and petrol taxes, creating a self-sustaining cycle of road-based development – in effect, a public subsidy for private gain.

Visitors and locals alike often wonder why Auckland’s state housing developments are dotted in and between many of its tonier suburbs, including a waterfront ridge with panoramic views of the Waitematā Harbour. Partly this was a deliberate plan to integrate the citizenry, but it is also the result of the way private developers leap-frogged the state housing zones to build middle class suburbs beyond them. As Harris observed so perfectly, this unintended pattern of growth meant the state housing rings ‘acquired a transit-camp quality for migrant labour’.

In the 1960s a fatally destructive decision was taken to push the main north-south highway through the centre of the city to the harbour bridge, creating a tangle of feeder roads and slipways that quickly became known as ‘spaghetti junction’. A visionary plan in the early 1970s by long-time mayor Dove Myer Robinson to build a ‘rapid rail’ network in anticipation of the city’s predictable future needs was also torpedoed by the usual suspects – local political rivalry and government bias. 

Within a very few years the city went from above average per capita public transport usage to levels lower than in Los Angeles. Harris quotes the report of an international planning consultancy as early as 1966 describing Auckland’s CBD pedestrian environment as ‘unpleasant to the point of being uncivilised’.

Nearly half a century on it would be hard to argue things have improved a lot. There have been sporadic attempts to beautify the ‘golden mile’ of Queen Street and its side streets, but all attempts to limit traffic volumes and create pedestrian malls have been defeated by a reactionary retail lobby and a civic bureaucracy hooked on parking revenues.

What is particularly tragic is that Auckland might now be one of the world’s better preserved Victorian/Edwardian cities. Older photographs of the central city show a nicely proportioned streetscape, lined with the kind of solid stone and brick buildings that elsewhere have adapted well to modern office or apartment conversion.

Alas, a rip-shit-and-bust development boom in the 1980s, unleashed by the wholesale economic deregulation of David Lange’s Labour government, saw great holes ripped in the city fabric, filled with tasteless mirror glass towers and cheap retail barns. Lovely heritage buildings were torn down in the dead of night to be replaced with car parks, flagrant breaches of town planning regulations went unpunished, and the last vestige of Felton Matthew’s original (though never fully realised) street plan was buried under a nondescript shopping complex.

What survived was largely due to the share market crash in 1987, which stopped the construction cranes – in some cases literally – mid-swing. But a mini-boom in the 1990s saw another phase of council-sanctioned architectural vandalism, most notable for the erection of some of the worst inner city apartment blocks this side of Pyongyang.

These days one feels sorry for the perplexed tourists searching for the heart of a city amidst the chain stores, office blocks and fast food outlets that clog the main artery of town. God save them if they stray there after midnight, when the bars and pubs disgorge throngs of drunken ‘revellers’, as newspapers love to call them, despite the main forms of revelry being fighting, vomiting and passing out in doorways.

This combination of unchecked and unplanned suburban sprawl, careless road building and aesthetic negligence has inevitably encouraged a kind of low level anomie that ensures Auckland remains less than the sum of its parts. The writer and political commentator Chris Trotter characterised the city’s ‘chaotic’ suburban satellites as ‘breeding grounds for an antithetical sort of citizen’ along the lines of Herbert Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional man’, first identified in the consumer belts of 1950s Southern California.

This is a vision of the primate city as a thousand-pound rogue gorilla – ugly, angry and alienated. On a bad day it is all too easy to see Auckland that way, too. It’s vaunted status as the largest Polynesian city in the world, and its claim to being the capital of the South Pacific, can begin to sound like the boast of a bigger but similarly squalid Apia or Nadi.

And yet, on a good day, Auckland sparkles with all the promise it must have held for the earliest Māori settlers, drawn to its abundant waters and fertile volcanic soils; or for Hobson, spoilt for choice when it came to choosing the site for his new capital; or for the thousands of new migrants and refugees who have made a place for themselves and their children here, and are now in the process of remaking the city into a genuinely cosmopolitan corner of the new world.

You might not know it from reading Auckland’s only daily newspaper, but much of the city’s creative dynamism comes from the south, from Māori and Pacific Island musicians and artists, and the remarkable cross-cultural references they play with. The recent announcement that a northern branch of the national museum will open in Manukau rather than the city centre may well prove a tipping point of sorts.

If Auckland epitomises the yawning wealth gap now afflicting New Zealand, with mean streets and genuine poverty within spitting distance of palatial harbourside homes with four-car garages, it does at least have the makings of a functional post-colonial community, in which Māori and European have reached some kind of accommodation.

AS A SCHOOLBOY I witnessed the ‘occupation’ of a place called Bastion Point by members of the local Ngāti Whātua tribe. It lasted more than five hundred days and ended with a large-scale police eviction. The land overlooks the Hauraki Gulf, and had been requisitioned by the government in the 1880s as a defence outpost during the so-called ‘Russian scare’. By rights it should eventually have been returned to its Māori owners. Instead, it was gifted to the city council, which later earmarked it for sale and subdivision.

This was a particularly odious move, as Ngāti Whātua had originally donated the three thousand acres Hobson used to establish his capital. The tribe later gave more land to the growing city. By the time of the Bastion Point protest it is fair to say their good faith had been sorely tested.

After much negotiation and a legal claim lodged under the Treaty of Waitangi, Ngāti Whātua won their land back. They had generously sought only the return of land that had not already been used for roads or housing, and the reserve where the protesters had been so roughly treated is now administered in partnership with a more enlightened city council. Auckland may struggle to find its true heart, but this might be the place to locate its soul.

Bastion Point is also the resting place of Michael Joseph Savage, the still revered prime minister whose government’s vision of a better urban environment was thwarted in Auckland. The view from his memorial fulfils every tourism cliché; breathtaking, lovely, inspiring, uplifting. In the near distance is Waiheke, the unique island suburb that still retains a little of its old hippie ways despite large injections of arriviste cash. Ahead lies Rangitoto, the island volcano that fills the harbour entrance and the mind’s eye of most Aucklanders when they think of their city.

Within a stone’s throw is Auckland’s (and New Zealand’s)  ‘most expensive street’, Paritai Drive, where the $50 million mansion of a distressed financier has just been advertised. Just as near is a state housing block as poor and rundown as you will find anywhere. Status anxiety of both kinds. Have and have not. White and brown. A tale of two cities. A tale of two countries. Find a spot somewhere between those places, squint hard against the glare from the water, and you might just catch a glimpse of the future.

Griffith Review