Auckland Planning and the Brain Drain
I have only recently come to appreciate the full extent to which our national psyche has been changed by the promise of greener grass on the other side of the ditch. The epiphany came in a planning lecture. The lecturer asked how many of the class wanted to end up working in Auckland. In a class of fifty students in a course largely focussed on Auckland planning issues, no hands went up.
The promise of higher wages, better living conditions and better weather are the most obvious reasons for the mass exodus. Frequently overlooked in my view is the simple fact that Auckland, with the exception of its coastal suburbs; is not a place that many people actually want to live in. Auckland is robbed of its vitality by the domination of roads, traffic and suburban sprawl: it is more concerned with places for cars than places for people. Money and jobs are not the only things attracting young Kiwis to Australia. They are pulled by its lively, bustling urban places, and pushed away by Auckland’s dreariness and lack of a true ‘heart’. Consequently, many youngsters view Auckland as a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Auckland is the place it is because generations of New Zealand politicians have failed to understand urbanism. Look no further than the current government’s position on the forthcoming Auckland Spatial Plan. A series of cabinet papers released earlier this year outlined the government’s vision for the future of Auckland and it makes for sobering reading. The documents support a transport funding regime that reflects the existing dominance of cars and roads while attacking moves by the old Auckland Regional Council to increase public transport funding and contain urban sprawl. The government wants to remove urban limits for the benefit of property developers, and places massive importance on freight movement, going so far as to say that freight movement should have priority on key roads.
Of course efficient freight movement is important for our businesses. But to plan a city exclusively for the benefit of trucks is to treat the inhabitants of that city as a mere inconvenience – a necessary obstacle to traffic flow. The fact that people actually live in Auckland appears to be an afterthought to the government. Furthermore, the government turns a blind eye to the well-documented costs of urban sprawl – automobile dependence, increasing infrastructure costs, social isolation et cetera. It’s no wonder young Aucklanders are leaving in their droves: the government is biting the hands that feed it by openly prioritising the movement of trucks and the short-term profits of property developers over making Auckland a better place for people.
The central government ‘vision’ for Auckland is in stark contrast to that of “the world’s most liveable city” championed by Auckland Mayor Len Brown and his Council. Compared with central government, the Auckland Council has a greater appreciation for urbanism and consequently recognises the value of place-making and amenity in creating attractive urban places that people actually want to live in. The government on the other hand appears uninterested in making Auckland more aspirational – rather, it simply wants to make Auckland a bigger, uglier traffic machine.
Nowhere is the conflict between the two approaches more clear than in the recent debate over the merits of the Auckland CBD rail link. In its effort to discredit the Council’s business case for the $2.4 billion rail tunnel, central government’s analysis categorically failed to explain how the Auckland CBD would cope with a projected 10,000 additional peak-hour cars and a tripling of bus lane traffic by 2040 without ruining the CBD’s pedestrian amenity. The Auckland Council on the other hand concluded that such vast increases in traffic volumes were unworkable and advocated the CBD rail link partly on the basis that it would ensure less car and bus traffic in the CBD and therefore improve the area’s pedestrian amenity and safety.
Unlike the government, the Council’s urbanist approach recognises how a more attractive pedestrian environment and better public transport access to the CBD can benefit the economy by attracting more international firms, more high-value jobs, and encouraging more tourists and locals alike to spend more time and money in the city. Make a city for people and they will stay and flock. The economic benefits will follow – just look overseas. The government’s simplistic, one-dimensional, visionless approach of equating economic growth solely to traffic movement and continuing to cave in to property developers is a sure-fire recipe for accelerating the brain drain to more aspirational urban places that people actually want to live in.
Central government’s message to young people in Auckland is clear: there’s plenty of money and beachfront houses in Auckland for the property developers and trucking company executives among us. For the rest of us, there’s Melbourne and Sydney. Thankfully for Auckland’s sake, the Council has its sights set higher than that.