An urbanist looks at what went wrong in Auckland and how we might fix it

Grafton Gully, at right in this 1949 photograph, was regarded as one of Auckland’s most scenic areas before the motorway pushed through. It was never protected with town belt designation.

Auckland’s urban history is a series of short-sighted cock-ups. Urbanist Chris Harris highlights the biggest mistakes, what we’ve lost, and how the city can recover.

There is an Auckland that once was. A better Auckland, ringed by a green belt, with blocks of flats climbing its harbour-facing slopes, and no tangle of motorways infesting the inner city. But for various accidents of history and national pathology, this Auckland might still exist. Yet, as urban historian Dr Chris Harris points out, despite being a highly urbanised society, New Zealand has preferred to view itself as a bountiful Arcadian wilderness where true identity and wealth reside not within the urban realm, but outside the city limits.

This is worse than a myth – it’s a lie. Yet it has underpinned the myriad wrong turns and planning disasters that have long betrayed Auckland’s potential and promise. Harris’ forthcoming book, Broken City, has a subtitle that sums its subject up: The Rise of the Motorway and the Fall of Auckland.

FINLAY MACDONALD I can’t drive across Grafton Bridge now without thinking sadly of the lovely verdant gully that used to exist beneath it, where the motorways now run. The lost Auckland.
CHRIS HARRIS Yes, and this is one of several lost histories or wrong turns. The funny thing is that there seems to be very little recollection of this, or awareness in general. It’s like all this has just vanished from the historical record.

All the more tragic given Auckland’s real advantages.
This topography of harbours and ridges and gullies lends itself very well to intensified development – flats up hillsides, the population congregating towards the harbour, where they can all get good views. And yet the image of Auckland that people have often had, and it’s definitely been promoted by the road builders, is a city which is vast and too sprawling for public transport to work. Too sprawling for there to be much interest in living in flats or town houses. In other words, the reality is a coastal riviera, and the image that has been promoted is an inland city on some imaginary flat plain.

And as you point out in your forthcoming essay The End of Arcadia, town houses and flats were a key part of early town plans – on those gully slopes looking towards the water.
This is the remarkable thing, and it dates back certainly to the very influential Town Planning Scheme Number One of 1939. That was never formally adopted because of the war and the general fragmentation of Auckland, and various bureaucratic issues. But it provided for the development of an arc of flats around the central city, much of it in the area where spaghetti junction eventually went. This aspect of the history has also been forgotten.

So why didn’t Auckland continue to develop in this way? What went wrong?
Where to begin? There’s been a succession of critical junctures where Auckland could have been steered down a more positive path, but was not.

An early plan for Auckland, for example, proposed that the gullies – Kingsland Gully, Arch Hill Gully, Newton Gully and Grafton Gully – be treated as a town belt, as in Dunedin or Wellington. The government surveyor Felton Mathew’s plan of 1841 proposed a series of crescents along the edges of the gullies, crescents along which terraces of town houses would presumably be built as in Edinburgh or Bath. The gullies were beautiful green areas, as you mentioned – Grafton Gully was regarded as one of Auckland’s premier beauty spots – and they survived for a long time before they were taken for motorways in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The coda on Grafton Gully is that if we look closely, it seems to serve mainly as a connection for the proposed South-Eastern Motorway, which was never built! It also connected to the port, but the port was (and is) served by rail, which could easily have been used to freight cargo.

Rail could have been developed further: there was a scheme in 1950 to build light rail to the North Shore crossing the harbour at its narrowest point between Judges Bay and Devonport. Even in 1969, 22 out of 26 suburban local authorities surrounding Auckland City also supported suburban rail electrification, but the proposal would still perish in a Wellington committee. “Robbie’s Rail”, the rapid rail scheme proposed in the 1960s and 1970s by Auckland City mayor Dove-Myer Robinson, was scuppered partly because national-level politicians didn’t seem to believe it was necessary, and cancelled the scheme.

And this dismissal of proper urban thinking and planning seems, as you argue, to be part of a wider self-mythologising as a rural Arcadia that New Zealand has indulged in.
A lot of people have written about this. The Arcadian image of New Zealand, it seems to me, is often misleading and tendentious. It creates this image of infinite rural promise, whereas in reality, if we look at the detailed topographical maps, we see that New Zealand is actually the dividing mountain range of a submerged continent, and it’s very mountainous and hilly. I like to say that no frontier society had less frontier. Very little of New Zealand is actually very fertile farmland – about a sixth of it. The rest is just hills.

Which is really strange, because we were arguably more urbanised than many European countries quite early in our colonial history.
New Zealand’s identity and politics are organised around the denial of urbanisation and, presumably, the denial of urban problems and opportunities as well. What we really have is a whole lot of cities, nearly all of them built on some waterfront riviera or on a lake. The only exceptions are Hamilton and Palmerston North, which are cities of the plains … So the Arcadian myth claims that we have this vast frontier of freely available land, and anyone who wants to prosper just needs to get out and work in the countryside. It really serves as a denial of reality and a pretext for ignoring the city – and a pretext for basically allowing the city to go to pot. Public transport, pedestrian amenity and the provision of affordable housing are neglected in ways that are often taken for granted among the long-suffering Aucklanders, but stick out to the overseas traveller who returns to Auckland.

Why do you think this myth is so powerful and persistent?
A part of it, and this is something other historians have said, is that the urban population of New Zealand isn’t concentrated in one big place, or even in a compact sort of region. It’s scattered up and down the country, and in each of these urban centres, people look out the window and see all these mountains and hills and rural landscapes. So the urban principle in this country just doesn’t acquire a critical mass. And, in government terms, Wellington-based agencies tend to have a one-size-fits-all approach, and treat downtown Auckland the same way they would some hill outside Taihape that presents an obstacle to the state highway system.

Other New Zealand cities have fared better, though, so what turned Auckland into a basket case?
The obvious answer is that Auckland grew very much larger than those other centres. If Auckland had stopped growing in about 1965 and bumped along after that, you wouldn’t have motorways down Grafton Gully for a start. Then there is the other fact that the gully system was never formally designated as the town belt. It seems to have been used as a de-facto one, with all these people writing about how nice it was to go on a nature ramble through Grafton Gully in particular, but it was never formally preserved in the way the volcanic cones were formally made into parks in 1915. Due to this omission, State Highway 16 was built through the gullies.

Is it all too late for Auckland – how hopeful can we realistically be?
What’s that expression – pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Things can always be repaired, for example, there are a lot of proposals to plate over bits of spaghetti junction and create local streets or parks on top
of them.

Make Auckland green again!
That’s it. And the great irony is that many of the new ways of thinking are old ways of thinking. A few years ago, I came across a book called From Garden City to Green City, in which the authors pointed out that the sort of town planning we had in the 1940s and modern ‘green city’ thinking, with light rail and so on, were really pretty much the same thing. Old wine in new bottles. And it’s just a question of unlearning some of the things that happened in between. 

A link to Chris Harris’ online essay The End of Arcadia will be publicised in a future issue of Paperboy. Harris is also working on a book, Broken City: The Rise of the Motorways.


All images are from Whites aviation LTD., 1963. Courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library.