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The Promise of a City: The Triumphs and Trials of Auckland in 2013

Jan 23, 2014 Urban design

Photo by Stephen Langdon.

It starts in the very early morning. Lauren Boyle is swimming lengths in the pool at the Millennium Institute in Mairangi Bay, super-charging herself to become a world champion. Rachel Smalley, brain locked and loaded, is in Cook St presenting a smart hour on News­talk ZB. Warming up the audience for Mike Hosking. The Dutch auction is under way at the Fish Market, short-order chefs in a thousand cafes are firing up their stoves, and all around both harbours, boats are slipping into the water. Rowers from the schools, kayakers, fishing tinnies, yachts of all sizes, the first ferries.

Sitting on the roof of the Devonport ferry at dawn, you could hardly feel more alive. Clouds pile up to the south in a sky of stretched silk, green and pink and apricot and blue — it will rain later, but it won’t last — and as you look across to the city, the spires burst alight with the sun’s first strike.

On other days, the thing is to climb. To ride or walk or run to the top of any volcano and watch the sun come up. There it is. Auckland, city of possibility.


We hold two ideas in our heads about Auckland. They should be contradictory but somehow they are not. One is that this city needs transformational change. Property prices are trapped in an inflationary spiral with no apparent end and we don’t have nearly enough houses. Education fails too many kids. In parts of the police force, clearly, there is a scarily inadequate understanding of both youth culture and rape. The roads are clogged, public transport is hopelessly inadequate and cycling is scandalously dangerous. Our rugby and league teams, Counties Manukau honourably excepted, keep tripping over their own boot laces.

The other thing we hold in our heads is that this is a fabulous city, one of the most liveable in the world.

We don’t all do this. Some argue that only the first idea is true, that Auckland is a sick city and we should stop being so smug. When you’re stuck in traffic on the Southern Motorway, or crawling through the urban nightmare of those big-box shops on Lincoln Rd — a stretch that was never meant to grow like that — it’s hard to disagree.

Others believe in only the second idea, that we don’t know how lucky we are so we should stop whingeing — and wasting money. Out on a boat or watching from any beach, it’s hard to disagree with that either.

The zeitgeist has three parts. First, that we have come to believe we live in a city with the makings of magnificence. Second, that to build it we must free ourselves from the dystopian shackles of bad planning, greed and ineptitude. Third, that we believe we are already doing this.

Yet to believe in only one or the other of those things is to miss the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times in this place. Because Auckland does have a zeitgeist now, and it’s a very different one from the last time that was true, in the 1980s, when the city exploded in an exuberant celebration of wealth and deregulated opportunity.

The zeitgeist now has three parts. First, that we have come to believe we live in a city with the makings of magnificence. Second, that to build it we must free ourselves from the dystopian shackles of bad planning, greed and ineptitude. Third, that we believe we are already doing this. The zeitgeist is that we believe in Auckland.

What’s exciting is not just that we are making something, but that we know we can reach way above ourselves. We are in awe of Lorde, Dean Barker, Karen Walker, Eleanor Catton, although we are not exactly surprised. We believe in them because we believe in ourselves.

Sometimes, to be sure, we go too far. When the idiots at Lonely Planet, who clearly do not get out much, tell us we’re one of the world’s Top 10 cities, we’re happy to believe them. Happy to forget that despite the times we do well, there are so many others when we don’t reach that high. Opportunities we squander and grand ideas we turn our backs on, lulled by the easier satisfactions of the mediocre and the mendacious.

The redevelopment of Eden Park for the Rugby World Cup. The oddly “shared spaces” of Elliott St and the western end of Fort St, where we could have had much more vibrant pedestrian malls. The heritage tram on its silly little circuit in Wynyard Quarter. You see their mix of vision, confidence and compromise everywhere, and nowhere is it more obvious than on the waterfront.

The bridges are great: the really cool drawbridge connecting the Viaduct to North Wharf, that stylish new footbridge connecting Tamaki Drive with the Parnell Baths and the boardwalk to Judges Bay. Yet Tamaki Drive itself, despite being one of Auckland’s great recreational attractions, has its traffic so disgracefully managed that cyclists risk their lives and accidents are common.

Everyone in authority seems frozen, as if they believe the problem cannot be resolved. But that’s not true. It’s obvious cyclists should have a dedicated lane physically separate from motor vehicles and pedestrians, so why don’t they just do it? The road is easily wide enough.

To the west on the waterfront is Wynyard Quarter, where the first new tower block, ASB North Wharf, is now open for business. Good restaurants (and in Baduzzi , a great one), marvellously inventive façade, truly hideous “laneway” arrangement at ground level. What were they thinking?

At the far western end of North Wharf, meanwhile, Silo Park remains a delight for kids, parents, b’ball players and everyone else who just wants to hang out. Its gantry — an elevated walkway that leads nowhere and has no function other than to be enjoyed — is a wonderfully inspired piece of civic architecture.

Silo Park is also an event venue, hosting the city’s best music festival this year (Laneway, which returns in January), food and craft markets, music sessions and movie evenings. The night they screened Dirty Dancing, 6000 people turned up. And don’t go thinking that’s just a Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey thing: there were nearly as many for Moonrise Kingdom.

Not much not to like. Silo Park is emblematic of the current stage of Auckland’s transformation: architecture and urban planning combining to create public spaces that quickly become popular beyond expectation. So what next? Waterfront Auckland plans to close it down and put buildings on the site.

Silo Park, sadly, is also emblematic of what’s going wrong. The theory is that the new buildings replacing it will help fund bigger and better public spaces, behind the park in Wynyard Quarter and in front of it on the Tank Farm, and that’s all very well in theory.

In reality, Wynyard Quarter may already be moving away from the grand plan. It’s meant to become a mixed-use precinct with excellent public transport and lots of residential growth, but apart from the lovely new road it has just laid down the middle, Auckland Transport has announced no plans to change the services, and to date the only buildings approved have been solidly commercial: the ASB office block and a soon-to-be-built enormous office complex for Fonterra.

Waterfront Auckland says the precinct will not be exclusively commercial and it is poised to announce plans by developers for the rest of the area. Our fingers are crossed.

Others have very different ideas. University of Auckland graduate student Frances Cooper won a world prize this year for her anti-iconic-building proposal for the whole area from Silo Park stretching north through the Tank Farm. Cultural commentator Hamish Keith has a different vision again: he wants the Tank Farm (and not Manukau) to become home to the big mama of iconic buildings: Te Papa North.

While happy children paddle in the pool and teenagers shoot hoops, in Wynyard Quarter there’s actually quite a war going on. We’ll be returning to this in 2014.

The Cloud is useless because it’s too big and empty, too hot and then too cold, too hard to use.

Right smack in the middle of the waterfront is Queens Wharf. It’s still got the almost useless Cloud on it, but this will soon change: the government is expected to gift the building to the city, so the city can get rid of it. It’d look good on some flash dairy farm in the Waikato, I reckon.

The Cloud is useless because it’s too big and empty, too hot and then too cold, too hard to use. And all of that has been thrown into stark relief by the re-opened Shed 10 next door. It’s brilliant.

The restoration of this 105-year-old building has done very little to interior or exterior, save for cleaning, repairing and opening up some window areas. The massively thick kauri floorboards of the upper floor are intact, as are the steel struts and wooden cladding of the pitched ceiling. For a long time this wharf shed was used to store wool, and if you stand in the beautiful soft gloom and think about it, you would swear you can smell the lanolin still.

The downstairs area was viewing HQ during those thrilling, despairing mornings of the America’s Cup, and it’s where they hosted the team’s homecoming afterwards. Upstairs there’s a reception area big enough for 500 and more to sit down for dinner.

As for the rest of Queens Wharf, it has a way to go to become a great public space, but they’re busy with market stalls and weekend activities now, and when the Cloud goes there will be much more to do. And the really good news? Shed 11, which was dismantled to make way for the Cloud, is still in storage, every piece by numbered piece, waiting to be reassembled.

Shed 10 is as good a symbol as any for how this city has changed. Queens Wharf will be a litmus test of how good our vision really is. As a mixed-use recreational and commercial space, it could become a magnificent new heart of the city — and there are competing plans, public and private, to make this happen. But will it happen? It’s too hard to know.

 Ah, the liveable city and the man who has been its cheerleader, mayor Len Brown. The day he learned his humiliation was nigh, he must have felt like Bevan Chuang had grabbed him by the balls and given them a good squeeze (read Steve Braunias’ profile of the mayoral mistress here).

At the council inauguration, two weeks after the scandal of his affair broke, Brown sat on stage in the Town Hall, halfway along the row of councillors, hunched under the arm of Cr Alf Filipaina. Both of them in feathered cloaks, the crop-headed Filipaina looking as immoveably mountainous as always, Brown looking frail and smaller than ever.

When he got up to speak, there were catcalls of “Shame!” but it wasn’t because of the affair: the protesters were complaining about the removal of state housing in Glen Innes.

Shame on Brown? It was a government initiative, but he has said he thinks he should have done more for those tenants, so did he tacitly think they had a point?

The ceremony itself was a richly entertaining mash-up of modern Auckland: feverishly compelling karakia and waiata, the APO with its fanfare for Auckland, some very smart singing from Auckland Choral, the Sistema kids from South Auckland. The only thing wrong was that it was almost identical to the super-city council’s first inauguration three years earlier. Ceremonial planning has got a bit stuck.

It’s hard to see that Brown himself will ever have quite the authority of old, but the liveability genie is out of the bottle now, and his task is not so much to win the idea but to make the implementation worthy of it.

The signs are not all good, as the dispute over Bunnings’ plan to build a superstore on Great North Rd reveals (read Donna Chisholm’s story on the controversy here). Local residents in Arch Hill don’t want the store, but not because they oppose having a big development there. On the contrary, they’d like to see multi-storey apartment blocks.

At its core, this dispute is about how the compact city supposedly promised by the Unitary Plan will work. That long wide stretch of Great North Rd running southwest down the ridge from K’ Rd is currently all car yards and light industry, but should it remain that way? It’s sun-drenched until the far end of the day, and has views of bush, harbour and the distant Waitakeres. It’s close to town but not in town, and it’s a transport corridor.

All that makes it exactly the type of land the Unitary Plan says should be zoned for intensification through mixed use, so over time townhouses, apartment blocks, offices and small-scale retail developments can develop. It would take 20 years, but if it should happen, planning consents need to allow for it now.

The council half-agrees, and has introduced a mixed zone from west of the Bond St bridge. That’s only a small portion of the stretch, and the land Bunnings wants is east of that. It’s a measure of Len Brown, really. He has a vision and the council has adopted it. But the roll-out of that vision is timid. Brown does not oppose the Bunnings plan.

And Bunnings vs Arch Hill is the easy one. The council currently has before it options for the “East-West link”, a massive highway development linking SH20 at either Onehunga or Mangere with Sylvia Park and Highbrook. There’s been little public debate, and while it’s obvious the city needs to improve the efficiency of freight movement in and out of the industrial heartland, it’s far from clear whether the East-West proposals are the best options. Brown has been quiet on this too.

 Meanwhile, in the world of things that really matter, Stan Walker said “youse” on telly. That was pretty cool. It’s a word, eh, and he just proved it. The X-Factor was pretty cool too. Best reality show, for sure, and certainly better than the strange rolling audition to replace Greg Boyed that Seven Sharp has put us through. Are they going to announce Tamati Coffey as the winner or not? Will he interview himself backstage?

It’s not easy doing television current affairs. TVNZ has all but given up, preferring us to think of Seven Sharp not as current affairs but as a lifestyly/bit-of-a-giggle kind of thing. Fair enough, we all need more laughs. But instead of current affairs? When they say they’ve “redefined the 7pm slot”, they surely can’t mean it in a good way.

Remarkably, TV3 responded by heading in the other direction. Mark Jennings, head of news and current affairs, worked hard to find formats that invigorated the genre and rated well. He took risks: 3rd Degree, with dual presenters; The Vote, with duelling presenters; a Sunday morning current affairs blizzard with Think Tank, Three60 and The Nation; Campbell Live, recommitting to the hard stuff. Not everything worked, but that’s the thing about risks. Some of it was great. And don’t forget, it was 3 News that broke the scandal of the year, the Roast Busters story.

Maori Television pushed them for that honour, with Mihingarangi Forbes’ carefully researched and dispassionately presented expose of dubious financial dealings in the Kohanga Reo National Trust. Given the attacks they knew they would face from within Maoridom for hanging out the dirty washing, that was easily the bravest current affairs of the year.

Bravery can be overrated, of course. Dean Barker was brave but it didn’t win him the America’s Cup, although bravery probably did contribute to the big prize we’re giving him this year: he’s our Sexiest Man in Auckland. This was a public vote, and Barker won 38 per cent of the total, twice as much as his nearest rival, celebrity chef Josh Emett. Ben Boyce from Jono and Ben at Ten and Dean O’Gorman from The Almighty Johnsons got several write-in votes; so did Richie McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams, and so, ahem, did Len Brown.

What’s sexy about Dean Barker? I’ve been asking around. Some say it’s because “he cried on TV”. Others go weak at the knees when they see that whole firm-jawed, firm hand on the tiller thing. For still others, it was that he tried so hard, even when it was pointless. What do women want from men? There it is, guys.

As for what men want from women, seems it’s TV3’s Samantha Hayes, our Sexiest Woman in Auckland 2013, as she also was in 2008. Trailing her but still well ahead of the bunch was actor Antonia Prebble. Biggest write-in support was for Rachel Hunter, TV One’s Toni Street and Michelle Langstone fromThe Almighty Johnsons. Got itself a real fan club, that show.

So what’s sexy about Samantha Hayes? Is it the colour of her hair?

Grant Dalton thanked people. He grinned. He slumped. He looked 85. The crowd loved him anyway.

Back to Barker — and his boss, the astonishing Grant Dalton. How good was the America’s Cup? A woman in the crowd on Queens Wharf for the homecoming reached out to shake Dalton’s hand, and told him, “You’re looking good, Grant.” His reply was quick. “I feel 85.”

Inside Shed 10 for the speeches, he and Barker did a double act, but it wasn’t much. Ordinarily, Dalton is one of the most engaging, inspiring and downright funny public speakers in town, but on that day they had nothing left to say. He thanked people. He grinned. He slumped. He looked 85. The crowd loved him anyway.

We learned some magnificent things during the America’s Cup, and the first is that we’re good at losing. As the slight chance it would all slip away became a betting option and then an inevitability, we didn’t start throwing things. We sucked it up, pride struggling to keep up with dismay but neither of them giving way to vengeance nor any other demeaning emotion. It wasn’t like this when we lost Rugby World Cups or during the disgraceful days of the BlackHeart campaign in an earlier America’s Cup. We’ve grown up a bit.

Larry Ellison flew over a bunch of his boatbuilders from Warkworth to sort out Oracle’s problems, and we didn’t call them traitors, their kids (to my knowledge) weren’t bullied at school, their local communities proudly welcomed them home.

That was a good measure of the value of the America’s Cup. It taught us that national pride can’t be narrow, and it pointed to a future in which, while a “New Zealand team” may race again and may even win, the industry of boatbuilding stands with the sport of sailing at the heart of our achievement.

For “boatbuilding”, read “export-focused economic development with well-paid jobs”. The super city has some grand economic goals, including annual export increases above six per cent, but currently only nine per cent of the region’s economy even has an export component: not nearly enough of our economy is geared to real success.

That’s the promise of boatbuilding, and we need 10 more industries like it.

How to get them? What about, go to a place where you’ll find the most motivated individuals in the city and give them money to dream up solutions? I’m only half-joking. At the places where Auckland’s tribes gather — the Lantern Festival and Diwali; the Arts Festival and Film Festival; the Volvo Round-the-World Race and Anniversary Day regatta; Southside and Pasifika; Big Day Out and the Vector shows — you’ll find crowds thrilled at the chance to celebrate their passion, entrepreneurs brimming with ideas, people who have changed for the better the way this city works and are determined to do more.

There’s energy to harness in this town. The best example of all? I reckon it’s the Auckland Marathon. We took our Aucklander of the Year, John Campbell, along to the start of the race this year, without really telling him why, but it was because it seemed like a pretty good metaphor for the inside of his head. A beautiful morning, as it turned out, and thousands upon thousands of people, ordinary people of all types, determined to do something way beyond what ordinary people should be capable of.

I haven’t run it, but as a poor yet still thrilling second option, I did stand there and watch. There’s a noise, running shoes susurrating like wind in the trees as the crowd sweeps past; it’s a tide of eager faces, orange and blue and black tops, legs and elbows working, all types and most ages, and it pulls at your sense of yourself. You could do this, you decide, join the throng, test yourself out along the roads and up and over that bridge: you really could, and you should, you just have to decide you will.

Auckland wants to be a great modern city. That means it has to become a city that relishes its great mix of peoples and cultures and knows how to care for the vulnerable — the young, the old, the sick, the dispossessed. A city whose urban areas hum with edgy sophistication and sit in harmony with the natural beauty that surrounds them, and whose rural playgrounds are the envy of all who hear of them. A city where services and facilities and infrastructure serve us efficiently and sustainably, where our skills and confidence, and of course our prized ability to raise a defiant finger to fusspots and naysayers wherever we find them, all equip us for the great and necessary task that has so far eluded everyone here: to invent a functional economy fit for the 21st century.

It is extraordinary and more than a little wishful, but this was the year when we realised: we do think we can do this. The best of Auckland is pretty fine. There’s a lot more to come.

First published in the December 2013 Metro.


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