If ever you make the mistake of reading the comment stream on the average Herald article about Auckland you will find this kind of thought from people like Rodney of Howick who states:
For some reason [Mayor] Len Brown seems convinced that there will be more businesses started in the CBD and more people wanting to live there. Sorry Len, but cities grow outward and not inward.
Well Rodney is wrong both in general about cities and in particular about Auckland over the last decade or so. Cities grow in all sorts of ways and recently Auckland has been growing inward and upward [a direction that Rodney seems to be ignorant of] and hasn’t it been fantastic. I recently covered the issue of inner city living in Auckland so in this post I want to illustrate some of the great changes that we have seen in Auckland’s public and commercial world in order to both contradict this kind of thinking and to celebrate these changes.
But I also want to make an additional claim about Rodney’s opinion. He’s right. Well, he was right. Auckland, like almost every other city in the western world grew outward in the second half of the last century away from its old centre. There was a consistent and unstoppable move away from inner-city areas for both habitation and commerce throughout this period. The very terms urban and inner-city came to freight negative connotations and lower value was given to the existing structures of the old city centres,
‘Clapham? Surely not! I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s terribly urban, so urban,’ with her feelings centred on the word urban. I wondered if I had mistaken the meaning of urban, if it now meant more than ‘of the city’.
-Janet Frame Angel At My Table p282 original emphasis.
Of course some cities suffered from this phase more than others. Auckland’s inner suburbs were bisected for motorways to feed these new suburbs and the city itself very nearly completely expired through flight and separation. This transformation was the result of public policy, especially as expressed in transport decisions, but that in turn did reflect the spirit of the times [although it was not universally supported- see Paul Mees Transport for Suburbia for good coverage of this]. The move to the suburbs was in, and the destruction of the old city was consistent with the brave new world of modernism which had an exhilarating commitment to the bold fresh start on a blank canvas. And why not, after the appalling wars that seemed to be the culmination of the old world order.
The most affected cities of this phase have become know as ‘doughnut cities’ because they now have a hole instead of a centre. Detroit is the poster child for this, but Christchurch is another good example. A weak centre ringed by low density suburbs with busy shopping malls sitting in a sea of carparking. The surviving examples of its Gothic Revival past made the old centre like a fairly lifeless full size museum. Of course it now has bigger problems and in fact the chance to fix this imbalance, but it is not clear that it will.
Auckland’s centre was largely saved by the failure of those that wanted the University to leave town for a poorly connected greenfields site at Tamaki. Unlike the Christchurch CBD which lost its University, it was largely the growth of the University along with AUT through the barren years of the 1980s that just kept the city going until the tide changed.
And a tide it is. We are now in a new phase with a complete new set of economic, social, environmental, and spatial imperatives. Which are in the process of transforming our lives in ways that are just as profound as the one that began with the Great Depression and wasn’t really in full flight until the 1950s. [See Richard Florida's The Great Reset for more on this]. Although these changes are not evenly spread nor always obvious in the midst of them happening.
Central to understanding the postwar revolution is the rise of the car and huge spatial changes that we made to accommodate it. Likewise it seems that we are currently in an age where the penetration of the auto-centric life has reached its limits and a new order with different patterns of movement are beginning to assert themselves. I am not claiming that we will suddenly abandon all driving but rather its centrality to our lives and the dominant role it has in shaping our communities and routines will diminish. This will take time and like the last big shift will require effort and investment in alternatives, and of course will be contested by those who benefit from the old way, or just identify with it.
An important driver of this change, and also a result of it, is the desire for a more livable and human-centred spatial order, and perhaps ironically, one better connected to its constituent parts, its suburbs. While the centre is crucial to this dynamic change [See Ed Glaeser's The Triumph of the City], it isn’t at the expense of the hinterland but rather it is a transformation and an intensification of everywhere. It should mean the triumph of the local, a rise in difference, as well as in interconnectedness. And a world where the word urban has reverted to its older connotations, more likely to imply sophistication and growth than decline and despair.
Except for our friend Rodney, or others like him whose views were formed last century and are stuck there. Or others living eslewhere in the country for whom Auckland is a distant or unwelcome thought. And this is the world view that the current government holds and is determined to force on us all. That they are clearly fighting against the new zeitgeist that is, like the last one, both global and probably irresistible is cause for optimism. But it also underlines how frustrating it is when we at last have a Council that speaks for the whole city and that ‘gets it’ only to have yesterdays world view being clung to by a dominating authority.
My photographs here are intended to show that the transformation of Auckland is well underway and not just a theory or the dream of some urban designers at the Council. But a real phenomenon being invested in by companies and public bodies and being successfully occupied by a full range of businesses, institutions, and individuals for all of our benefit.
These are the amenities and pleasures, business and work opportunities, that are the fruits of intensification and improved interconnection. This is the city we can have if we invest in new forms of movement and liberate the city from being so dominated by the demands of the car. Maybe even Rodney may come to town on occasion and see that ‘up and in’ is the 21st century way and for the simple reason that growth in these directions will help make us happier, healthier, and indeed wealthier.