The probable, possible and preferable future of Auckland

Opinion: The money the Government looks likely to put into a rebuild might be used to kickstart a genuinely new direction for Auckland, write Nicolas Lewis and John Morgan.

In our recent Newsroom article – Is this the end of the Auckland dream? – we argued that growth is in Auckland’s DNA, but that this growth was based on a separation between urban and nature. Now, as the flood waters have subsided, landslides are cleared and the re-build begins, there is an explosion of talk about how we might build nature back in. In this article, we map out probable, possible and preferable futures for Auckland.

The most likely response will be to return to normal as soon as possible – let the market fix things. Yet markets do not make decisions and never work by themselves in some form of glorious independence. The New Zealand government directs national capitalism in concert with its property-owning elites. That is how capitalism works.

Recent history reveals clearly how governments commit funds to deal with crises, whether financial, pandemic or natural disasters. New Zealanders appear willing to let them spend, while the propertied often lead the clamour for more. The funding props up the status quo.

Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have copped a lot of blame. Yet that seems unfair. In a city where you are free to build when and where you want, it is a bit rich to blame the council. Complaints of the council spending too much and stifling growth are replaced by complaints about it not spending enough on roads and stormwater systems.

What these have in common is the desire to get the city back to normal. From the political fallout from attacks on the council, to the insurance pay-outs, and contracts to rebuild things, the primary beneficiaries are likely to be those driving and profiting from the growth regime. Disaster capitalism in action.

It’s likely though that when they are alone at night even the build-back-now brigade worry that getting back to normal may not be possible. The contradictions of Auckland’s unfettered sub(urban) car-based development are increasingly apparent. Auckland’s growth has stretched the city’s transport infrastructure (and commuters’ nerves) beyond the limit.

On top of that, the yawning gaps between rich and poor risk creating a Kiwi version of ‘a tale of two cities’. It was these ‘too big to think about’ issues – getting people out of cars and interrupting the property boom – that Jacinda Ardern found so hard to countenance.

Actually, reducing the size of the economy and consuming less of the planet’s resources does seem like a solution from another planet. But maybe those who call for de-growth are the grown-ups here?

In policy terms, the goal now is to make the city ‘liveable’ - to develop a distinctively settler-colonial model of post-modern growth with a dash of green. It imagines a city made of a team of 1.5 million, car-owning, globally oriented middle-class citizens who in good times ‘barby’ in the garden and head for the beaches and baches through the summer, and in bad times ‘grin and bear it’.

Rebuilding this urban dream demands ‘available’ land and a number 8 wire mentality shot through with techno-solutionism, a socially-engineered more united population equipped with EVs and super-fast broadband so they can work and shop at home. This is the post-flood liveable city that does not challenge our model of economic growth, which is why it is likely to prevail.

Green solutions vary in how far they are prepared to reimagine cities. Redesigning Auckland as a sponge city calls for smashing concrete drives, allowing urban rivers and streams to resume their natural courses, and restricting development on flood plains. This is the liveable city on higher, more stable ground. There is no accounting for the spatial and social redistribution of land values, only a new game board for property-led growth.

Deeper green arguments appear just as out of step with the reality of the urban growth model. Actually, reducing the size of the economy and consuming less of the planet’s resources does seem like a solution from another planet.

But maybe those who call for degrowth are the grown-ups here?

Unless there is a radical shift in how we imagine its future, Auckland will live out the Anthropocene as an extreme city. Cities, as one of the major drivers of climate change, are their principal victims. ‘Yeah, but’, ‘no, but’ arguments that New Zealand is low down in the league table of carbon emitters will make no difference.

Convention demands that we should not end on a pessimistic note. Perhaps what is needed now is for Auckland to become a ‘lifeboat city’, one in which radical intervention ensures that the high-energy, high consumption lifestyles of the suburban middle classes are curtailed, that lives are lived locally – that trip across the city to the airport to see Ed Sheeran in Melbourne might be one to tell the grandchildren about as an example of the crazy things we did back in the day...

We don’t personally relish ‘green authoritarianism’ nor wish to voluntarily give up our own privileges. Better that we find ways to imagine and commit collectively to a more convivial city congruent with Auckland's history and geography. The precondition must be to redistribute resources and to build new political coalitions and local governmental institutions. It’s a long shot, but it might just work. The money the Government looks likely to put into a rebuild might be used to kickstart a genuinely new direction for the city.

Nicolas Lewis is Associate Professor, Environment, Faculty of Science

Professor John Morgan is Head of School, Critical Studies in Education, Faculty of Arts

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, A moment for Auckland, 28 Feb, 2023

Media contact

Margo White I Research communications editor
Mob 021 926 408