Auckland’s Devonport is an island. Not metaphorically or philosophically, an actual island with water all around it. Tamaki Drive has been swallowed by sea water. Helensville is once again an estuary, so much so that the main trunk line has been moved. The City of Sails is now Waterworld. Storm surges have eaten up boat ramps, sea walls and bridges. The city’s gardens are grown on rooftops and water tourism’s a thing. 

Or how about this? There was no solving of the Great Housing Crisis in the early part of the century, so landowners got richer and those without a home experienced a sharp slide into poverty. Unemployment has doubled thanks to technology carving out huge sectors – tourism, insurance, teaching. Areas known for poor health and overcrowding are worse; the rich are untouched. Mental health problems escalate, there’s divide in the classroom, no ambulance service because there’s no money to pay for it, and attacks on cyclists and late-night office workers are common. 

They’re two of five scenarios sketched out by what we might call futurists … experts doing the long term thinking to identify issues now, in the hope we will veer towards solutions in medium term planning rather than paying millions for projects that just have to be undone. Auckland Council’s strategy and research general manager Jacques Victor, and its Chief Sustainability Officer John Mauro have tapped some brilliant minds including Pete Bossley architects and strategist Dr Rick Boven to project pictures 30 years ahead. They’re outlined on the council’s website as it seeks submissions for its 10 year plan. Submissions close March 28.

Most publicity surrounding this vital plan for Auckland involves extra levies – do you want a petrol tax, targeted rates for water pollution clean up and the environment, and should AirBnB properties cop a business tax? But Victor and Mauro are asking residents – especially the younger generation – to look further ahead. 

“There are big shifts happening around the world,” says Victor, “It’s hard sometimes for people to understand what that might mean … and it’s hard to deal with in a concrete way because it scares people.

“We just wanted to put something out there to say how some of these massive changes will impact on Auckland. 

“We are not confident that this will happen at all. It’s just putting ideas out there of what might possibly be. It’s not a prediction of fact.”

Two over-riding issues came up in all the scenarios – climate change, and the social divide between the rich and poor. 

Mauro says as far as climate change is concerned the data is known, and the Council has already commissioned NIWA on what the impacts might be for the city. “But that doesn’t always tell the story,” he says. “Look, we can tell you what the soil moisture in Papakura looks like in five years’ time, but how do you paint a picture from that information? This is a better way of doing it. It’s about storytelling.”

Part of the reason that there are few crystal-ball gazers looking in this direction, Victor believes, is that “so many people just struggling to get through today and tomorrow, and that’s perfectly understandable. But it’s also important at the same time that those of us who do have a little bit of time to think ahead …  actually think long term and don’t keeping on making such short term decisions. Because we are all going to end up paying very dearly for it.”

It’s hoped that looking at issues this far out will lead to the sort of outcomes number-crunchers love – not spending a dollar to gain a dollar, but spending to gain five dollars, and to solve problems before they actually become problems. An example is waterways – if you can enhance a creek with a beautiful setting, surround it with a public walkway or bike lane or park, and plant it so toxic materials are caught before they run into the waterway, you’re achieving several more goals than if you just put a pipe underground and carry that water to the sea. 

One of the future scenarios (that Bossley architects came up with) is the people’s network, a future envisioned where diverse suburbs and communities are more connected, safer and cleaner. It factors in technology we don’t know about yet, where cars are ditched for devices on a network transporting people under their own steam. New businesses would pop up along the back-routes of the city. This is not far fetched – electric bikes for example are already changing the landscape this way. 

“We don’t know how new technology is going to play out,” says Victor. “All we know is that it’s going to be different.”

One of the issues at the moment – we are rules-bound. Those rules (planning, environment court) are somewhat biased towards today and yesterday’s thinking – they’re not really aimed at tomorrow.  “I think there needs to be a mind shift, a change of direction from the top. The rules mean they lose the bigger picture.” Victor says. When the carbon emissions promise that climate change minister James Shaw made in Paris passes into legislation it may well dictate activities everywhere – business sectors, local government will have to use targets to guide their decisions. “It’s going to be game-on.” 

There is a different future coming, people: just keep that in mind.” 

Mauro says a shift into the mentality of looking well into the future will save money in the long run. “We’re making all these investments and asking people for targeted rate money for specific outcomes – it’s actually quite transparent,” he says. “But what are all these little bits adding up to? Are we just throwing investments into the ground that we’re going to have to rip up in 10 or 20 years and do it again? Or are we actually lining something up so we can deliver them in 30 years. If we’re not thinking further down the track, we’re making very dumb decisions.”

Dumb decisions, in their view, such as developing green field land for housing. 

Mauro: “We can’t keep sprawling and chewing up green field land and become an equitable, self sustaining or environmentally functioning city. If we want to be generating our own food and be self reliant” (this is another of the future scenarios) “we can’t be sprawling into that area. If we want to live with nature we can’t (develop) it in such a massive swathe.” Just four years ago however, spreading out was seen as a better alternative to squashing in … but the pair believe the mentality on intensification is turning around. 

“We’ve got to find ways of transporting and housing people so they don’t have to face a two hour commute each day … so that they never see their kids. Those are the kind of things we need to think about and it all comes down to spatial form.”

In his letters of expectation to CCOs, Mayor Phil Goff has emphasised the need to take into account climate change in making spending decisions. 

Victor: “This stuff is going to come – there is no choice in the matter. How fast it’s going to come and to what degree, we don’t know. We are trying to say let’s start responding now and not be stupid about it so that we have double the trouble in 20 or 30 years.” 

Victor says he has hope. “I see changes. I see little things. Discussions we’re having, whether it’s with politicians or with the government, those discussions are different to the way things were four years ago for example. 

“There is a different future coming, people: just keep that in mind.” 

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