Auckland is the country’s economic powerhouse. It is also attracting increasing numbers of tourists but Juliet Moses asks whether the city is letting itself down with some poor planning and a lack of vision?
A few days ago, the sun made a bold appearance after several days of downpours in Auckland, and so I, like all self-respecting Aucklanders revelling in the heady, festive days of summer, headed to the beach with a friend. We lay on a blanket. We chatted. We people-watched. We snacked. She took selfies. What we didn’t do was swim. Not because we didn’t want to mess up our hair, or because it was too cold, but because of pollution. We had heard on the news the warning against swimming at Takapuna beach and several other Auckland beaches, because our decrepit sewage system could not cope with the deluge of rain we had suffered.
Beaches are supposedly one of the prime features of Auckland, one of the things to love about living or visiting here, along with our volcanic peaks, restaurants, the public festivals celebrating our diverse mix of people, Hauraki Gulf, vineyards, outdoor concerts, Mayor Phil Goff and farmers markets.
So as I lay on the beach I wondered how we have got to the point where we just accept that sewage overflows into our beautiful beaches after heavy rain, and then I began to think about what other hidden treasures Auckland has that should not be overlooked in its aspiration to be a “world-class city”.
I like street art as much as the next person, so when giant beige polka dots first mysteriously showed up painted on the corner of Shortland St and Jean Batten Place, I thought they must be a Yayoi Kusama installation and got a bit excited. As it turns out, they’re designed to slow traffic and remind drivers to take care. Simon Wilson, the columnist with a penchant for writing about Auckland city and its developments, described them as “all kinds of wonderful”, but I can’t think of one kind of wonderful that they are. They certainly don’t seem to have a discernible calming effect on the drivers turning into the shared space of Jean Batten Place who are navigating their way around unaware pedestrians walking along the road.
Like traffic calming spots and rain that floods our sewage system, there are lots of surprises in Auckland to keep life here so exciting.
One of my favourites is when I am driving and discover that streets (often motorway off ramps) are closed off for roadworks with no warning. It’s always fun to figure out, along with the hordes of similarly befuddled drivers, what circuitous alternative route you can take to get to your destination. It’s even more of a thrill when you are under serious time pressure, like I was recently on the way out to the airport to catch a flight.
Another good guessing game, for those who use public transport, is whether it will show up on time, or at all. It’s all well and good that the boffins have decided to increase daily prices by 67 percent in the Downtown carpark, put cycleways on roads and light rail along Dominion Road that will provide a snail-paced trip to the airport, and are considering other deterrents for driving into the city. But not everyone can cycle, walk or scooter, and public transport is still not reliable or extensive enough to be viable for many, such as parents who need to rush off from work and pick their children up from day care.
I am lucky enough to be able to walk to work most days. I do this because it is good exercise and I know that I must eschew the private motorcar, if I am to be looked upon favourably by the patron saint of Auckland Council, the aforementioned Simon Wilson. I have learned quickly to be on the lookout for maniacs on Lime scooters zipping along the footpath. But a really fun sport for those wicked enough to drive in Auckland is what I have coined “bus lane slalom”. This is when there is a bus lane for say 40 metres on the left, so you get into the right lane, but then the right lane becomes right turn only, so because you want to go straight you must dash into the left lane, which is briefly not a bus lane, and then it becomes a bus lane again so you must get into the right lane, but then you need to turn left so must get into the bus lane, all the while being careful to use your inbuilt ruler so that you get into the bus lane no more than 50 metres before you turn. The best place to try this out is Victoria Street West, heading down towards Queen St, with the added bonus of occasional double parked buses in the bus lane. It’s even more exhilarating to try this is at rush hour, so that while you are trying to get into the bus lane and the buses won’t let you in, you are holding up a queue of traffic behind you in the right lane.
More serious is the heart breaking sight of the many familiar homeless people who reside on this tatty stretch of Victoria Street, to our shame.
For some of us, me included, Auckland is still largely a great place to live, and better than most other places in the world, but it’s becoming a harder place to live. I understand that as cities grow, so do their challenges. And thankfully, while it’s easy to point out the problems, it’s other people’s job to come up with the solutions. Most of the issues we face now come from a lack of planning and a lack of real vision. If we are to be a great liveable city it won’t happen by accident. It requires understanding the needs of the people, practical vision and foresight. Without that, we will risk ending up as the City of Fails, not the City of Sails.