Every year on October 1, when the spring rains ease and the ground hardens, hundreds of heavy machines roar to life on our city’s fringe. During the officially designated Earthworks Season which runs for seven months until the end of April, the equivalent of 10 rugby fields each day are devoured as Auckland sprawls ever outwards.

They clear the land first. Bulldozers, diggers, graders carve through anything in their path. Out Waimauku way on the road to Muriwai, there are trees in the way. It’s scrub to some, regenerating bush – mānuka, kowhai, ti kouka, ponga, teenaged totara, elderly macrocarpa – to others. On Western Heights and into Henderson Valley, vineyards and hundred-year-old orchards succumb to marching polystyrene-pillared armies — five-bedrooms, three bathrooms and a double garage — nibbling at the feet of the Waitākere Ranges. On the Shore, Albany approaches Silverdale which morphs into Orewa and spreads inexorably up the coast.

Now head south where Clevedon and Glenbrook and Pōkeno threaten to become suburbs – and Paerata is slated to become a town – and where the Pukekohe Hub, the 4,000-hectare food basket whose rich loamy soil produces more than a quarter of New Zealand’s vegetables, is assailed on all sides. Since 2000, New Zealand has lost a third of all its vegetable-growing land. Once buried in concrete, it’ll never come back. Death by a thousand diggers.

Should Auckland’s residential developments extend out, or up? Click here to comment.

The numbers are numbing – a thousand hectares a year, a hundred thousand trees, a million birds displaced, innumerable lizards and insects. Wetlands are drained, waterways piped. In their place, dozens of new suburbs you’ve probably never heard of. If you can place more than three of the following on the map, you are the undisputed King of Urban Sprawl Bingo.

Hingaia, Waiake, Pahurehure, Red Hill, Rose Hill, Pinehill, Redoubt South, Wattle Downs, Northcross, Randwick Park, Clover Park, Totara Park, Totara Heights, Fairview Heights, Lucas Heights, Palm Heights (note: any land more than five metres above sea level automatically earns the moniker ‘Heights’ in the urban sprawl dictionary).

We tell ourselves this is inevitable – that this is the price of progress. We endure ever-worsening congestion – more lanes, more cars – and arrive late and frazzled, ‘Bloody Auckland traffic’ our stock greeting shared with rolled eyes and a rueful smile.

READ MORE: Macrocarpa wrangle plants seed of call for more urban trees

For a hundred years, this has been Auckland’s story. Few countries embraced the automobile as enthusiastically as we have. New Zealand’s vehicle fleet of 37,500 in 1922 surged to 261,850 by 1938, the second highest rate of cars per capita in the world after the United States. With the arguable exception of Los Angeles, no city in the world has been shaped more by the car than sprawling Tāmaki Makaurau, home to the second-largest area of land per head of population.

We fudge or rationalise or simply ignore the cost of our urban sprawl – the billions of dollars for our roads and motorways, the billions of hours wasted at the wheel, the billions of tonnes of carbon emitted. And then there are the 50,000 hectares of nature that have been sliced and diced into subdivisions. Like the apocryphal frog in the pot, we keep adjusting to the new normal, not realising what we’ve lost until it’s gone forever.

It is a development model replicated in car-centric countries all over the world, one driven by a frontier mentality and underpinned by the folly that our horizons are unlimited, and we can just grow ourselves out of trouble. It’s never been less true than now.

The Project

When you see a large, old tree like the Ash St macrocarpa, a twisted, gnarled hundred-year-old fortress which has borne witness to four generations of Avondale locals, you understand the emotional and humbling presence that great trees have. Even in decline, even with its crown crumbling and several bent arms dead, this old mac endures. It could easily live a decade, possibly longer. While arborists say it’s in decline, and the council considers it a safety hazard under high winds, others argue a tree like this should be allowed to live out its natural life.

You certainly would not cut it down without a good reason.

Yet this is what we intend to do at Aroha, the 117-unit development we’re building in Avondale in partnership with Marutūāhu Iwi. Here, I’m going to explain why someone who adores trees so much he’s shared a home with mates, deep in the in the Waitaks for the past 20 years, would call time on the macrocarpa. Why a company like Ockham, with a hard-won reputation for building elegant and enduring buildings well loved by their communities – for being the ‘good guy developers’ – would remove this tree. Why we believe we’re doing the right thing for the environment: why we think Mana Rākau, the protest group formed to save the stunning native forest on nearby Canal Road, has got this one wrong.

A computer rendering of the new Aroha residential development in Avondale, as it should look when it is completed. Image: Ockham Residential

First a bit of background about Aroha. The land where Aroha will be built – a 3000-square metre section on the corner of Ash Street and Great North Road – is right at the prow of the ship, the gateway to Avondale’s main street. Just eight kilometres from the CBD, splendidly connected by bus and train, Avondale is one of the city’s special regeneration zones. We’d built here before, the highly regarded Set development beside the Avondale Racecourse, and were invited by Panuku, Auckland Council’s development arm, to buy the land. The brief we were given was clear: to build a quality development to serve as an anchor project for the revival of Avondale.

There are four scheduled trees on the site at 1817 Great North Road and our careful design ensures the preservation of three of these. But the position of the fourth – the macrocarpa – in the north corner makes a large section of the site unusable for housing. Keeping this declining tree means we could not fulfil the Auckland Plan’s mandate and make best use of this high-amenity urban site. 

The best way forward is to remove the macrocarpa. A resource consent was granted last year (with a number of conditions which we met and then some e.g., planting 21 mature native trees across the site) – non-notifiable because of the project’s alignment with the climate and housing objectives enshrined in the Auckland Plan 2050. All consents are on the public record: you will find a copy of Auckland Council’s approval on the Tree Council website.

When the protesters learnt we had permission to cut down the tree, they leapt into action. Unfortunately for us, the tree quickly became one of Auckland’s most prominent billboards, and activists have now set up camp up the tree as well as under it. The protesters say they’re aggrieved that the city’s rules allow for a scheduled tree to be removed without notification (albeit under extenuating circumstances, and only if the removal strongly supports the city’s broader environmental goals). It’s a very high bar. We cleared it.

In the meantime, various Facebook experts and self-anointed architects had a look at our plans and wondered why we couldn’t just move this, there, and that back over there; why we couldn’t work with the tree and incorporate it in our design. It’s a nice idea which we’d implement if we thought it was the right result for the site. It just isn’t.

The Community

The protest group has conflated its aims with what it says ‘the community’ wants. Chiefly using social media, it has connected their Canal Road protest, which seeks to save the surviving 25 native trees of a 50-tree stand, with interests of the lone macrocarpa. It is not in the same ethical category – not even in the same universe – with the ‘connection’ being that the macrocarpa stands a kilometre from Canal Road, and also happens to be a tree.

The fact is that ‘the community’ does see a clear distinction between these two protests. We know because we have been talking with members of the Avondale whānau for two years. While some see the tree as an eyesore, others feel exactly as we do – they’ll take no pleasure in seeing it go but see that much more will arrive in its place.

They see that Avondale is desperately short of affordable homes and see the 117 apartments we’re building at Aroha, following the 95 we’ve nearly finished down the road at Kōkihi (Waterview), and the 119 we built just over the hill at Tuatahi (Mt Albert).

The community also recognise that a quality development in this space will spur the revitalisation of this beautiful old suburb. Even Avondale evangelists – and I should mention here that four of Ockham’s senior staff are Avondale born-and-bred – acknowledge the suburb is down on its luck. Yet the energy and ambition and potential in this community is thrillingly evident, seen everywhere at the Avondale Sunday Market, and in visionary young leaders like Avondale Business Association chairman Marcus Amosa.

“For years, Avondale residents and businesses have been crying out for development, investment, improvements to our buildings and economic conditions,” Amosa told Stuff last week. “For 23 years our main street has been cut in half and the town centre made a dumping ground.”

This proud Avondale man backs Aroha and implies there’s an element of opportunism to the protest. “What’s more concerning is when an interest group dominates a local issue with its own agenda, using our local neighbourhood to further their own cause, albeit an important one,” he said.

“The process that is required to legally remove this tree may be subject to objection (and rightfully so), however it is the current process, and it has been followed.”

Marcus Amosa’s bottom line: trees matter – but climate change mitigation matters more. And the Avondale whānau should determine how this is balanced in their own neighbourhood. “What is best for our local community must be answered by those who it will affect the most, locals.”

The Auckland Plan

Cities are entities of compromise – of the interplay between planning and spontaneity, cautious projections vs. laissez-faire chaos; of wishful thinking and realpolitik; of greed and short-termism vs. idealism and foresight, of My Home is My Castle individualism vs. community.

When you simultaneously find yourself in a climate emergency and a housing affordability crisis that blights the future of half our country’s people, something has to give. Predictably, the nation’s powerful subdividing lobby – the land-bankers, the urban sprawlers, the suburban spreaders, the Wild Westers and greenfields gobblers – have the answer. Free Up More Land is their siren call, as if doubling down on this environmentally catastrophic path and building unaffordable Legoland houses and unending motorways is the answer.

Ockham’s vision for Auckland has always been very different. As a brownfields developer, we work within the city’s existing limits. All our recent developments – like Hypatia in Grafton, Station R and Daisy in Mt Eden, Modal and Tuatahi in Mt Albert, Set in Avondale – are on major bus routes, a quick whizz from cycleways, a short walk to a train station. The chicken-and-egg conundrum facing Auckland’s public transport – that people won’t use it until it becomes a more regular service, but it can’t become more regular until more people use it – is not terrifically difficult to solve. You build close to major public transport arteries which also happens to be where many people want to live. This is why we have championed environmentally friendly projects like Daisy in Mt Eden (New Zealand’s only 10-star energy-rated residential development) and carless projects, such as Modal in Mt Albert. Two more carless developments in Grey Lynn and Morningside are underway.

It’s hardly rocket surgery: generations of Auckland town planners have recommended exactly this approach only to be metaphorically buried by the urban sprawlers’ diggers. But this is where the good news starts.

In 2017 Auckland Council ratified The Auckland Plan 2050, its vision for the future development of Tāmaki Makaurau. It has, at its heart, a desire for a quality, compact city that stalls Auckland’s voracious sprawl, hoping to house 62 percent of Auckland’s projected population growth within city’s existing parameters. The result of an exhaustive period of consultation – thousands of submissions and several years of hearings and consultation – the Plan reflects the collective ambition of Aucklanders. It is an expression of our city’s democratic will.

Nevertheless, it is a work of compromise as evidenced by the fact it anticipates that 38 percent of Auckland’s future growth will take place in the countryside. Even with the city’s best efforts, an estimated 15,000 hectares of rural land containing literally millions of trees will fall to the diggers over the next 30 years. Of course, this less-than-ideal, (sort-of)-best-case-scenario assumes they’ll be able to resist the pressures of Auckland’s greenfields developers, arguably Aotearoa’s wealthiest and most successful lobby group over the past century.

Which is why the Labour-led government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (NPS-UD) was unexpectedly and brilliantly farsighted. For the first time, we had a coherent national strategy to stop the sprawl – to go up and not spread our cities metastatically into nature. Specifically, the NPS-UD insists that zones such as Auckland’s rail corridors will have to “realise as much development capacity as possible” and “maximise the benefits of intensification”. It further mandates that councils allow building heights of at least six storeys in “metropolitan centre zones” and within a “walkable catchment” of rapid transit stops, city centre zones, and defined metropolitan zones. And it also got rid of the minimum car parking requirements: developers can choose to include car parking that meets the needs of their development, cutting the cost of construction, and freeing up the space for people to live, rather than just store a car.

Central government now had its local authorities’ backs, indeed was pushing them hard to fulfil a unified national vision of how our cities grow. It means we #stopthesprawl, stop building roads and roads and roads, stop destroying our natural world. It means that – finally – we are taking climate change seriously and doing something meaningful to cut our carbon emissions. It is the game-changer that we needed, just in the nick of time.

Stop the sprawl

And now we come back to the mac. It has been a bruising experience to find myself up against people I know care as much about Tāmaki Makaurau as I do. The protesters are at heart good principled people. The dedication they’ve shown to halt the Canal Road native tree slaughter is deeply moving.

The respect is mutual. Mana Rākau has acknowledged us as one of Auckland’s more conscientious developers, something we appreciate. Because we are also fiercely idealistic, a civic-minded company that has always tried to the right thing by our city.

We love Auckland. Where else in the world do you have a subtropical rainforest on our doorstep, wild, wondrous West Coast beaches just beyond, then a harbour like the Hauraki Gulf/ Tīkapa Moana with its 50 islands, then the city itself built among 50 Tūpuna Maunga, the volcanic sentinels which centre you wherever you are. This is our home, our tūrangawaewae that we’re entrusted to look after and leave in all its wonder and beauty to our descendants.

I am sure the protesters would agree with much of this. Indeed, I’m confident we’d find common ground on most of the big issues facing our city. Like the catastrophic housing affordability crisis which condemns half our people to an insecure existence, their kids forced to change schools every year or two, their whānau unable to put down their roots and make a community their home, no matter how many hours they work. Looming over this all, the rampant inequality and unsustainability of an economic model bound to the fatuous conceit of infinite growth on a finite planet.

From the conversations I’ve had with some of the protesters, I think we also agree on the importance of urban trees. There are thousands of trees across Auckland that desperately need protection and we’re going to do our bit to try and save the urban ngahere. But here we part ways. When it comes to the old mac, we believe – and I say this respectfully – the protesters are missing the wood for the trees. They are failing to recognise the infinitely greater costs that sprawl brings to our city.

Because the argument we’ve heard most consistently for the retention of the tree – that we are in a Climate Change Emergency and cannot afford to lose a single great tree – doesn’t hold up. In the time it’s taken you to read this story, 10 trees around the city’s edge would have fallen to the bulldozers. The context of where this tree is – and where Aroha will be – is everything. Building Aroha in Avondale will save at least six hectares of rural sprawl, along the incalculable carbon savings for generations to come.

I’m no expert on carbon sequestration but the protesters say the macrocarpa contains about 2,000kg of carbon. The average New Zealander emits 8,000kg of CO2 a year, around a third from transport. The maths is clear. The cost of urban sprawl and our road addiction is too high. “Adding lanes to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity,” observed the American futurist Glen Hemistra. Why do we delude ourselves that asphalt is the answer?

Or do we change course and follow our Auckland Plan. Start building developments like Aroha – 117 high quality and relatively affordable homes including those 47 KiwiBuilds – in areas where people want to live. I think it’s a straightforward choice.

But it will still be a sombre day when the macrocarpa comes down. We’ve had a lot of messages from Aucklanders over the past fortnight, many eager to see it gone, sending snarky texts like “What the hell are they on about? This isn’t even a native…. it’s a half-dead macrocarpa! Firewood FFS!!!” I don’t see things this way. I’ll be sad and reflective – but I’m a hell of a lot sadder and madder about the thousands of trees that disappear each year out on the fringes without anyone seeming to notice or care.

An original reference to Okura as a new suburb has been removed. To clarify, Mark Todd of Ockham Residential is not related to the Todd family of Todd Property Group.

Ockham Residential is a foundation supporter of Newsroom

Mark Todd, the co-founder of Ockham Residential, is an avowed Auckland enthusiast, a practical idealist and a proponent of 'density done well'

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