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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Urban social apocalypse

The Auckland Regional Council are at it again. Trying to convince the rightly skeptical public that whacking up apartments in large groups around poor out-lying suburbs is the future we all dream of.

Their media release confidently proclaimed:

"there is no conclusive evidence that intensive development leads to increased social problems such as poverty and crime."

Well they would say that given that they paid for the report and their strategies, all of them, call for intensification (ie. multi-story apartments) along every rail line and major arterial road in Auckland. They say that they are working on improving the building code. But does anybody have any confidence that given their plans they will discourage the building of apartments until that is cleared up satisfactorally? One of the co-commissioners of the report is Housing New Zealand. Weren't they the outfit that builds apartments in West Auckland where the window sills (amongst other things) are made of that highly durable building material called polystyrene!

They say that their survey indicates most people who live in apartments like them. Really? No kidding - is that why they are living in them then? Ask a foreigner used to living in a 20sqm hovel whether a 25sqm box that will fall down in ten years is good and of course they will say yes. The point is that if they halt growth of the greenfields traditional suburbs and only have apartments then there isn't going to be any choice in the matter and that traditional house we all dream of (2/3rds prefer according to the survey) is going to spiral in cost to beyond most people's means (the Portland scenario). Is this the best thing for the city? Raising a family up five flights of stairs? Anyone who has seen the Chinese workers hostels along Hobson Street and the tiny boxes cramming in students all over the show will need an insurmountable amount of convincing.

If the future is being trapped into a renting cycle of one poorly constructed, flimsy apartment after another with all the problems of intensified living with none of the advantages of CBD locality, the compulsory shrieking Chinese only-child slapper who thinks that having sex is only slightly less important than informing the rest of the building that she is doing so by screeching like a wounded pukeko, the reeking MSG-fishpaste-vinegar stench wafting up the light well, the annual cockroach infestations, the constant false fire alarms at all hours, the lack of any personal green space to stretch out on, the inability to have a conversation with your neighbour because they can't speak your language, the icy glares from the increasingly intolerant locals, the lifts that are out again because the P-dealer's mates had vandalised it, the kids who are living with their four relatives in a one bedroom unit running up and down the corridor - if that is the future you want then the ARC are doing their very best to get us there. Oh, and you can live right between a double line train track and a bus lane that will both be operating at an interval of once every five minutes to take you to your shitty call centre job... if there is one, there might be a down-turn and then what happens to everyone? Yeah? Sound good!? (...and breathe).

That may be an overly negative and stereotyped projection of your typical planned New Lynn/Panmure/Onehunga/Otahuhu mega-slum. Or, maybe not. They are planning the Otara/Glen Innes/Kelstons of the future that will be far worse and incapable of upward mobility because the asset base will comprise of shitboxes with a 30 year life span and high maintenance costs. New immigrants don't deserve that fate and nor do the locals. I bet not one single ARC planner will ever, or would ever want to, live in those areas. Without at least fixing the design and construction issues first we are going to make all those mistakes and more. If we want to create a deprived and under-privileged working class with little hope of advancement then we are going the right way about it.

Is the ARC a harbinger of a looming urban social apocalypse? - Yes. Do they mean to be? - No. They seem more intent on preventing a non-existent environmental apocalypse. They are well intentioned and they want to strike a balance between preserving the rural land around the city (the urban limits) and accommodating an increase in population (many of whom will not be immigrants of course). Their reports are self-serving and the public must scrutinise their data and the larger rationale. I don't want to get all Owen McShane about it or anything, but if the sprawl can be managed correctly (it hasn't been in the past because they keep insisting on enforcing a limit and not planning for things outside of it even when the limits have been breached) then is having a back yard for every family such a heresy?

And on this issue, a German angle:

Triangle TV last night screened a DW-TV report on a suburb of Berlin, all apartments, where about 80% of the population were foreigners. A Turkish guy explained that most of them could not speak German, and watched satellite Turkish TV, were schooled in Turkish, went to Turkish shops etc. and the consensus was that the idea of an integrated model suburb had failed. It didn't help that unemployment was running at 50%! The suburb's social worker explained that she ran cook-ins where everyone shared each others foods in the community centre as a dining experience - as a way of bringing people together - which was only successful in adding to her girth really. She said 20% of the apartments were vacant! In Auckland they would be occupied by street kids within hours.

The problem is that once the suburb has gone on the skids and half the population cannot even communicate (or particularly care to) with the locals or between each other then who would want to move there? People who have no where else to go. The marginalised groups. The local population has been displaced and their is no continuity, sense of history or community solidarity. Problem is, as the DW-TV programme emphasised, is that once ghettos develop they are very hard to revitalise.

I have stated before that if Auckland had a slogan it would be "planning for yesterday - tomorrow" How can we rely on a body that cannot finish a motorway plan devised in 1954 and has never commissioned a rail feasability study for the North Shore to design our future housing needs?

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