Continuing Stu’s look at the value of cities and our ongoing book club I thought is was time to pull out Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City again to further unpack the value of the urban world. Ed Glaeser is a professor of Economics at Harvard and this book is the distillation of years of research backed by data, but is also a great read for anyone interested in the direction of society now and the forces that drive these changes across the world.

Triumph of the City

But first where does Auckland fit; demographically, historically, and politically?

Auckland is New Zealand’s only city of scale yet at 1.5m people in global terms it’s pretty small. And has only recently reached both its current size and arguably its self-identity as a city proper this century- the creation of the single unified authority for Auckland has been the critical point in this it is now becoming clear. Auckland is of course part of a nation with a vital and powerful rural sector and [like other colonial societies] a culture that has a vestigal founding mythology based on rural individualism and rugged sporting and military achievement. This can be still seen in the tired clichés that the advertising industry regularly insults us with when flogging watery beer or soapy cheese…. if TV ads were the only clues available to someone trying to find out what NZ is like they would have to conclude that all 4.5 million of us inhabit a high country farm. I exaggerate but you get my point- this is a self image that the persuasion industry loves to play on, so still clearly has some life in it.

And it is a self-image that easily slips into a suspicion of urban and intellectual life. Add to that Auckland’s relatively nouveau or arriviste status within the nation; to many outside our fair city Auckland is a ‘johnny come lately‘ an undeserving upstart with neither breeding nor legitimacy. Therefore its scale and continuing growth are matters for concern and complaint and its difference; a thing to be feared. What are these differences? Certainly its racial make-up is significantly other from the rest of the nation. It is now and is increasingly becoming more Pacifica and more Asian than the rest of NZ. But so is its urban scale and culture. More of us live in apartments or do other things, say, than follow rugby than the rest of the nation. To many Auckland just feels a bit foreign. And now Auckland even wants foreign things like a subway/metro/tube system.

On recent trips to Australia I have found myself reflecting on the differences and similarities with cities there, after all they are our closest comparisons both historically and culturally. According to these numbers Auckland comes in below Perth but above Adelaide in the population stakes, so only the 5th biggest city in Australasia.


1Sydney (NSW)4,627,345
2Melbourne (VIC)4,137,432
3Brisbane (QLD)2,074,222
4Perth (WA)1,738,807
5Adelaide (SA)1,212,982

But what also strikes me as instructive about comparing Auckland to these Australian cities is that they are all primary cities within their states as Auckland is within New Zealand but that Auckland is the only one that isn’t also the political centre. I think that this is another problem for Auckland attracting sufficient attention and funding for its institutions and infrastructure. Despite the new unity of the territorial authority, at the national level [and here I am comparing our nation in scale and responsibility to an Australian State] we are still played off against each other by a government that essentially represents a largely provincial, anti-Urban and therefore anti-Auckland worldview.

Which not to criticise the provincial worldview as such, it is after all wholly appropriate for the country-side, but simply to point out how it no longer fits with Auckland’s condition and may in fact be holding back our biggest city’s potential to the detriment of the whole nation.

So to summarise, Auckland struggles to gain traction within the city itself and the nation as a whole because:

1. Its scale and urban qualities, problems, and needs are relatively new.

2. The nation’s dominant culture is not that receptive to these ideas and needs.

3. It is not a centre of political power, and nor does it present a unified force on the national stage.

Does any of this matter? We’re a farming nation aren’t we? Isn’t Auckland just a big fat anomaly that doesn’t produce any milk?

Well it does generate a full third of the nation’s GDP and perhaps it could contribute even more if it was unleashed. To support the idea that the urban realm is something to be excited and optimistic about, and indeed fought for, especially with regards to the nation’s economic performance, here is a taste of the conclusions of the good professor’s research:

 ‘There is a near-perfect correlation between urbanisation and prosperity across nations.’ p7

 ‘We should simply eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another.’ P15

 ‘…the virtues of the great pre- and post-industrial cities: competition, connection, and human capital.’ P43

 ‘…human creativity is strong, especially when reinforced by urban density.’ P67

 ‘…the city’s core purpose, lifting the country by connecting talented people with each other and the outside world.’ P96

 ‘Urban enjoyments help determine a city’s success. Talent is mobile, and it seeks out good places to consume as well as produce.’ P118

 ‘Today successful cities, young or old, attract smart entrepreneurial people, in part, by being urban theme parks.’ p11 

 ‘People are increasingly choosing areas on the basis of quality of life, and the skilled people who come to attractive areas then provide the new ideas that fuel the local economy. Smart, entrepreneurial people are the ultimate source of a city’s economic power, and as those people become more prosperous, they care more about quality of life.’ P132 

‘… the magic of urban proximity’ p136

 ‘Cities are ultimately about connections among people.’ P142

 ‘…human diversity demands a variety of living arrangements’ p147

‘Great cities are not static- they constantly change with the world round them.’

 ‘Whereas the typical 19C city was located in a place where factories had and edge in production [I would add distribution too], the typical 21C is more likely to be a place where workers have an edge in consumption.’ P118

  ‘Education is, after temperature, the most reliable predictor of urban [economic] growth, especially among older cities. Per capita productivity rises sharply with metropolitan area size if the city is well educated, but not if it isn’t. Cities and schools complement each other, and for that reason, education policy is a vital ingredient in urban success.’ P253

‘Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.’ P15

But also:

‘The magic of cities comes from their people, but they must be well served by the bricks and mortar that surround them.’ P160

And of course what has a huge influence on the shape of cities?

‘Transportation technologies have always determined urban form.’ P12

‘Transportation technologies shape cities’ p140

 ‘[Cars] also require space when they’re standing still. A typical parking space can often be more than 40 sqm- about the size of a standard work cubicle. Bringing a car to work essentially doubles the amount of space that someone needs on the job.’ P178

 And finally, is this the case with Auckland currently?

‘Too many countries have stacked the deck against urban areas…Cities don’t need handout’s, but they need a level playing field.’ P250

So. What are cities good for, what are Auckland’s increasing urban qualities good for?

Potentially: Absolutely Everything.

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  1. “Which not to criticise the provincial worldview as such, it is after all wholly appropriate for the country-side”.

    I beg to differ there. The provincial mindset of country NZ can be awfully inappropriate as well. Cows shitting in the rivers. Plastic in the burnoff piles. Burnoff piles at all. Reactionary , anti-democratic “conservative” politics. Look at e-Can for instance. Yesterday’s piece in the New York Times that the 100% Pure tourist marketing is meaningless if everything is polluted was spot on.

    I think a bit of Cities 2.0 (energy efficiency, walking and cycling neighborhoods, zero pollution, integrated transport policy, green and tech job creation) is needed in the provinces as well. But that stuff is hard to achieve with old dairy farmers stuck with their arses on local and regional council seats, and old boys networks keeping out anyone who isn’t a dinosaur.

    Provincial cities and towns should have government policies to support growth and economic vibrancy. They are after all nicer places to live than suburbs 25km out of the centre of Auckland.

  2. Even Adelaide, Australia’s most provincial big city, now has better public transport than Auckland, with the tram line extension and greater modal integration etc.

    1. That’s debatable, they have after all canned electrification and their tramway is limited to say the least. I would say both cities have PT systems that under serve their residents but to argue one is better than the other is to really clutch at straws and doesn’t really move the discussion forward.

  3. Does the book really have an apostrophe in “handouts”? (handout’s (sic))
    The city is humankind’s greatest achievement. Most of our politicians live in a village (Wellington); with small minds to suit.

    1. I would suggest that is is not where they reside (Wellington has the accoutrements of a city, despite its size), but more the provincial mindset of English, Brownlee and Joyce. Their understanding of cities seems only to extend to convention centres, stadiums, casinos, suburban development, and roads to connect them together (refer ChCh, sadly) – a consequence of their chauffeured life.

  4. Auckland will get more powerful politically, as it has become more unified and speaks with a singular voice at council level, and as it continues to grow in both relative and absolute terms. Those leaving New Zealand are doing so fairly uniformly, at the rate of about 50,000 per year; whereas immigration is concentrated in Auckland to a disproportionate extent. When combined with Auckland’s higher birthrate which results from a younger population and Pacific peoples (whose births are higher on average), this means a large gain in relative population. Unfortunately the delayed census means a delay in the redistribution of seats in Parliament, which would have taken around two from the rest of the country and given them to Auckland. Unless unforeseeable things happen, this trend will continue for decades to come.

    1. The census was due to happen in 2011, but the redrawing wouldn’t have taken effect until 2014 even if it had been held then. So the delay of the census until 2013 won’t affect when we will first vote with the new boundaries – and since Auckland will have kept growing in the meantime, we’ll have an even higher quota of seats. Not that the electorates matter much…

  5. I agree with everything you say Patrick, except that rural does not account for a third of our GDP. Far from it actually. It accounts for a good portion of revenue received from overseas (ie export economy) but only a small fraction of our total economies GDP. I’d back up my claim with real figures but typing on my phone. IIRC the general services industry (ie white collar workers in cities) are our single biggest contributed to our GDP.

  6. I agree there is an anti-city sentiment in NZ but I feel like it sits only in one generation (Baby Boomers) and then among the relatively wealthy top 25% of that generation. Of course, those people pretty much control NZ. I am counting the days until that generation is ground down by the process of time and we can actually make some progress in this country.

    However, for me the most concerning thing in NZ seems to be a growing anti-intellectualism. If anybody cites actual evidence and academic opinion to back up a contrary view, the only retort seems to be that there is no “common sense” (though I have no f&*king clue what that means) in their arguments. I can only assume this is code for “I cant be bothered learning about this topic by independent reading so I am basing my view on what I saw on the 6pm news last night and what I think a (mythical) NZ bloke wants”. The latest “Comment of the Week” post on here would be a typical example.

    If I hear one more person appeal to the “Kiwi dream” as an excuse for keeping things the same here, I will headbutt someone. I am a 5th generation NZer from Christchurch. My grandfathers and great grandfathers fought in multiple wars and lost limbs and lives. If I dont know what the “Kiwi dream” is then noone does and it sure isnt in the direction I see the Baby Boomers in charge taking us right now.

    I want a diverse, ethnically mixed population. I want dynamic interesting cities where my children will grow up with an open mind and an exciting future.

  7. This is from Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” :

    “In an attempt to make things easier for myself, which is the basis for all of history’s worst decisions (see: “George W. Bush’s Repeal of the Estate Tax,” “Scott Peterson’s Plan,” and “Dred Scott v. Sandford”), I invited the whole family out to New York for a Christmas adventure. I learned quickly that trying to force Country Folk to love the Big City is like telling your gay cousin, “You just haven’t met the right girl yet.” They just don’t like big cities. It’s okay. It’s natural. They were born that way. When you see your Big City through a non-admirer’s eyes you notice things you normally would not. “Hmm. I guess there are a lot of dog turds on Eighty-third Street.” “No, it’s great. We just put our garbage out the back door and when it starts to overflow the super picks it up.” “Who, that guy? Yeah… he’s playing with himself. Okay, let’s go in the playground the other way.” The Christmas in New York Adventure didn’t go so well. My father-in-law tripped on a crack in the pavement and spent the rest of the week politely pretending he had not dislocated his shoulder. I dragged all the kids onto the subway and through the crowd to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, which is unlike any tree in the world, except for hundreds of trees near their homes in Ohio. If I had one bone to pick with the Country Folks, it’s that they are not gastronomically adventurous. Family-style Italian sent them all running for the Alka-Seltzer. Greek yogurt left my sister-in-law stymied, like I had offered her a bowl of caulk. But who am I to judge? I have never been able to get my head around ham salad or pickled eggs. And I would like it explained to me in writing what’s so great about apple butter. After four days, I could see the city wearing them down. It was too much walking for them, oddly. It turns out City Folk walk way more than Country Folk. My young nephew went to the deli with me. “There sure are a lot of foreigners here.” No, I explained, those people live here. In the “Great American Melting Pot,” rural Ohio may be a lump of white flour that hasn’t been stirred properly. Not that New York is any better. New York is that chunk of garlic that you bite into thinking it’s potato and you can’t get the taste out of your mouth all day. It all blends once you mix it, but sometimes you really have to grind it against the side.”

    The difference with here is that the USA doesn’t have Ohio deciding they’re going to run New York!

    1. I feel the same every time I go and visit my mother on her lifestyle block near Mapua, Nelson. The only way to get anywhere is by car. When I say there is nothing to do,no restaurants etc, the reply is usually “but it is only a 45 min drive to Nelson city” or even worse “Motueka is only 20 mins away”.

      Great if you like rural living but dont tell cities how they should be or try to turn them into big country towns. It doesnt work that way. Just like I am not proposing a CRL for Nelson.

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