This is a guest post by Tatjana Buklijas. Tatjana is Associate Director in Koi Tū Centre for Informed Futures and Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at The University of Auckland.
I started to think about writing this piece during the last few months, as I was reading the news from Zagreb, the capital city of my home country, Croatia.
In a few short years, a new independent political platform called Možemo (which translates as ‘We Can’) has become the most successful political group in Zagreb. Možemo began as a local Zagreb phenomenon, with four city council seats won in 2017. Their effective opposition in Zagreb led to a surprise win of seven parliamentary seats at national elections in 2020, and finally, dominance at the recent May 2021 local elections in Zagreb.
Možemo’s mayoral candidate was Tomislav Tomašević, a 39-year-old Cambridge graduate in sustainability and a long-term environmental activist. At these elections, he won over 65% of the total vote, and the highest ever number of individual votes.
Možemo is a breath of fresh air in Croatian politics, which, since the independence in 1990, has been dealing with the aftermath of socialism and unresolved issues going back to the Second World War. For the first time voters could – and did – choose a political platform that sought to address the core 21st century challenge: the just and equitable transition to low carbon economy and life. That really cheered me up. But I also wondered what lessons could Tāmaki Makaurau draw from Zagreb.
In Aotearoa, and especially among progressive urbanist circles, European cities are often held up as examples. We have all read about the post-covid cycling and walking infrastructure, a push to increase the use of rail under the European Green Deal, about reducing the road space to increase green surfaces, or the well-established models of social housing ran by municipalities and local governments. Many have argued for emulating some of these initiatives. At the same time, others have claimed that European cities, which are old, densely built, culturally and ethnically more homogenous, with different traditions and policies of home ownership, are too different to be used as models for Tāmaki Makaurau. I want to look at these two claims and say that the European cities and their modern urban politics are both comparable, and very different from ours, but for other reasons than we might think.
The medieval core of Zagreb sits in the foothills of the mountain Medvednica. It began to expand out into what would become downtown in the nineteenth century. However, it was only in the post-1945 socialist Yugoslavia that the city would take the shape we recognize today.
Brutalist architects and radical city politicians came together to create new neighbourhoods that met every need of a city dweller. The city grew to include dense but well-constructed state-owned apartment blocks in park-like settings. Neighbourhoods were equipped with schools, day-cares, shops, cafes, libraries and doctors’ offices and well served by public transport. I grew up in such neighbourhoods, in small apartments high up in the 1970s buildings. New Zealanders find my stories of a happy childhood with lots of independent play under the watchful eyes of older residents somehow unbelievable, or not applicable to Aotearoa.
The breakup of Yugoslavia marked the start of a period of poor urban regulation as the new country of Croatia moved from workers’ self-management into free market economy. New apartment buildings no longer came with parks and schools; shopping centres designed to be accessible only by car popped up on the city fringes, and car ownership and use increased. In the 21st century Croatia became a popular tourist attraction. Zagreb was the gateway to the Adriatic Coast, but the income was not used to build climate resilient infrastructure. A new motorway was built in the 2000s to ferry tourists from the European North to the Croatian South; a new airport opened in 2017. At the same time, the railway was crumbling and heavy rains, made more frequent by climate change, revealed the underinvestment into physical infrastructure, particularly water infrastructure. For all the tourism income, GDP never recovered to its pre-GFC height.
Joining the EU in 2013 brought some new opportunities but it also opened the doors for the Croatian youth to leave the country for wealthier and larger countries. In 2020 the city lived through not only the Covid-19 pandemic and the loss of tourism but also earthquakes in this tectonically active area. So: the unfettered rule of the free market in the 1990s; increased car dependency; decaying infrastructure; ‘brain drain’ to larger neighbours; tourism affected by Covid-19; even the earthquakes – does this sound familiar?
Možemo ran an impressive election campaign that effectively combined social media – especially short videos on Facebook – with a physical presence in every corner of Zagreb. Indeed, the bulk of the campaign was focused on the prosaic, if vitally important, issues of rubbish disposal, air quality, buses that need modernizing and public schools with leaky roofs.
Yet for all the local focus, this politics is also explicitly modern and outward looking. During the campaign, Možemo was endorsed by several other European mayors. The Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony referred to “green public transport and recycling” as issues of shared interest while the Innsbruck mayor Georg Willi said that “the challenge today is to fight the right response to climate change” and that “the green changes will first occur in European cities.”
This new urban politics is often labelled as “green-left” but forcing 21st century problems and approaches into 20th century boxes does not work. The New Leipzig Charter describes the “dimensions” of European cities as “just”, “green” and “productive”. They draw on the traditional left principles of socioeconomic equality and the green focus on environmental protection. However, this new urban politics is also more than the sum of green + left: it asks some fundamental questions about the political order that resulted both in climate change and growing inequity. With their large and concentrated constituencies, solid economic basis and unified set of problems, city mayors can be more radical and nimbler than national governments, and produce larger returns – in terms of health, decarbonizing, or monetary gains. Of course, the success of city mayors depends on elected local politicians and on city departments and their officials, but mayors set the tone, provide the inspiration, and are public faces for their programmes. Good examples include Paris’s Anne Hidalgo or Erion Veliaj of Tirana, the capital of Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, showing that high GDP is not a prerequisite for climate- and equity-focused urban change.
Tāmaki Makaurau’s City Vision, a union of Green, Labour and other progressive politicians, can be seen as an equivalent of these groupings but where it falls short is the lack of a leader who would unify and give a human face to the a set of shared values, political direction, and, consequently, policies. Without a leader, elected members candidates across local boards run the risk of focusing only on local issues without a vision and story for the whole city. And if there is a city that needs a story and human face to hold it together, it’s Tāmaki Makaurau: sprawling over more than 1000 km2 (by comparison, Paris’s population of over 2 million is on a tenth of the area), it is also, for all its ethnic diversity, an exceptionally residentially segregated city. The current mayor (and former Labour politician) Phil Goff ran as an independent in 2019. He approached the problem of unifying the city by picking a “centrist” deputy mayor from the National Party. This “centrist” approach may have worked in a different time. But in 2021 when change is urgently needed, it appears out of date. It does not communicate the urgency of the issues we face, and it is too vague and general on administration’s values.
This lack of clear vision at our highest level of leadership is consequently evident across the city’s organizations. Different urban activities are looked after by separate entities (council-controlled organizations): cultural activities and economic development by Auckland Unlimited, transport by Auckland Transport, water by Watercare. This devolved set-up may make sense operationally, but it also means that there is no coordinated, shared set of values across the city’s operations. In 2019 Auckland Council voted to declare climate emergency, yet in 2021 an Auckland Unlimited conference about the future of the city ran for 6 hours without explicit mention of climate change.
Perhaps our lens is too narrow when we turn to European cities: we look at their cycleways, trams and apartment buildings. Maybe what we really need to pay attention to is how to organize the political platform – and find the right people – that can communicate the values and changes needed to bring people along for the urgent, difficult, and unavoidable shifts ahead of us.
Tatjana is Associate Director in Koi Tū Centre for Informed Futures and Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at The University of Auckland. She is a medically trained science & technology studies scholar and historian of science, with a longstanding interest in the relationship between urban environments and knowledge production. Views expressed in this article are her own. Her current project is asking how deliberative democracy combined with local and indigenous knowledge and other academic approaches e.g. education can be used to address complex problems faced by our city and country. https://www.complexconversations.nz/