When discussing the pros and cons of projects like the City Rail Link or the shared space upgrades, it is almost inevitable that someone will question the value of spending such a large amount on the City Centre. While questioning any big expenditure is a good idea, the arguments are often quite insular and to be frank, a little selfish. You hear things along the lines of “Nobody I know ever goes into the city”, “The CBD is just full of foreign students” or “why spend money on Queen St, last time I went there is was full of drunks and beggars”. Often it comes down to someone simply saying that they don’t like the central city, or don’t find any value in it.
At the surface level it is quite easy to brush off such complaints because they all follow the same fallacy: taking a personal experience and assuming it holds true for everyone else. It’s understandable why people form these kind of views, after all unless you put some effort into researching a topic you’re own experience is all you have to go on. But at a deeper level we can get past this to a very important consideration, whether enough people actually visit the urban core to justify spending big bucks there. To be objective we need try and get some reliable data on where we should spend our public funds to benefit the greatest number of people.
This leads me to another common argument and the reason I wanted to write this post. Many times I’ve heard someone say “but the CBD has only 10% of Auckland’s jobs, why waste so much on so few people”. Every time I hear this figure I want to shout “balderdash!” and scold them for repeating hearsay to support their Luddite anti urban desires.
… but I can’t, because it’s true.
Well, sort of.
You see it can be true that the CBD has only a 10% share of Auckland jobs, depending squarely upon how you define the CBD. This is the gerrymandering that the title of this post refers to. No it’s not a slight at our dear transport minister, but there definitely is a political element. Gerrymandering is by definition the act of redrawing electoral boundaries to benefit one candidate at the expense of others, literally redrawing a line around the bits you need to get the results you want. This is how we can arrive at the 10% figure, one simply takes a narrow definition of the CBD and a broad definition of Auckland. It’s all too easy to gerrymander the result.
The good folks at Statistics NZ record figures on employment levels for each of our territorial authorities. They also do it by Area Unit, which are little neighbourhood sized blocks that cover all of our cities. A little searching on the website reveals a few simple statistics: In 2011 there were 627,110 job places in the Auckland region, while the two area units called Auckland Central East and West had 61,330 between them. Divide the Auckland Central figure across the region and you get… 9.77%, a smidgen off ten percent.
But what exactly does does that cover? Well at one end using the whole council region is a bit broad for defining Auckland, because it includes all the rural areas and country towns to the north and south. At the other end, well this is the area covered by the CBD according to that definition:
Taking a quick look at that we can see it really under cooks the CBD by any definition. For a start it doesn’t even include the downtown waterfront or any of the Britomart precinct, nor a good chunk of the K Rd area, or parts of Grafton, Quay Park or Wynyard Wharf. It doesn’t even meet the traditional definition of the CBD, which is the part of the city bordered by the motorways and harbour. I’ve never really liked that definition of the CBD, mostly because it is just based upon the position of some big barriers rather than any real change in land use. Also the very name is a bit off. Central Business District implies it is a place where only business gets done (and for that matter, the only place where it gets done). Calling it at CBD kinda ignores all the other things that go on there: the shopping, the services, the restaurants and cafes, the theatres, the library, the galleries, the universities, the apartments, the parks, squares and promenades and yes, even the language schools.
So instead I’d like to propose a new wider definition that I’m calling the “Central City”. This includes the old CBD core around Queen St, but also the waterfront, Newmarket and Grafton, the city side bits of Parnell, Eden Terrace and Ponsonby, the bit of city around Quay Park and the Strand, the commercial parts of St Mary’s Bay stretching up College Hill, and the equivalent over by Newton Rd and first bit of Great North Rd.
It’s a little hard to define exactly why these places are included but it becomes immediately obvious if you look at an aerial photograph of Auckland on Google Maps. The Central City is the generally grey coloured bit with large roofed buildings, not the greeny bit with small separate houses. That way it includes all those other activities and functions. It’s about that simple.
You can also think of it as anywhere within a short walk of the Link Bus, and including most places that would be well served by the rail network if the City Rail Link was built. That’s quite an appropriate measure if we are trying to justify such a project, there is little point in leaving Newton, Newmarket and half of K Rd out out the equation if that is where the trains would actually stop!
Picking out the appropriate Area Units from Statistics New Zealand gives us a Central City that looks like this:
On the wider scale I think we should also exclude the really rural parts of Auckland Region, and just stick to the city itself and it’s commuter hinterland including places like Orewa. Going back to the area units, we get a reasonable approximation of metropolitan Auckland that looks like this:
Ok so we’ve fiddled with the borders, so what does the job figure look like if we gerrymander back the other way? Well according to Stats NZ, this measure of metropolitan Auckland had 600,194 job places in 2011, while the new area I’ve called the Central City had 140,910. Factor that through and we get 23.5%, revealing that the Central City contains almost a quarter of Auckland’s jobs. So there we have it. By one very precise definition the city centre contains only 10% of our workforce, but by another looser one the figure is almost two and a half times higher.
Moral of the story? Fiddling with the numbers can get you just about any outcome you want, it’s being able to justify the fiddling that’s the important part. Personally I think it is much more justifiable to take a broad definition of the Central City according to it’s form and uses, than to stick with the old narrow CBD defined by where a motorway interchange happens to lie.