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.
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.
AUSTRALIA’S LARGEST CITIES, JUNE 2011
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
‘The magic of cities comes from their people, but they must be well served by the bricks and mortar that surround them.’ P160
‘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
‘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.