Auckland is going through a period of rapid change. Hayden Donnell talks to an urban design advisor about whether it’s possible to transform the city without riling everyone up.
With local body elections less than three months away, Auckland is divided in two. On one side are people who want to continue reshaping the city around public transport, cycle paths and pedestrian-friendly spaces. On the other is an armada of skeptics, conservatives, and Mike Hosking. They’re uncomfortable with change; annoyed at the sight of cyclists and scared of losing car parks.
The election looks like it will be fought in part between these two factions, with mayoral candidate John Tamihere railing against Auckland Transport’s covert “anti-car strategy” and promising to halt moves to lower the speed limit in the city centre to 30km/h. The lead-up to the vote has also been defined by a series of pitched battles between the two competing visions, with communities rebelling against efforts to create more pedestrian and cycle-friendly town centres in Takapuna, St Heliers, and Mt Albert – where The Spinoff recently hosted our first In My Backyard community engagement event.
The question for Auckland is whether it’s possible to change a city without setting people against each other like warring packs of feral dogs. Cam Perkins is the team leader for city centre design at Auckland Council, and his job is partly to quell, calm, and avoid as many of these electoral squirmishes as possible when it comes to the vast changes at the heart of the city. To do that, he brings to bear skills developed in his past work on hotel developments for global chains.
“My job has always been with working with clients who are spending a lot of money on understanding human behaviour,” he says. “I try to use that kind of thinking when we’re building cities because ultimately we’re trying to do the same thing – we’re trying to attract people to our cities, we’re trying to help people to be attached to our cities and to our places.”
Perkins says the job is particularly hard because the council is often fighting against basic human physiology. People are hard-wired to be suspicious of change, and tend to focus on its negative possibilities until they’ve actually experienced something first-hand, he says.
“When we talk to people about change, it kicks off this error detection in people’s minds. And that takes energy away from the place where we process our logic,” he says. “It means we literally can’t think straight. We’re really annoyed. We’re really pissed off. And we can’t think logically about the thing that’s being proposed to us.
“So, I mean, good luck with proposing that change. It’s going to be really difficult to get people to understand it just by talking about it.”
On her morning talk show, Newstalk ZB host Kerre McIvor illustrated those psychological aversions to change, ranting against cycleways she doesn’t use. “I get so annoyed with cycleways getting put in that I don’t want or need when it could get used on better things within the city,” she told listeners (while McIvor might not want them, a lot of others do).
Perkins says McIvor’s scepticism is understandable, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. One way to combat it is to give communities “change tasters” – physical embodiments of the thing being proposed before it’s fully implemented – and let them feedback on whether it works or not. “There’s a thing in behavioural science called the Ikea effect, which is that people feel a sense of ownership over a place or a thing when they’ve had the opportunity to be a part of building it. When you build a shitty Ikea cupboard or something, it’s simple but you have a sense of attachment to it because you built it.”
Perkins points to the recent example of Mt Albert, where a cycle path was established through the town centre but did not connect up to anything else. One way to get more people to buy into cycleway developments would be to develop low-cost, makeshift safe cycle networks before high-budget permanent projects get built, he says.
“You could have a safe network in place very quickly that would actually connect Mt Albert to something. That would be great because then you could actually ride between town centres without having to take your life in your hands,” he says. “There’s different ways we can approach these centres and these projects by actually testing the outcomes first.”
Another way to mitigate outpourings of change rage is to help people better avoid disruption, Perkins says. He points to Quay St in central Auckland, where frustrated motorists are complaining about long delays caused by the construction of a transformed downtown area.
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That could be alleviated a little by clear and regular signs on the approach to the city centre telling people to avoid the roadworks, he says. “If you’re giving people these cues, and helping them to make decisions, then they don’t drive onto Quay St and start having these feelings of frustration and anger that we hear about so often.”
In the end though, sometimes councils just have to bite the bullet and do stuff that will make people mad. The threat of climate change and the problem of population growth mean there’s no way planners can go back to designing cities around motorways and carparks, Perkins says. The recent climate change emergency declared by Auckland Council is a signal that some types of compromise are no longer possible. “Cities around the world are making these decisions for their citizens because it has to happen,” he says. “It comes down to providing a safe city centre and a city centre with breathable air. So it comes down to survivable cities. And that ultimately has to trump the convenience of the motor vehicle getting everywhere.”
That’s the ultimate message for Auckland Council or any government, Perkins says. They can employ strategies to make change easier for people; find ways of building community support for their projects. But the existential threat posed by climate change puts a hard cap on compromise. It’s fine if appeasing the critics costs a little bit of extra time and money, but it can’t cost the Earth.
In the first in a new event series looking at the future of Auckland, The Spinoff and Auckland Council hosted In My Backyard: The City of Mt Albert, examining the role of the suburb in the city’s development.