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OPINIONWellingtonMarch 11, 2024

We need to have better conversations about our cities


Cities are negotiated spaces. Urban transformation affects all of us. Meaningful and engaged debates about the future of our cities are hugely important. But are we having the right conversations?

Wellingtonians have rarely been shy sharing their opinions about changes to the capital. “Bypass My Ass” became a catchphrase in the early 2000s, when the 34th option to link the Terrace Tunnel and Basin Reserve was proposed. When Transmission Gully opened in 2022, some described it as “a lovely bit of road” and others saw it as billion-dollar boost to car-dependent sprawl. Meaningful and engaged debates about the future of our cities are hugely important: but are we having the right conversations?

Let’s Get Wellington Moving is a recent example. It was a bundle of transport improvements launched in 2015 that cost $106 million to progress and from which the government withdrew its support in 2024. The case was that these investments would contribute to a more liveable city, with more efficient and reliable transport options, reduced carbon emissions, improved safety and greater resilience. Those who were unconvinced quite fairly questioned the governance, funding, programme, cost management, public engagement and evidence-base. For many detractors, though, it was the vision that didn’t quite sit right. Yet it’s the vision that often gets overlooked in public discussion.

Cities are negotiated spaces. Urban transformation is not an abstract exercise. It has concrete, physical, real-world impacts which affect us all. Throughout history, cities have faced the same core challenge: how to attract and retain people. It is why they exist. Whether you want ideas, collaboration, goods, services, sex, money or power, it is cities which provide the opportunities for meeting and exchange that drive them all forward. They’ve always drawn different people into the same space and so navigating the myriad of aspirations and perspectives this brings, as well as finding consensus about how to balance them, has long been a hot topic.

It’s important to have conversations about what we want our cities to be in the future. (Image: LGWM / Supplied)

More than 90% of people in New Zealand live in urban areas, but this familiarity doesn’t make it any easier to talk about them. It is simple enough to take a stance on a particular proposal or policy. It can be much harder to articulate why that’s our view and to be confident that those opinions have legitimacy. The result is that it can often feel much easier and more effective to wrap our endorsements and objections in technical language and to make our case through an unpicking of the evidence. Interrogation of the facts is right and proper as ideas come forward, but there is a risk that jumping straight into the specifics risks distraction and a lack of clarity about what the real issues are we’re trying to solve and where we all stand on them.

New Zealanders should have world-class cities which function for their residents, workers and visitors alike. But we are unlikely to agree on what that looks like and how to get there. This makes questions about what, where and who we should prioritise absolutely essential. Cities are dynamic and our expectations are constantly changing. They have always been the engine-room of societies but only ever functioned in the here-and-now. When Napoleon wanted to legitimise his First French Empire, he leant on neo-classical architecture, prompting an emergent sense of German nationalism which drew on neo-gothicism. When tall buildings emerged en masse in the 1970s, symbols of capital began to replace those of religion on our skylines. Steeples and minarets were to become dwarfed by offices. City-shaping speaks to our time. What should the look, feel and use of our streets and buildings say about New Zealand and its capital today?

One challenge we face is that we live in a world where simply saying either “I love it” or “I just don’t like it” doesn’t cut the mustard. There is logic in being as rational and detailed as possible when it comes to making significant decisions about our cities, relying on evidence, expertise and insight to assess and explain why we do things. Evidence can be disputed, accepted and updated. It tends to be reassuringly statistical, objective and unemotive. Where there are technical challenges, there are always technical solutions. Nothing is insurmountable where time and budget allows. Facts give us an opportunity to talk about the places we care about without needing to stray into more subjective territory about what makes them important to us and how we should attribute weight to these emotions.

The reality, though, is that this just isn’t how most of us think about cities. We have strong personal connections which imbue them with a sense of place. They’re where we live our lives, where we grow up, define ourselves, explore our potential, dream about the future, fall in and out of love, make and recall memories. Thinking about the kind of city we want to live in and create cannot be done through a cool-headed assessment of technical documents alone. We must try to have authentic and sometimes vulnerable conversations which help us to explore questions about the type of society we want to live in. This means taking political and philosophical positions which embody our values and priorities. Newsflash: not everyone shares them.

Meaningful discussions about the cities we want to live in are inherently difficult and uncomfortable, but this does not mean we shouldn’t have them. Quite the opposite. What if we were to proactively discuss the principles we would like to put at the heart of our plan-making and decision-taking? Some people might champion the role of private property rights, promote deregulation and make the case for the market to determine outcomes. Others might propose we become standard-bearers for equity and inclusion, or sustainability and resilience. What’s important is not the existence of contradictory views, but that talking about them in a transparent way before we focus on details helps foster empathy and understanding which, in turn, enables us to negotiate better. It means we can be explicit about what’s important to us; making topical discussions about housing affordability, public transport, Māori perspectives on land-use and even “pipes vs bikes” a little easier.

Technicalities are important and we need to talk about them, but not also exploring the principles which sit behind and underpin these conversations holds us back. If we want to make our cities as liveable and vibrant as possible, we must also get comfortable sharing our opinions about the kind of places we want them to be and why. We need to create opportunities to openly discuss and debate our priorities if we are to understand the way these might be balanced: before any specific policies or proposals come forward. Along the way, we may find a little more empathy unlocks better outcomes for everyone.

Jonathan Manns is Head of Strategic Advisory, Government and Public Sector at global real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) and an internationally recognised expert on urban planning and real estate development.

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