The New Zealand tradition of passionless protest

I realized that the projected transformation of Auckland’s green and open lifestyle into a nightmare of high-rise claustrophobia was still some distance off when three outbursts played across my computer screen.  The first was a well-framed photograph on the New York Times website of Turkish protesters gloating over their weekend’s work in Taksim Square, taken on a Sunday morning after two days of mayhem over the makeover of a neighbouring park. Young men lean out of the photograph from the safety of a graffiti-bedecked apartment window, banging lids, yelling and gesturing to the crowd presumably below.  From an elegant Moroccan drawing room Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey dismisses the tens of thousands of protesters who battled for two days with police officers in the streets of Istanbul as “looters” and“bums”, accidentally channelling Helen Clark.


The photograph offers a mere hint of Taksim Square’s public meaning as a gathering place, a historic site of both celebration and bloody protest. People have died there for a cause. I had the fortune recently to observe in that same square a victory march for the red-and-yellow football team, more riotous carnival than any Blues parade down Queen Street; feelings run as high when the cause is more political, and perhaps more menacingly.


The scale differences in the reaction to the takeover of a little green space in Istanbul and the encroachment of terraced housing or commercial activity into the sacred spaces of Auckland’s St Heliers are remarkable.  It is a universal political theme, change versus status quo, especially in one’s neighbourhood. The Deputy Mayor reassures those in St Heliers and other tony areas that ‘high-rise’ is not what the Auckland Unitary Plan has in mind.


The second cracker you may already have spotted: a picture of Mayor Len Brown leering over boxes of the 13,800 seemingly pointless responses to the Unitary Plan.  There’s nothing like a bit of Nimbyism to get us worked up, especially if we want to keep our dibs on desirable addresses; or maintain an interest in heritage at someone else’s expense.  To plonk affordable housing in far-flung enclaves South or West is one thing; to welcome them into one’s more immediate vicinity is apparently quite another. Attendance at public meetings where the silent majority sit cross-armed while a rabble-rouser or three vigorously express disappointment is the kiwi equivalent of the don’t-take-our-park riot.  That’s as passionate as it gets.


Urban design shapes societies.  I once had the most pleasant experience of being hosted in an apartment in Neuilly in Paris, Level 4 of a six-story block, in a district of discreet terraced housing that was anything but awful.  Good design didn’t depend on a sea view, neighbourliness on keeping the shadows from each other’s door.  The arrondissement has class; even in winter careful public planting could leave the impression of leafy suburbia and fine living despite buildings sitting cosily cheek-by-jowl.  The civility of having your grocery store beside your Metro station, and your Metro station to work only a skip from your home more than compensates for the urban intensity.  Parisian urban design isn’t perfect, the lessons of the banlieue instructing us about the dangers of segregating those that have from those that have not. We could be equally informed by the blights of urban America, where designed divergence places enclaves of ‘affordable housing’ at some remove from the genteel neighbourhoods of the powerful, the rich and the white.  Sending affordable housing to the fringes of the economic action has social consequences and hidden costs.


The third exhibit is even more a damp squib: the Brian Rudman piece in the New Zealand Herald that lays to rest the illusion that planning in Auckland will be integrated, cohesive, and locally led by our elected Mayor. It is now impossible to tell who we should blame for transport planning in Auckland, or how we should connect it to our living and working arrangements.  When the Auckland Unitary Plan gets shoved aside by the urgency of building affordable houses in outposts of Auckland, our passionless character undermines our capacity to protest at the egregious removal of the one thing we thought the imposition of a Supercity would allow us to do — to finally make useful collective decisions, however unwise or locally controversial, about how our city would grow.  We voted in a city rail loop. We democratically endorsed an Auckland Plan for the next thirty years. But no. Going out, not up, is Wellington’s choice for Auckland, it seems, as the government responds to the same Auckland constituency that backed it at the ballot box.


How do the rest of us react?   Well, the twittersphere does not encourage us to assemble in Aotea Square and rampage the length of Queen Street.  The tirade of Brian Rudman merely points out the tragic fait accompli. Our daily store of worry beads does not include the doings on Lambton Quay.  The prospect of a Mayoral race in October is unlikely to translate into “a new message to Wellington”, since it appears that Aucklanders might just as well give up sending any messages to Wellington at all. If we bother to vote in October, it will be the mildest version of protest as we sit it out for the next round. Gordon McLauchlan is right. We have lapsed into a passion bordering on inertness.