Thinking Small

How Auckland’s growth came to be officially denied

Chris Harris, PhD
9 min readJun 9, 2021

(Chapter 20 of The Utopia Thieves)

IN 1977, Professor John L Roberts, head of the school of government at Victoria University of Wellington, wrote, of Auckland’s growth, that:

. . . there is widespread uneasiness about this concentration of political power away from Wellington. It is now a political orthodoxy that something must be done to curb the growth of Auckland.

The increasingly apprehensive mood of the times, reflected in a 1975 National Party campaign advertisement reproduced in the last chapter and linked again here, was captured by the title of a book of essays published in 1977, called Auckland at Full Stretch, in which the foregoing quote from Professor Roberts appears, at page 261.‍

Cover of Auckland at Full Stretch, reproduced for purposes of critical review

‍And yet, to reiterate, Auckland is now twice as big as it was then and New Zealand, of course, on 5.1 million. It seems that Auckland, and New Zealand, were not so easily shrunk, or even put on pause, after all.

ISS True-colour photograph of Auckland, NZ, September 2015. Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.NASA Photo ID ISS045-E-33579 taken 25 September 2015 at 22:36:50 GMT. North is somewhere to the top right.

Modern Auckland, as as it was planned

Oddly enough, prior to Wellington’s change of heart in the 1970s and 1980s, we were planning for growth: for “the next million” nationwide, with a fulll awareness that much of that next million was likely to end up in an increasingly metropolitan Auckland.

The heroic quality of any newsreel from the fifties or sixties soon makes it clear that such growth was not only anticipated, but welcomed.

Newsreels like 1960s’s Expanding Auckland, with its observation that:

Our most cosmopolitan city, lying between two beautiful harbours, is built on a ring of old volcanoes but the explosive activity there today is not volcanic.

Here is the newsreel, embedded:

The plans that were being made for future growth in those days were bold, visionary and transformative, enabling Auckland to expand without sacrificing quality of life or housing affordability.

The initial designs for Auckland’s downtown motorway junction featured tunnels and the preservation of sensitive areas of townscape.‍

A 1959 design for the Auckland motorways in the area of Karangahape Road. This whole area would later be dug out for continuous motorway trenches. Street names in black, and the location of the erstwhile landmark Kings Arms Tavern and its gardens in red, have been added to orient the present-day viewer. The background photograph is one of several photographs taken of a model prepared by the “Town Planning Division of the Department of Works and Services,” presumably of the Auckland City Council. Source: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Public Libraries, image 580–3916. The model nameplate is shown in image 580–3912.
Panorama of a parkland area of Upper Symonds Street now dug out for a motorway trench, but which in those days was to be spared by one of the tunnels shown in the model above. From ‘Expanding Auckland’, Pictorial Parade №98, Natonal Film Unit, 1960.

The documentary, Expanding Auckland, promised that:

The Southern Motorway will sweep up over Broadway at Newmarket, go down under Mountain Road. A tunnel will take it beneath Symonds Street, and it will come out in the great roundabout in Newton Gully.

A parallel rapid transit system, which came to be known as ‘Robbie’s Rapid Rail’ after longtime Auckland City Mayor Dove-Myer Robinson, its most insistent champion, was intended to balance things out and take the pressure off the motorways.

From Dove-Myer Robinson, Passenger Transport in Auckland: A Report . . . (Auckland Regional Authority, 1969, crown copyright reserved)

To be developed in stages, which would ultimately include the North Shore, Auckland’s proposed Rapid Rail was to serve as the spine for future development along four congestion-free corridors.

These drew their inspiration, no doubt, from the way that Wellington had developed northward after World War II along two electric railway corridors, one in the Hutt Valley and one in the direction of Porirua, Plimmerton and Paraparaumu via the Tawa Tunnels.

The Auckland Multi-Linear Scheme as presented to the Auckland Rapid Rail Symposium, 1969, by the then chief planner of the Auckland Regional Authority, Frederick W. O. Jones.
The logic of the Multi-Linear Scheme, also from Jones’s 1969 Rapid Rail Symposium presentation. Both symposium diagrams reproduced with the permission of Engineering New Zealand.

The Auckland finger plan or multi-linear scheme, announced in 1969, was similar to one announced for the Western Australian state capital of Perth in 1970. This wasn’t really a coincidence, as one of the two main designers of the Perth scheme, Dr David Carr, had gone to Perth from Auckland, where he had previously been a high-ranking planner at the Auckland Regional Authority. So you could argue that Perth got its corridor plan from Wellington by way of 1960s Auckland.

An illustration of the Perth Corridor Plan by the Australian academic Dr David Hedgcock, reproduced with permission

From thinking big, to thinking small

However, as concerns over Auckland’s growth mounted, both the Rapid Rail and the Multi-Linear Scheme were abandoned on the grounds that they either (a) constituted too much of an endorsement of Auckland’s ‘unbalanced’ growth relative to the rest of the country, or (b) weren’t needed since Auckland wasn’t going to get much bigger anyway.

The argument tended to oscillate between these two positions but the upshot was the same, namely, a shift from planning ahead to wait-and-see.

Take for instance the following observation from Malcolm Latham, who succeeded Fred Jones as chief planner at the ARA and canned Jones’s Multi-Linear Scheme on the grounds that it was too ambitious.‍

M. M. B. Latham, ‘Growth Alternatives for Auckland’, in Bush & Scott, eds, Auckland at Full Stretch, at p. 41.

Instead of investing in exhilarating schemes, Latham wrote, we should cross our growth-management bridges if and when we came to them, and save money in the meantime:

Latham, ‘Growth Alternatives for Auckland’, at p. 43. The quote is from David Eversley, ‘Planning in an Age of Stagnation’ (1975).

Though Latham was echoing some of the opinions of UK-based David Eversley and his ‘Planning in an Age of Stagnation’ thesis, which we mentioned in the last post, there is no doubt that he was also under pressure from Wellington to rein in Auckland’s growth ambitions, which were seen as out of kilter with the rest of the country not only by the mostly rurally and provincially-based National Party but also by Labour as well; not to mention the up-and-coming Values Party, later to be reborn as the Greens. Presumably the third-polling Social Credit Political League also thought Auckland too big, in view of Professor Roberts’ claim of a “political orthodoxy” on the subject.

All the same, such ‘cold feet’ weren’t seen to the same degree in Australia and Canada, two countries to which New Zealand is often, otherwise, compared.

In Australia, Perth’s Corridor Plan went ahead along with the associated rail upgrades, one irony being that Auckland received Perth’s cast-off Diesel trains in 1993, as Perth went all-electric.

The Canadian city of Vancouver, another metropolis to which Auckland is specifically compared, rejected a proposed Spaghetti Junction very similar to the one that would eventuate in Auckland, in favour of investment in rapid transit and masses of apartments.

Neither in Perth nor Vancouver, nor in their respective State and Provincial administrations, does there seem to have been as much unwillingness to face the urban future as there seems to have been in New Zealand from the 1970s onwards.

Thinking Small

In New Zealand, the rejection of urban growth continued to influence government policy and public attitudes for decades thereafter.

For instance, the widespread mockery and condemnation of Rob Muldoon’s “think big” schemes was a product of those no-growth times. Schemes roundly mocked even though it’s clear that at least some of Muldoon’s schemes, such as the Clyde High Dam and the electrification of the North Island Main Trunk railway line, were by no means without value.

Indeed, the expression ‘Think Big’ has a rather honourable origin, in the form of the following inspirational quote from the early 1900s:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big. (Attributed to Daniel Burnham, 1864–1912)

Think Big was mocked, quite simply, because, for whatever reason, growth, urbanisation and development were no longer in fashion.

In a similar vein, it’s not possible to understand why people thought the 1991 Resource Management Act, with its general emphasis on putting a stop to things — all brakes, no accelerator — was a good idea, save against the backdrop of the idea that the age of growth and change had largely ended, or should be ended.

Further evidence of the rather visceral anti-growth, anti-Auckland mentality that infused New Zealand’s political culture in recent decades can be seen in the attitudes of Labour Finance Minister Michael Cullen, who hailed from a Dunedin constituency.

To a Taranaki audience, in 1998, Cullen insisted that Auckland “now sits atop the nation like a great crushing weight.”

In 2006, by which time he had been Minister of Finance for some years, Dr Cullen was telling champions of Auckland rail electrification to make do with the bus:

Screenshot from documentary with playable link here

Tragically, by 2006, all the areas that were to be spared from the motorway downtown had been dug up for vast trenches, as the city’s growth was addressed reactively.

The same scene as was shown above in ‘Expanding Auckland’.

Auckland’s open-trench motorway junction is regarded as a great engineering achievement. Maybe so, but it is not a great planning achievement.

Housing, too, was becoming seriously unaffordable as well, especially in any part of Auckland that wasn’t on the end of a traffic jam.

By playing the game of wait and see — or more precisely, being forced to do so by an unsympathetic and penny-pinching central government in Wellington — Auckland got precisely what it did not plan for!

Still thinking small today?

A commitment to Auckland rail electrification was eventually made right at the end of Labour’s, and Cullen’s, term of office (1999–2008). But it was really a case of putting things off till the last possible moment.

And that is how a whole range of Auckland issues have been handled by successive governments for the last four decades.

Because Auckland’s growth created political tensions, successive governments, councils and authorities abandoned visionary plans for Auckland. They did so in favour of the idea that if they did nothing, the city and its issues would somehow go away.

In the meantime, failure to plan helped to keep the state out of real estate, and to dry up job opportunities for planners, in line with the aforementioned principle that most forms of planning and state activism are in one way or another associated with bullish prospects for growth and transformation — and vice versa.

In the radical decade of the 1970s, what stratagem could have been more effective in cooling the ambitions of the planners and the New Zealand Labour Party, than to claim that the cities actually weren’t really going to get any bigger, in any case?

In a fast-growing city, what stratagem could be more effective for getting the state out of real estate and thus ensuring that the largest possible windfalls accrue to the private landowners?

Indeed, there is almost a paradox here, that the more pressing the city’s growth-management issues, the more incentive there is to deny them.

The trouble today is that we are still stuck with that kind of artificial and politicised timidity, even though Auckland is now twice as stretched, and projected to add its own ‘next million’ within a fairly short time frame, as when Auckland was said to be at full stretch and not likely to grow any larger in the 1970s!

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Chris Harris, PhD

I am an urban historian from Aotearoa New Zealand. With an engineering background, I also have a PhD in planning and economics.