The Auckland Central MP says creativity and equality of opportunity are the keys to unlocking the city centre’s potential.
JEREMY HANSEN You’re a central city resident, as well as its MP. What’s your take on where the central city is at right now?
CHLÖE SWARBRICK I think we’re in – as everybody has probably become absolutely mind-numbingly bored of now, but it’s still relevant – a pretty unprecedented time. If you look along the skyline, particularly in the city centre, you’ll just see an abundance of cranes. There’s been a huge amount of development coming on stream, both residentially and commercially. And that is kind of buffeting up against the reality of the pandemic, which has meant that by virtue of a range of issues that I could spend a long time unpacking, we currently have a bunch of empty space. And we also have some incredibly talented people in this country who are finding it very difficult to afford to live here or to do their creative or cultural practices here. And that to me feels like two separate problems which, when brought together, is a solution. I’ve been talking to a number of people in the creative arts about what it would look like to get those willing commercial landlords to do some really creative and interesting things. We’ve seen pockets of this with the Auckland Council collaboration with a few contractors to do art popups and window wraps and things. But I think we actually have to take a far more long-term approach to the strategy of what it means to revive our city consciously. How you retain that culture, creativity and vibrancy? How do you retain those people and not end up with a process of what we all kind of know derogatorily as gentrification?
I think we’ve all known for a really long time that we haven’t planned our city particularly well. We haven’t invested in it particularly well. We haven’t joined up all the parts particularly well. And when we talk about things like people’s sense of safety, for example, I’ve often found that’s unfortunately totally disaggregated from notions like the built environment or vibrancy or public transport or any of those other things, which actually when you talk to the police are critical for making people feel safe. So yeah, I think that the situation that we are confronted with is hard and it’s going to require policy trade-offs, but I think that we’d be naive to pretend that the status quo wasn’t inherently and implicitly making those trade-offs already. I also feel like for the past few years – at least from a mainstream media perspective and particularly reporting over the pandemic – that we’re being told who we are and what we are in the city. This is the really rightful gripe that particularly the City Centre Residents’ Group have with the constant reporting on the CBD being a ghost town. A ghost town? There are 40,000 so-called ghosts who inhabit all of these apartments.
JH Are you worried about the city centre at the moment?
CS I mean, worry is a term that obviously evokes anxiety and fear, and often I see knee-jerk political responses to worry and anxiety and fear. So, while I’d say I identify with the idea of being worried, I would prefer to flip that on its head and say there’s a problem and there’s a challenge, and what are we going to do about it that looks different to the knee-jerk response of simply trying to fit more cars in a finite space or trying to force people to come back into these commercial offices who don’t necessarily want to? How do we bring our streets back to life in a different way? A lot of urbanists like to reflect on what’s happening in New York with their open streets programme, or Paris and the 15-minute city and all of those different things. We can do it really uniquely here and we actually have the outline for that in the City Centre Masterplan. Everybody knows that things haven’t been great for a really long time, but it’s particularly pronounced right now. It’s going to be crunchy and it’s going to be difficult and we’re going to have to take risks, but the downside in not engaging in that challenge or meeting it with bold and creative ideas is that we end up with the same problems that we’ve had for a really long time. The issue of Queen Street, for example, is not something that I think is brand new. If you want to create a space that people want to hang out in, then you create spaces where people can meaningfully meander. And I think all of the solutions cannot come from the top down, from any one politician or policy maker or official. The point is to say, how do we create the scenario, the groundwork, the framing for people to have a go and run with it and try some weird stuff out? Because what have we got to lose?
JH I wanted to ask you about homelessness, which is particularly acute and evident in the centre of the city. A lot of backpacker hostels and apartments have been taken over for emergency housing and it seems people are put there without a lot of support structures around them, which is creating a range of issues for the city centre. And I wondered if you had a view on how that has occurred and what possible solutions there might be for that.
CS Even prior to the pandemic it was really clear that we were not giving people who were getting access to housing the requisite wraparound support. Then on top of that, when we kind of came into the pandemic landscape, I can count many, many conversations when different NGOs were telling MSD [Ministry of Social Development] that the approach they were taking was not fit for purpose in terms of intentional community building. When there are people who have understandably got a lot of angst and anxiety towards any version of authority, who have been bounced around their entire life, let down by system after system, put into places and spaces that they don’t feel a sense of connection to, of course things are not necessarily going to play out in the best way they possibly could. And that’s where I think intentional community building is fundamentally important. So, on the what are we going to do about it side, there is, of course, a need for wraparound support and education and employment for a sense of belonging to the community, a sense of identity-building. Making sure those services are available and directly engaging with the people who are currently in those situations is critical. I think the other thing is that people who are experiencing distress and have nowhere else to go end up congregating in a place like the city centre, which has lights on 24/7 and has services available and people who might be able to help or assist are walking by. It just makes sense and I can’t understand how anybody would look at somebody who’s experiencing something like that and say, ‘I want you out of my sight,’ and not that they would prefer that we build a system where collectively nobody has to experience this.
JH You mentioned gentrification earlier. How do we manage our way through the regeneration of the central city while retaining it as a place that has equality of housing access and of opportunity generally?
CS This is a really fundamental question for us politically and as a community. Some of the most insightful stuff that I’ve read has come out of the States. Gentrification isn’t bike lanes or street improvements, it’s actually trying to keep the same number of apartment units in a neighborhood as there was in the 1950s while the population explodes. I think we can unintentionally conflate what looks like a flash new building with gentrification, when it might actually be social or public housing. So, how you mitigate against gentrification is not by saying we don’t want things to evolve; it’s that you make sure you retain and provide space for people and ensure that they don’t end up being priced out, as we’ve seen really profoundly in Auckland Central and the surrounding suburbs in particular. That’s where rent controls and public housing come into the picture.
JH What do you like about living in the city centre?
CS I found who I was and I feel my sense of place in the city centre. As a teenager I would get on a bus or a train and get off at Britomart or on Karangahape Road and I would just people-watch; you could see people from all different walks of life doing all kinds of things. And you could be simultaneously participating, but also somewhat anonymous in the city centre in a way that you can’t be anywhere else in this country. The Auckland city centre is the closest that you get to the real-deal urban experience that people go overseas for. I love the fact that I can go down to the bottom of Queens Wharf and sit with the Michael Parekōwhai sculpture lighting up as the sun goes down, that you can explore all of these different alleyways and little pockets of greenery. You’ve got this incredible stitch-work of hills and little parks and big parks and trees and amazing playgrounds and the Auckland Art Gallery and the waterfront. I love looking up as well and seeing all the different kinds of architecture. I’ve always felt like it is so pregnant with potential. I’ve never felt at home anywhere other than here.
Click here to read the other interviews in our City Futures series.
Photo by Benji Brooking.