Lockdowns, closed borders and the acceleration of flexible working all had unpredictable effects on Auckland. They also resulted in deep collaboration among city centre stakeholders, including Britomart Group, to examine the central city’s purpose and chart a positive future. Pam Ford is the Director of Investment and Industry at Tātaki Auckland Unlimited, the city agency charged with tourism and economic development initiatives. In mid-2023, she was one of the authors of an important report that benchmarked Auckland against comparable global cities. Here, she speaks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about how the city stacks up – and what its future opportunities are. 

JEREMY HANSEN Pam, could you start by telling me a little bit about the context in which the report was commissioned? 

PAM FORD Sure. It goes back to immediately after the first lockdown in 2020. Tātaki Auckland Unlimited brought together leaders across the city to a conference called Auckland’s Future Now, where we discussed the immediate issues that we needed to deal with coming out of Covid. That led to the report Reimagining Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland. It was driven by Sir Peter Gluckman and asked why we weren’t looking a few generations ahead. It put out nine provocations of what Auckland could be if it really put its mind towards it. This is a recurring theme and continues through our report. Since borders reopened, our closest neighbours in Australia have been quite aggressive in getting back into the world stage, so we thought it would be worth doing a proper benchmarking exercise comparing Auckland’s performance in a range of areas to a selected group of global cities of a similar size.

JEREMY The report you and the Committee for Auckland commissioned from the London-based group The Business of Cities is entitled The State of the City: Insights and Opportunities for Auckland. One of the things I enjoyed about it is that it’s not a ranking of quality of life for expatriate workers, which many of these surveys seem to focus on, but takes a wider lens on quality of life. Can you sum up what the report finds in comparing Auckland to cities like Brisbane, Fukuoka, Helsinki, Vancouver and Tel Aviv?

PAM The report compares Auckland to these other cities across five domains: connectivity and place, experience and culture, knowledge and innovation, opportunity and prosperity, and sustainability and resilience. It found that Auckland, compared to its peers, is doing fairly well overall, certainly buoyed up by our natural advantages. However, the areas that I’m focused on, which are about Auckland being a great place for people to live and work and visit and do business, the report identified a lot of opportunity to improve in the areas of innovation, knowledge and skills, and connectivity, especially in terms of transport. I like to see the report as a call to action for what Auckland wants to be. The biggest opportunity in the report for me, or the area where we need to focus, is the situation with talent – how we retain our own and keep attracting quality talent from overseas. We need to be providing the opportunity for our young people to have high-quality jobs. I hone in on that area because we can have all the wonderful experiences and beautiful landscapes but we also need the people who are creating great livelihoods so Auckland workers aren’t moving to comparable cities that seem to offer higher wages, more affordable housing and a higher quality of life.

JEREMY One of the things that’s striking about the report is how clear it is on the interconnected factors that contribute to the issues it identifies. You’re talking about this need to attract and retain and nurture talent, but the report also notes that New Zealand has comparatively low wages and, especially in Auckland, very high housing prices.

PAM One thing I’d like to see is for this report to rise above the short-term election year rhetoric. We can be so insular in comparing Auckland to other New Zealand regions, but we really should be comparing Auckland to peer cities and how we compete on the international stage. What the report also highlights, which I think is important, is that there are very few levers that you can pull at local level to make a difference for Auckland. Those levers are at central government; there has to be more emphasis in Wellington on ensuring Auckland is internationally competitive. This isn’t to say it’s the responsibility of government to provide all the solutions. Infrastructure is incredibly important, but we’re more than just a city with transport problems. We can work with central government to make Auckland rise up in some of those rankings that affect people’s livelihoods and their ability to own houses and bring up families here. 

JEREMY Just to zoom out a little bit, we’ve talked about this pre- and post-Covid context. Now that remote work is so much more of a possibility, what is the case for cities?

PAM Globally, the rise of cities just continues. I think it very simply comes down to that base need that people have for sharing great experiences. You get those through agglomeration in cities. What we need in Auckland is what this report highlights; more people living in the city, more people enjoying the amenity value that a city provides.

JEREMY Within that, what role do central cities play, given that many cities in the report are facing particular challenges in this era of flexible working? 

PAM It’s significant. Auckland, as we all know, is very spread out, but 19 percent of the GDP of Auckland is from the city centre. It’s the economic and cultural hub of the region. It’s where we showcase our unique arts and culture. It’s the place where locals and visitors congregate and where trade flows in and out. That’s why at the moment, safety and crime have become such a talking point in our city centre: because it’s something we’re not used to, and it’s not something that we want if we’re going to continue to revitalise this part of town.

JEREMY The report really hones in on the importance of place, and I wondered if you could talk about what place means in this context, especially its ability to foster high-quality, in-person connection – because the need for that seems to be greater than ever.

PAM In terms of place, Auckland ranks fairly highly in comparison to the other cities, partly because of our green spaces and beautiful natural setting. What pulls us down is connectivity, those transport links into the city. A lot of great work has gone on to give the central city its vibrancy, and we need more people living in the central city to enhance that further. I do believe that City Rail Link will be an incredible game-changer. So will the New Zealand International Convention Centre – it’ll bring thousands of people into the city more regularly. We’re also going to see the Victoria Street Linear Park, Te Hā Noa, another great addition to the city. I think there’s lots of potential for place to be even better compared to our peers in the coming years. We are going through a development cycle with lots of construction at the moment, but by the late 2020s we’ll have an incredibly beautiful city centre that’s safe and thriving as more people come to live in it. I’m incredibly optimistic about Auckland. I think we have all of the elements of a truly international city. We have some insights now on areas that we could improve, and we need to improve those by collectively working together towards a clear vision of what we really want the city to be. I think if we all believe that we can be this amazing city that has incredible jobs for our young people, a place where we can experience the environment, the arts, culture, shopping, dining, all of those things, it’ll be really fascinating to see how we compare with these other cities over the next 10 years. By that time, I really do see Auckland being quite a different place: a more multicultural, sustainable and resilient city that people really want to be in.

NEXT / Read about the importance of real-time data in economic sustainability, in an interview with Massey Business School Pro Vice Chancellor, Christoph Schumacher.