What can British cities learn from Auckland?

An aerial view of Auckland harbour. Image: David Rogers/Getty.

In November, the Centre for Cities hosted Harvey Brookes, a key architect of the city-region strategic plan and metro mayor introduced in 2010 in Auckland, New Zealand. The event was especially timely given the increase of combined authorities in major UK city-regions, the recent announcement of a metro mayor for Greater Manchester, and the relatively strong voices on both sides of the debate for and against metro mayors in UK city regions.

In an illuminating presentation – stunning photographs of the Auckland coastal area aside – Harvey shared his experience of city-region and mayoral governance. His insights and the lively discussion that followed highlighted some key implications for the UK:

1. Top-down approaches to effective city-region governance might be necessary

The successes that Auckland has experienced by working as a city-region might not have come about without a strong push from central government. Brought to the fore during the hosting of the Rugby World Cup in 2006, individual councils in the Auckland city-region were not good at co-ordinating and collaborating towards a shared goal for the city economy.

When the solution put forward by a Royal Commission (four local councils replacing the original seven) was considered too timid, the national government in Wellington imposed a city-region council headed up by a directly elected mayor. This poses interesting questions for the UK context: while Greater Manchester has decided to adopt a mayoral model as part of a significant devolution settlement, the government is adamant that this is not a model that will be imposed elsewhere.

2. Good relationships within and outside the city-region are vital

Working with the rest of New Zealand is important for Auckland, both with the Government in Wellington and other cities. While Auckland may be the largest economy, and most outward facing, it is part of an eco-system of inter-dependent cities that it is important to work within. Cities in New Zealand are working together now, borrowing from the UK Core Cities group, to ensure that they are all as business friendly as each other and not competing on that front; that they have a joint outward focus on China.

On a more regional level, facing concerns of an “Auckland vortex”, the city had deepened local relationships between Auckland and policymakers and politicians in the North Island, with the formation of the Upper North Island Strategic Alliance (UNISA). Although it is more of an informal alliance than a formal or strategic partnership, it means actors can come together and discuss a shared vision, rather than feel they have to compete.

This is also relevant for the UK context; for larger cities, whose smaller neighbours fear behind wiped out or left behind as the major city exerts more influence. But also in smaller and medium sized cities who have strong economic ties with neighbouring authorities, but lack the formal arrangements to work together. Or indeed, where cities neighbour often larger, rural authorities with a shared interest in the success of the city but a different vision of how to achieve it.

3. Devolution does not need to be a charter for higher taxes against local wishes

Auckland city council is primarily funded through property rates. The ten-year financial plans put forward by the Mayor required local property taxes to go up by around 5 per cent per year, a decision which the electorate supported. Some local areas have even been known to want higher taxes to get the services they need and want from the city. This illustrates the benefits to local people of an explicit trade-off between what you pay and what you get in relation to local taxation. This is interesting given the debate surrounding fiscal devolution to city-regions in the UK, and the general reticence from national governance to devolve control of taxes, let alone tax raising powers, for fear it will lead to unwanted higher taxes.

4. Strong, clear leadership can drive city-region ambitions

In Auckland Len Brown has succeeded in galvanizing the city-region around a clear vision: to make Auckland the world’s most liveable city. In practice this means improving transport and urban living are key priorities. And it has also enabled the city to identify its strengths and weaknesses compared to other cities world-wide. It is about knowing your competition.

Auckland did not set out to beat New York or London on GDP growth, but has instead focused on liveability: competing with other cities in Europe, Asia and the USA who pride themselves on quality of life. This issue is pertinent in the UK debate of “London vs the rest” and emerged as a positive message from the recent Northern Futures summit – cities in the North should work with London, not against it, to make the most of their particular attributes.

Louise McGough is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities. This article was first posted on the think tank’s blog.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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