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Auckland: Thoughts on a Young City

Published
May 30, 2020
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New Zealand Topographical Map. Source: Gingko Maps, with four historic main port cities superimposed. North at top for this and following maps.

WELL, I’m still holed up in Auckland. A city that’s now almost 180 years old, yet which most people don’t think of as having much of a history. I mean, New Zealand’s a land of farmers, right? And nature?

Yet 180 years means that Auckland’s only a bit younger than Chicago. It’s older than Seattle and practically two generations older than the Canadian city of Vancouver. The local journalist Gordon McLauchlan once wrote that we shouldn’t have too much of a cringe about Auckland’s comparative youth, “for most cities are young.” Even famous old ones in Europe were a lot smaller, 180 years ago, than Auckland is now.

‘Queen Street Auckland, 1889’ by Jacques Carabain. Public domain image, Auckland City Art Gallery.

With a population of 1.6 million now, Auckland’s the biggest city in New Zealand by far. At the northern end of the country, it’s long been the “gateway” to New Zealand as well.

Published by Wilson & Horton Ltd, Auckland, 1930 approx. Fair use claimed for the cover.

And the gateway to New Zealand’s own ‘winterless north’. Warm and subtropical with trees that bloom with flame-coloured blossoms in summer, Auckland seems to be a bit more hedonistic than the rest of the country.

Auckland Summer Carnival Souvenir Programme. Fair use claimed for the cover.

The city was founded September the 18th, 1840, and grew rapidly thereafter. In fact, there’s never been a year when Auckland’s population has shrunk. One of the major attractions of emigration to New Zealand was the simple fact that poor people would be able to afford better food. A famous cartoon first published in the English magazine Punch in 1848 shows a poor family shifting to New Zealand where, conspicuously, they have the body of a sheep and two hams dangling in their kitchen.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference PUBL-0043–1848–15

Colonial recipes tended to emphasise an abundance of things like meat and butter. Sheep meat, in particular, was common, because the early colonial economy was partly based on the export of wool. Not until the introduction of the frozen meat trade in the 1880s would it be possible to export the carcasses of the sheep. So, sheep meat verged on being a free good in the early colonial times.

On the other hand, fuel was scarce, according to this article. So, there was an emphasis on roasting meat at the weekend and making it last all week.

This is how big the city was in 1949. A still-compact city surrounded by dairy farms, orchards and market gardens.

From ‘The Outline Development Plan for Auckland’ (1949 version), Auckland Metropolitan Planning Organisation, held currently in the Auckland Council Archives (AMO 002/3)

There were plans to limit its future spillover onto the first-class agricultural land that surrounded the old city.

From ‘The Outline Development Plan for Auckland’ (1949 version). The light green areas in the map on the right show the proposed future urban limits.

The city sprawls more today, though still in a beautiful setting.

Auckland from Space. Satellite photography is from NASA Earth Observatory Image Auckland_17_2002239.

Before the construction of a vast downtown motorway junction, which mostly happened in the 1970s, Auckland was called the ‘Queen City’. The name came from its main thoroughfare, Queen Street, and also because of the praise lavished on the city’s beautiful natural setting by its early founder, John Logan Campbell.

‘Talking Portrait’, one of a number created for ‘The story of Auckland’, a presentation given at the 2015 Auckland Anniversary Weekend, 24–26 January. The Auckland Anniversary Weekend, which falls in late January, is not the anniversary of the founding of the city in 1840, but rather of the wider, now-defunct, Province of Auckland in 1852 of which the provincial holiday is now the only vestige.

‘Talking Portrait’, one of a number created for ‘The story of Auckland’, a presentation given at the 2015 Auckland Anniversary Weekend, 24–26 January. The Auckland Anniversary Weekend, which falls in late January, is not the anniversary of the founding of the city in 1840, but rather of the wider, now-defunct, Province of Auckland in 1852 of which the provincial holiday is now the only vestige.

The architecture of the pre-motorway era matched, as well.

Afterward, there didn’t seem to be as much point.

The motorways were brutally built through this attractive ravine, Grafton Gully.

The ‘Queen City’, or, Auckland as it used to be: Grafton Gully, 29 January 1949. The urban wilderness trail shown here, at a location near the inner-city waterfront and leading down to it, was taken for a motorway in the 1960s. Source: Detail from ‘Grafton Road, Auckland’, Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-19229-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22512926.

A 1960s documentary describes Auckland as a bustling city, though even in those days it was only about a third as big as it is now.

These days, because of poorly-managed growth and excessive amounts of traffic, people don’t seem to think as highly of Auckland. New Zealand mostly has a reputation for natural beauty that exists outside of the city, now viewed as something of a place to park cars by comparison.

Anti-littering campaign billboard on Karangahape Road, central Auckland, 2011. Photograph by Patrick Reynolds.

Lately, Auckland has tried to get beyond being the ‘city of cars’ depicted in a critical 2007 documentary.

In 2016, the city got a special mention in the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prizes for its efforts to try and revive walking and cycling, open up the waterfront and do more to make the city accessible to a large indigenous population (roughly a quarter of all Aucklanders), which mostly inhabits suburbs a long way from downtown.

Will Auckland ever get its mojo back? I wonder.

Note: This was jointly written by myself and my editor, Chris Harris, who is also an expert on civic affairs.

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