Ben Schrader: Why the future of our cities can be seen in the past 

August's campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North showed how vulnerable towns and cities are to epidemics.

August's campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North showed how vulnerable towns and cities are to epidemics.

OPINION: The present debate about urban development has generated heated opinion, but few commentators have drawn on the past to understand why certain problems have emerged.

Part of the difficulty may be that, until recently, accounts of New Zealand's urban origins have been few and far between. Despite most New Zealanders having lived in cities since 1911, we remain a country that idealises rural identities and landscapes with few people or buildings in sight.   

Does this gap – between our country's ideals and where most of us actually live – contribute to some of the problems our cities face today?  I reflected on this question when researching my book, The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840–1920. History may not offer ready solutions but it can provide fresh insights and here are the main lessons I learned. 

1. More intensive cities should reference New Zealand's suburban culture. 

During Auckland's Unitary Plan debate, reformers condemned the city's suburban sprawl as unsustainable, calling for the construction of more apartment buildings. But Aucklanders widely opposed the proposal. The reformers had failed to recognise how deeply low-density suburban living is culturally embedded. 

The suburban pattern of New Zealand's cities emerged during the 1840s. Most settlers wanted to own a stand-alone dwelling with a section and a garden to grow produce. City houses soon sprawled rather than being tightly bunched together as in Britain. 

Today's challenge is to shape cities that better utilise land but also meet most New Zealanders' desire to have a connection with the soil. New suburbs like Hobsonville provide a lead here.  

2. Public health vigilance is essential.  

August's campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North showed how vulnerable towns and cities are to epidemics. Diseases had long been an accepted hazard of city life and bacterial diseases like typhoid killed thousands of New Zealand townspeople during the 19th century. The rate fell dramatically following the provision of citywide water and sewerage networks and improved hygiene practices. 

This created public complacency about disease risk, an attitude that was shattered by the 1913 smallpox epidemic. A Mormon missionary, Richard Shumway, carried the disease to New Zealand in April. He infected a Maori community in Northland and in May the disease reached Auckland. 

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There was a public panic and a rush to be vaccinated. Because Maori were infected first it became known as the 'Maori epidemic', leading Auckland's mayor Christopher Parr to demand all Maori be expelled from the city. Health authorities resisted, but it showed how groups could be scapegoated in a crisis.  

During the epidemic there were nearly 2000 notified cases of the disease, 42 deaths, and no cases among those who had been vaccinated.   

3. Lively streets are people-centric.

Before the 20th century city streets provided for the passage of people and goods; street traders plied their wares; and people gathered on streets to socialise, demonstrate and entertain. This made them vibrant and dynamic spaces. The 20th century arrival of motorised vehicles changed this.

Modernisers successfully argued street traders should be banned and pedestrians confined to footpaths so traffic could move more freely. Street life suffered accordingly; downtown streets fell silent.   

Recognition that automotive cities deaden street life has been behind recent attempts to introduce 'shared spaces' (where pedestrians and traffic share the carriageway).  

4. A lightly regulated rental-housing sector encourages slums. 

The growth of slum-like city housing has led reformers to promote measures like a 'warrant of fitness' for rental housing. The present Government has rebuffed the proposal, continuing a long history of light regulation of the sector.

As early as 1864 the Otago Daily Times complained that New Zealand's cities were reproducing with 'faithful accuracy' the 'filthy back slums' of Britain. The New Zealand Herald asked why municipalities allowed avaricious landlords to rent out squalid and dirty rookeries in the city's lanes, urging authorities to intervene. 

The call went largely unheeded because property owners were a powerful constituency and governments were loath to move against them. 

The rejection of the warrant of fitness initiative suggests property owners still have the government's ear, but as more city dwellers become renters the tradition of light regulation will have to end to prevent further slums.  

5. New Zealand has a city identity.

Since 1916 more New Zealanders have lived in urban than rural areas. So it is a paradox that the country still sees itself as a society rooted in the land. The promotion of New Zealand as green and pure and the maxim that farmers are the economic backbone of the nation underline this.

This rural emphasis originates in the marketing of colonial New Zealand as a place where settlers would become farmers or live in rural towns. In this model the city's only function was as a market and port. 'Real' settlers lived on the land.

However, not all settlers were able to do this. George Owen arrived in 1858, intending to farm, but he found the soil unsuitable for grain growing and he lacked capital for livestock farming. He also found rural life lonely. He went to Auckland and started a mercantile business that made him a very wealthy man. 

George's sensibility was urban and not rural. There were thousands more like him – real New Zealanders who were shaped by cities. 

  • Ben Schrader is a Wellington historian.

 - The Dominion Post

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