Let’s Talk City: A Forum

A panel discussion with Mike Davis, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Pip Cheshire, Brian Rudman and chaired by Gordon McLauchlan.

Hyatt Regency Auckland.
Saturday 26th May 2001.
Published in Cross Section, August 2001.

Sky towers and gentrified waterfronts are a dime a dozen according to Mike Davis, author of the book City of Quartz and a guest at the recent Auckland Writers Festival. The uniqueness of a city, he speculates, lies in the neighbourhoods where the real people live.

Davis says Americans are often proud of destroying the urban environments that connect one generation with another. This he terms the “Starbucks Syndrome”. He warns that if a city is not careful with the gentrification process it can wind up in the same predicament as San Francisco where new residents in some parts have found that after sprucing up their neighbourhoods they have lost the very soul that attracted them in the first place.

Davis paints the grim picture of a global situation where complexity is being stripped away from our cities to make them more alike every day, and tourism is a game in which he who collects the most frequent flyer points wins. He declares that tourism can mean travelling 12 hours on a plane only to arrive in the same place from whence you departed, with the same bars, shops and hotels.

Davis was the first speaker at the hour-long panel discussion recently held at the Hyatt hotel. He has a down-to-earth look about him with short grey hair and beard and comes casually dressed in blue jeans. His face is kind but does not seem overly prone to kidding around. Although Davis has taught urban theory for several years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture he comes across more as a social activist than a theorist. This is understandable when you hear that he grew up in an unionised environment and began his long relationship with Los Angeles as a truck driver, eventually getting a Teamsters Union scholarship to go to university at 30.

Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, a writer, teacher and commentator on architecture and the second member of the discussion panel, countered the hint of nostalgia in Davis’ views with the observation that gentrification of urban areas is an inescapable process and not necessarily detrimental. He believes that areas with cheaper building stock will continue to be discovered by the less affluent, who will add life to a neighbourhood, which will raise prices … and so the process will continue.

Lloyd-Jenkins worries though, about the continuing considerable influence by business on the built form of Auckland represented today by developers who aren’t content to make profits but must make excessive profits. He emphasised that cities are a collection of shared memories and experiences that must be allowed to change and evolve. It is important for Lloyd-Jenkins that a safety mechanism is provided by enabling the inhabitants themselves to decide the pace of change within their own environments.

The third speaker was Pip Cheshire, managing director of Jasmax, and he took up the Davis’ challenge to find the unique aspects of the city of Auckland. He believes a large part of the particularity of this place is the topographic situation, with the city’s volcanic cones and especially Rangitoto as markers in the Pacific.

Following his firm’s involvement in the Britomart development he was quite clear about the need to continue Auckland’s strong connection to the sea and maritime history. He wants Auckland in the future to reattach the CBD to the harbour by reclaiming Queen’s Wharf from the Port Authority.

Cheshire made a call for smaller scale development by comparing two inner city Auckland areas. He points out that the incremental development of High Street gives a finer urban grain that is more successful than Elliot Street, which has fallen prey to large landowners and developers. In his opinion the Council needs to be active facilitators of city development, as the city is too complex for a pure laissez-faire process of regeneration.

Brian Rudman writes in the New Zealand Herald on Auckland city issues and was the last of the speakers. He concentrated mainly on issues of city governance. Rudman noted that greater Auckland has 380 politicians, more than double that required for running the whole country. He believes there are issues such as public transport that now need to be coordinated regionally but can’t because the Auckland Regional Council has been disempowered.

There was then a general discussion and Mike Davis picked up on Rudman’s point of citywide coordination. He observed that there is a general expectation amongst the population that some sort of super-brain exists to oversee and plan a city, but the reality is often quite different. The larger cities are often especially fragmented in both political power and overall vision. He finds it surprising that so little science is applied to cities and sees the ideal as a holistic understanding of the city going hand-in-hand with decentralised management.

Davis feels strongly that the decline of suburbs is the problem of the future. He advises to beware of disguised income transfer where the taxes from the aging inner city fund the development of new suburbs at the periphery. To avoid their continued expansion cities must draw a line around their perimeter and refuse to let development occur outside that line. This can be a problem in American local body politics where, for example, in Los Angeles there are five commissioners and they each receive 75% of their campaign contributions from big developers.

In reply to a question about neighbourhood initiatives Davis talked more about Los Angeles, the city about which Davis has written most. He says that the ethnic population can reinvigorate an urban area through their use of public spaces. The Latino communities can take over a section of footpath or street corner as a meeting place. This can cause friction because, as Davis points out, the white middle class view (including the police department) is that people should only legitimately be able to hang out in shopping malls.

Davis agrees with Jane Jacobs’ view that economic innovation comes from cities not markets and it is supported by a diversity of urban environments, e.g. neighbourhoods. Community economic development has become a main focus in Los Angeles. Davis notes that the easy answer of giving tax breaks to local business initiatives can unfortunately attract fly-by-night undercapitalised investment. The Los Angeles Labour movement has developed a tourism body to direct tourism into local neighbourhoods. This celebration of the particularity of neighbourhoods makes use of tourism tax dollars that might normally go into the marketing of the big theme parks or major hotels.

Somewhat ironically the audience for this event consisted almost entirely of the WASPs that Mike Davis probably feels are responsible for a lot of the problems besetting cities. One sensed that he was slightly uncomfortable attempting to communicate social-realist ideas within the somewhat glitzy setting of the Prince’s Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

When asked for some comments on Auckland Davis made the point that visitors to Auckland are excited about seeing the world’s largest Polynesian city but he hadn’t seen much evidence of it during his visit: not even the Disneyification of ethnic populations that has occurred in Hawaii where he now lives. Particularity is what is important in selling of place, Davis advised, Auckland should search for what tourists aren’t supposed to see – the real city is hidden behind the spectacle.

Aaron Sills