Urbanophobia: A New Zealand Horror Story
It's an election season where housing's been a hot-button issue, and politicians have had soundbites at the ready. Writer and urban researcher Farzad Zamani argues this is all an escalation of a much older NZ condition, and worries the major parties might not have what it takes to address it.
During the last decade in New Zealand, (and Australia, Canada, and the United States), politicians have scrambled to address or even ‘solve’ the ‘housing crisis'. To a logical mind, ‘solving’ something indicates the existence of a problem. Yet most of these politicians, and even academics and intellectuals involved in the same space, fail to explain what on earth the problem is. Those on the ‘left’ blame the privatisation of state assets and a lack of funding for building state housing. The ones on the right scapegoat immigrants (though in New Zealand, Labour took on this burden themselves), cities and their local governments, planning rules and planners and designers themselves. Both, intoxicated by prescriptive and dogmatic ideologies that propose easy scapegoats and remedies, fail to explain how their solutions solve the problem and won’t lead to a perpetuation or exacerbation of the crisis. Here, I aim to clarify some aspects of this mess.
In New Zealand, the National party and the right spent the better part of the past nine years arguing that there is no housing crisis. I am sorry to agree with them. Kind of. There is no housing crisis. But what National fails miserably to understand is that there is a bigger crisis, which contains the housing and homelessness issues the country faces. Over several decades the government, locally and nationally, has artfully managed to exacerbate the problem.
In fact, there’s multiple, overlapping urban, political and cultural crises this beautiful country is entangled in – not least of which is its drift towards an increasingly individualistic, profit-driven and consumerist culture that devalues collective goods and responsibility. But the urban crisis that exists in New Zealand is fed by a specific social characteristic: urbanophobia. The flip side of their identification with a notion of pure, rural authenticity (a 100% pure nation of small farmers and #8 wire workers) and the rangy quarter-acre paradise (preferably near a beach and/or north-facing) is that many New Zealanders hate and despise cities, the same way that many of them have come to despise any form of sharing or collective life. And urbanophobia's foundations go back to the beginning of the colonial state itself.
Colonisation was the basis of cities in New Zealand. The four Anglo-American countries now struggling with housing crises also have a silenced colonial history in common. The theft and development of land for settlements around ports, rivers and lakes played a key role in this history. Yet colonisation itself did not urbanise Aotearoa, and it was never the intention to do so.
Because of timing and perceived space, our development was not the same as the way most urbane cities of the world grew and developed. This process was dominated by Fordism and the rise of the car industry, and inevitably resulted in suburbanisation. When you move beyond the country’s surprisingly tiny CBDs, you quickly reach those leafy, car-congested, boring and quiet areas which accommodate the “heritage” of this country; the colonial Victorian villas. Suburbanisation made the colonisation of vast habitable areas of land possible. The first order subdivision and the design of road networks, utilised by car, formed large block structures, un-walkable, fragmented and sprawled, and enabled large scale land grabs. Whole swimmable, walkable, breathable and liveable natural environments were built over. There was plenty of ‘free’ land for colonial settlers, and hence, the Kiwi dream.
Suburbanisation was not only an outcome of a colonial process in New Zealand, yet was an agent of social control and diversion too. The ‘suburb’ is fragmented, fenced off and homogenised. Except for pockets of ethnic minorities, the suburbs became the strong hold of the settler individual units, divided and fragmented from the urban life, and also hidden from the eyes’ of others. The ethnic minorities’ enclaves, through an implicitly racist urbanism process, become further isolated and deprived, which in some cases led to further poverty, criminalisation and dehumanisation of those communities. Suburbs and zoning were instrumental in segregationist movements in the United States, and they still provide a breeding ground for isolationism and those who despise and mistrust more collective life and its frequent social interactions.
This mentality is so much instilled in the psyche of people in the colonial countries that after just a few years of living in a Kiwi suburb, you, regardless of your ethnic background, will be agitated by any large group of people having fun next door, or the prospect of ‘too many people’ in a new development. Ironic in a country the size of the UK but with a population of only 4.5 million, eh?
(Without private cars), you need to live in close proximity to your work and others. You need to shop with others too, share parks and public spaces with them. If this puts the fear into you – fear of crowds, of less perceived privacy, of crime, well, that’s called urbanophobia.
Cars, which enabled this isolating sprawl, remain part of the problem. When you have the choice to be in a private bubble 24/7, of course you hate encountering strangers, whether they’re lovely smiley people or the odd grumpy bus driver. Imagine a daily routine of a middle-class and middle-aged office worker. Apart from an odd work meeting and another odd after-work drinks on casual Fridays, the rest of the time is mostly spent in a car, detached from others, in a suburb, detached from others, in a house that is also detached from others.
This is also only possible through the private car. Otherwise, you need to walk or cycle or use public transportation. You need to live in close proximity to your work and others. You need to shop with others too, share parks and public spaces with them. If this puts the fear into you – fear of crowds, of less perceived privacy, of crime, well, that’s called urbanophobia.
Though the problem of urbanophobia, and playing the image of Kiwi can-do individualism off against the horrors of urban life, precedes the 1980s, neo-liberalism is another problem. But in contrast to many academics on the left, I do not intend to blame this economic ideology for all the problems or under this long white cloud. Neo-liberalism works in a specific context, and it also adopts the local culture and values. Indeed, it doesn’t thrive in some specific cultures that have strong collective and communal ways of living. So, I don’t think analysing all the issues based on an amorphous and contested theory, without taking a deep and reflective look at ourselves, and the processes that allow its worst excesses, would be helpful. But it goes without saying that selling and privatising state and council housing has not served anyone, beyond the flow of capital and the myth of economic growth.
Lastly, the typology of the houses themselves is another huge issue, one that the colonial settler mentality and the laissez-faire approach as applied to planning have enabled. A typical New Zealand city, with a bit of exaggeration, means: a single detached house (possibly mouldy, depending on who’s occupying it), located in the middle of a big parking lot, which is in turn connected to contaminated beaches. That’s the Kiwi dream, it has been and it will be, because we are told to dream this way.
Indeed, the housing typology here, the prospect of a single detached house on a quarter-acre, is what attracts many ‘expats’ to New Zealand. Yet, it won’t be long before they start feeling the downsides, possibly by their second winter here. The single detached house is an absolute waste of land, resources, and human and social capital. Apart from being extremely energy inefficient and ridiculously unfit for the shifting demography and climate, these houses divide the people. It’s a problem that's been further intensified in the last few decades by unstoppable re-subdivisions and in-filling of the urban blocks.
Perhaps these belated attempts at cramming more people in the suburbs are why many Kiwis resent cities and urban life, and fear and oppose changes to favour and foster it such as intensification - because they never had it right.
To make things clearer, there is a large hidden population in New Zealand whose houses are connected to the world through an ugly banal ‘driveway’. If something happens to this population – an accident, an act of domestic violence, a robbery - the occasional and miraculous passer-by on foot won’t hear them.
Perhaps these belated attempts at cramming more people in the suburbs are why many Kiwis resent cities and urban life, and fear and oppose changes to favour and foster it such as intensification - because they never had it right. Considering the combination of all these issues, one may wonder how the political parties after the election can solve the ‘housing’ crisis. Regardless of the political parties’ ideological tendencies, it seems that none of the political parties have coherent and practical solutions to solve the urban crises of New Zealand, or at least they are not willing to do so. Their policies will be acting as deterrents - something like a pain repression mechanism for a short period of time.
They will introduce more or less the same painkiller, with different names, for different illnesses, and hence we will have this discussion again and again and again, until the cities collapse, as many did in the United States in the late 2000s. And in that case, the most vulnerable and the urban middle class will pay a significant price for their own and their representatives’ lack of political and urban imagination and radical solutions. So, let’s have a generic look at the policies of the three political parties that have had the most to say about housing this year:
National has a brutally honest and clear approach to housing, and that’s negligence – a hands-off approach. Indeed, the market may actually have more sense, logic and humanity than the National top team. This said, National does have some soft financial incentives to ease the market. But the key here is that National is easing the ‘market’, and not solving the housing and urban/suburban sprawl issues.
To make it clear, I use a very simplistic and depressingly optimistic hypothesis; New Zealand has 100,000 single detached houses, newly built, all three bedroom, 20 km away from the CBD of one of the big cities. Each house is priced at 700k. Affordable, eh? Well, the financial incentives that National is proposing, will not reduce the prices in the market overall - the houses are far from the centre and public amenities, and one of the key determining factors for the price of land and property is the location and the proximity to the centres and jobs. And then, only if some first home buyers, who managed to pay their student loans, and have high paying jobs, eventually saved enough deposit to be able to buy one of these houses, with the help of ‘Kiwisaverhome’, ‘Kiwibuild’, Kiwifirsthomebuyers’, ‘Kiwiswillbuytheirfirsthomesomeday’, or whatever name they come up with, will these houses will be filled.
And then what? Are the house prices of inner suburbs of Auckland going to be cheaper for the next round of first home buyers, or are we just going to carpet the whole country with new suburbs, further and further out? No matter what economic and financial logic is behind the financial incentives of any government, these policies will just feed the market with more public money. That’s it. Period. National does not have any specific plan to build any large scale housing project. Therefore, I will move on to Labour.
Social isolation, disability, youth, pollution and congestion, livelihoods of communities – all of these are fenced off in their own silos when it comes to the housing debate.
Beyond similar financial incentives to those introduced by National, Labour has a few good, bad (by which I mean useless and ineffective) and plain ugly policies. Despite their recent and clumsy xenophobia, the good policy is a ban on foreign investors buying properties in New Zealand. As an immigrant myself, I would suggest that this rule needs to be applied to anyone who is not a permanent resident. In my experience, someone who resides permanently and makes a place a home is socially responsible, theoretically, philosophically and politically. Permanent residents build a sense of belonging and commitment to the social and physical fabric of their habitat.
The bad policies are not necessarily inherently flawed, yet they are raw, vague and a bit populistic. The main policy of Labour in this area revolves around building houses. Yet, Labour is not addressing the key questions; how, why, when, for whom, where and how it will solve the problem.
From the discussions I’ve been to I heard from Phil Twyford (Labour’s Housing Spokesperson, he of the ‘Chinese-sounding names’ affair) that it seems that Labour is aiming to build thousands of houses outside the city. They want to build small and smart. Yet, the list of the problems that this will cause is immense. To date, Labour hasn’t addressed the typology of these houses, the job-to-resident ratio in these suburbs, the construction costs and capacity, the environmental consequences of converting agricultural greenfield to residential areas, the construction labour costs (and how long it takes to train the local trainees to get to the level of competency to build these houses), the infrastructure costs, and so on.
And no journalists have grilled them on these issues. What are the maintenance costs of these houses? What density are they talking about? What’s the net density of resident per hectare? It seems Twyford doesn’t have any education or basic understanding of ‘housing’ – that or he has recognised the complexity, cost and difficulty, and is hiding a whole lot of information from the public. So Labour wants to build more suburbs, but their numbers are abstract - “mostly in Auckland”, as if New Zealand actually means Auckland. And they may want to think about this situation: imagine an elderly person, in a state house, built by “Kiwibuild” or whichever of those names, effectively in the middle of nowhere, having a heart attack. On the way to the hospital, she or he will pass away in the congestion of State Highway 1, 2, 16, whichever.
In terms of the promises by either Labour or National so far, this doesn’t seem to matter, for the same reason it doesn’t matter if a teenager in one of the new suburbs doesn’t have any access to a library, cinema, community centre or any form of entertainment to stop them from depression, substance abuse, crime and loneliness. Social isolation, disability, youth, pollution and congestion, livelihoods of communities – all of these are fenced off in their own silos when it comes to the housing debate.
They will build X number of houses (and they won’t be leaky this time, I promise you). Period. And we will all be sweet as we watch the next generation grow up lonely in our beautiful 10 sq/m backyards or side yards, or front yards, or courtyards, far from anywhere.
The Greens have some sensible ideas. Yet, despite having a very capable, intelligent, strong and considerate urban planner in their top team, they also fail to really address the issues, and we see the same problem of housing as a problem to be solved on its own, with the problems of infrastructure and cohesion to be followed in a game of catch-up.
In fact, the housing crisis of New Zealand may not be solved by political parties, so long as there is no clear desire for a decent, equitable and collective urbane living. Much analysis on these issues has been published, publicised, screamed and shouted by many academics, intellectuals and urbanists, yet, the politicians, who indeed, as investment property owners, are beneficiaries of this mess, either don’t read or listen, or don’t care.
The solution is not in the hand of political parties; they represent us, but they are not us. Some will enable us, as a society, to lead a more prosperous life, some not. Some rely on their own institutions to form our habitat, some rely on the market. Yet, both will do as we desire collectively, and until we learn to have a progressive, collective, and sustainable vision for our habitat, we cannot expect those seeking our votes to have it for us. Political parties are unable to dream on behalf of us and our future generations. We are not bound by the ideologies and pathologies that have built the environment around us, and there are many possibilities that we can consider and demand from any government to enable. But, still, we, as a nation, need to change first.