Paperboy’s Finlay Macdonald talks to Panuku CE Roger MacDonald on his plans to regenerate the city, six months into the job.
The marina offices of Auckland Council’s regeneration agency Panuku are a little like Auckland itself – nice views, a little dowdy on the inside. The name means “to move on or move forward”, but it doesn’t completely mask a faintly lingering air of grey-shoed bureaucracy. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you’re the product of a merger between the old Auckland Council Property Ltd and Waterfront Auckland – a billion-dollar business that must balance profit motives with the greater good.
Panuku’s recently appointed CEO, Englishman Roger MacDonald, arrives with the right credentials, at least on paper. Having worked all over the world on large public and private development and infrastructure projects, he finds himself in Auckland at a point when it is desperately trying to catch up with its own growth, as well as deal with a legacy of poor planning, under-funding and neglect.
MacDonald tells me he initially wanted to be a doctor, but discovered he couldn’t stomach the dissection classes. So he turned to his other interest, architecture, and learned to dissect urban environments instead. Even so, turning Auckland around is still no job for the squeamish.
So what’s an Englishman like you doing in a dysfunctional city like this?
A fine question. What attracted me here was the job opportunity. The opportunity to really make a difference, and to bring a lot of the lessons learned, in terms of regeneration, that I’ve gathered across the UK, US, India, Middle East and more recently, in Africa.
Those are very diverse places – does any of it really apply to this corner of the world?
I think there are a lot of parallels. If you take the UK, we can talk about the schemes in Manchester, Cardiff, Birmingham, and in London. And they’ve all gone through various degrees of regeneration, they’ve all faced some of the key issues that we’re struggling to deal with here in Auckland.
The Manchester comparison is interesting – how does industrial decay in northern England inform a debate about a maritime city in the South Pacific?
There are some parallels with Manchester – the reclamation of the city canal system, in terms of the waterfront development here. The opportunity to take the city centre, which used to be a very commercially focussed city… and what was very noticeable was that young professional couples and single people wanted to live in the city. In a five- to 10-year period we saw that massive paradigm shift. Rather than people just commuting into the city and working and leaving and creating almost a dormitory environment in the evening, we now get a very vibrant, active space. I think that’s the opportunity here, too.
Auckland’s central city leaves plenty to be desired, so what have been your first impressions?
One, I didn’t get a sense on arriving in Auckland that I was going anywhere different in the world. So I think the opportunity to embrace what Auckland is all about really exists. The second thing that surprised me was the volume of car parks that we have across the city, both service car parks and low-rise, three or four-storey car parks, which clearly have development potential.
Not just better car parks?
From a regeneration point of view, looking at 45,000 people a year coming to Auckland and wanting to live, work and play in the general vicinity, how do we capitalise on that, and make those car parks really work? That in turn creates challenges. Obviously you’ve got a disconnect, because if you take a car park out of circulation, where do those cars actually go? They’re used Monday to Friday [but] it’s very evident the car parks are empty on weekends. So maybe we start thinking a bit cleverly about how we deal with that, and repurpose those car parks to bring in some residential that we desperately need.
Which sounds positive, given how directionless the city has felt so often in the past. So what direction do you see it going?
I’ve had a limited time here to engage on that, but what I have seen is that the Unitary Plan is a massive step forward. And having a new mayor in office, he really shares in that vision and is really keen to make things happen as well…I see my role as very much about delivering on that success.
Can you give me a tangible example of what success might look like?
Take Onehunga – there lies an absolute jewel in the crown for Auckland, in terms of creating a really vibrant and active community and creating a real sense of space. It’s an area that historically has suffered, has not had the tender loving care and devotion that it should have had…I would like to see it develop as a regional city centre, and see a real sense of purpose around all that. To look at the whole transportation hub and to create a new CBD, but without losing the heritage or the culture that’s part of what Onehunga stands for.
Speaking of transportation, you’ll have noticed this city has been built around the private car, to disastrous effect in many ways. How much of a constraint is that?
I think, realistically, we have what we have today. The opportunity is how we embrace transportation in the future… if you look at regenerating the city, if we can encourage people to live, work and play in the city, then the new product that we deliver doesn’t necessarily have to involve the car… as the city develops, that will bring in a different kind of cultural experience, and not have that same dependency on the car. If we can encourage that and promote that, congestion doesn’t go away, but it will certainly start to ease.
Can you understand why many Aucklanders might be cynical about urban planning, given how poorly it’s been done in the past?
I can certainly empathise with that, yeah. When you look at regeneration, it’s a bit like taking a journey. If you’re in for the long haul it can be 10, 15, 20 years, and if you’re not delivering any success there’s probably a sense of, ‘well, what’s happening? Where is all the ratepayers’ money going? What is actually physically happening on the ground?’ What I can assure the ratepayers now is that we’ve moved into a different gear in terms of how we operate, in the structure of this organisation, and our focus around projects and delivery. So the time for planning is gone, it’s now time for delivery.
Is there a single, crucial issue you think we have to face?
I think we’re facing a genuinely big challenge about affordable housing. That is the elephant in the room – how do you deliver genuinely affordable housing? To young people coming through their careers, and finding the price point that they can afford to buy at, the mistake would be not being able to deliver against that promise.
It’s a long game – are you in for the long haul?
My commitment here is for the next 10 years. It’s difficult to see beyond that at this stage, but I think that is a sufficiently long tenure and commitment in order to make a significant difference. I see this very much as a career move for me, I see it as a fantastic opportunity, and I’ve got no desire to change that.