Panuku graduate Tessa Meyer reflects on what’s important to create a truly ‘liveable’ city.
Having grown up in Auckland, I’ve always been fascinated by cities and how we live in them. Before studying I spent a year travelling through Europe as well as brief stints in Asia. From the hustle and bustle of Nepal to the creative and colourful vibe of Spain, I was fascinated by the unique character of all the cities I visited.
When it came to studying, I was drawn to Christchurch’s post-disaster situation and the opportunity the city had to reinvent itself. At the time, 70 per cent of the CBD existed as empty rubble blocks and a lot of attractions were closed or undergoing reconstruction. I hoped to learn about the planning that would prepare the city to rebuild an exciting future – however, it was actually the way in which the city transitioned to its ‘new normal’ in the present that inspired me the most. A lot of this related to people and our desire to connect with one another.
In the wake of the February 2011 earthquake and aftershocks, widespread damage called for able bodies with time on their hands. As it turned out, thousands upon thousands of university students proved to be perfect candidates and the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) was born.
I took on the role of Vice-President in 2016 at a time when the SVA was the biggest student club on campus with more than 2000 members and it was one of my most valuable experiences.
The SVA ran volunteering events almost every weekend, well beyond its initial earthquake-related function. These events ranged from 10 people painting murals at local schools, to 200 people participating in significant environmental restoration projects.
Admittedly, our target audience consisted of cash-strapped, sociable young people, so a free lunch and the occasional after party may have attributed to our success! But, I remain amazed to this day that so many students willingly woke up to an early alarm each Saturday morning to get their hands dirty and help out others.
What impressed me even more was that even in the absence of an earthquake clean up, there was an appetite from people to connect with others from different walks of life and a strong sense of ownership in the recovery of the city. This extended beyond students to the residents and communities of Christchurch that reached out for the army’s help. The earthquake initiated the movement, but it continued and continues to exist because it adds value to people’s lives.
These ideas of community filtered into my Master’s Degree research and I received funding from the NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities to write my thesis under the broad theme of ‘Resilient Urban Futures’. In a nutshell, I explored whether the types of housing and neighbourhoods people lived in influenced their community resilience and liveability. What does all this jargon mean in real world terms? Well, I simply wanted to know the answer to questions like whether someone living in a brand new subdivision is happier than someone living in an inner-city apartment. How do the social interactions of these people compare? In a disaster situation, how would these people cope? I studied the attitudes of 3000 people across 78 different neighbourhoods in Christchurch, and my findings suggested it wasn’t our built environments that affected our liveability the most, but the strength of our community relationships and social ties.
This word ‘liveability’ is particularly important in Auckland, too. Our high position in various annual ‘most liveable cities’ surveys are typically met with celebration and reinforcement by our much-adored JAFA mentality (Just Another Fabulous Aucklander, of course). Creating the world’s most liveable city has also been the fundamental goal of Auckland Council for a number of years. But what does liveability actually mean?
Liveability, to me, is the sum of all good virtues of places. Think about your neighbourhood: How safe is it? How easy is it to get to work, the gym, or the supermarket? Does it have an atmosphere that makes you feel happy? Do you know your neighbours well? Is there good maintenance of roads and buildings? The list can go on and on, but liveability is essentially the characteristics of places that give us opportunities to be happy and healthy – to live well.
I think achieving liveability in Auckland is one of our biggest challenges. The city’s infrastructure and environment is pretty awesome, but it’s the wellbeing and people side of our city that interests me more. Creating vibrancy and community aren’t things that can be solved by constructing buildings, but are rather more intangible and specific to local areas. In Christchurch’s case, a disaster forced people to come together in support of one another, and it simultaneously unlocked a fantastic culture of community and hands-on engagement. My dream is for Auckland to discover the enormous value of community and social interactions without the trigger from a disaster.
Panuku Development Auckland’s work really excites me because it is not just focused on building things. There are teams dedicated to prioritising engagement with local people, ensuring we make places exciting, unique and special for local communities, as well as ensuring the environments we help create are thriving, resilient and healthy.
These efforts combined with facilitating development of high-quality built environments are where I see the liveability magic happening for Auckland. This is also where I see the status quo shifting from traditional urban development to a new wave of urban renewal and regeneration.
Tessa Meyer holds a Master’s Degree in Urban Resilience and Renewal from the University of Canterbury and started in a graduate role at Panuku earlier this year. In Tessa’s own words, her degree combines a few disciplines, including urban and human geography, planning, and environmental science – all with an awareness of the challenges modern cities face.