The Wrong Side of my Car

A blog about Auckland City, its streets, and culture shock

26 Jun 2016

Let’s explore aerial photography: Auckland

Last time we looked around in Belgium, this time we will have Google Earth hoover over Auckland.

What’s so different between cities in Europe and Auckland? Auckland lies within what used to be the British Empire. Long story short, the British liked their cities Extra Large.

Auckland city

That is the city centre. Large rules over here. Most streets are at least 25 m wide. You can spot another favourite, the Grid. The curved street along the top of the image follows the former coastline. The coastline is not the only thing that has changed. Compared to 1940 many building are gone and were replaced by high-rise apartment and office towers.

This is quite different from Europe, where we are used to having lots of small streets in the city centres, with still a lot of smaller individual buildings. The difference is a lot more apparent on street level—the smaller scale of streets and buildings make European cities a lot more pleasant for walking.

The Tram Era

Unlike the old cities in Europe, Auckland for a large part developed when we already had trams, and later cars. In European cities, during much of their history the only option for most people was walking, so cities back then were limited to a few kilometres. I guess for people coming from the comparatively cramped cities in Europe it was a welcome change.

Auckland city is on the north of an isthmus, and it developed along tram lines in all directions. Except to the north, there we have the Waitemata Harbour in the way. This is just to the west of the CBD:

Grey Lynn

Once again we see the grid. The curved roads here are the older farm roads, they follow the contours of the landscape. The straight streets were laid out later, when the area was subdivided. The scale of everything feels almost alien to me. These blocks are 100 m wide, and even the smallest streets have a right-of-way of almost 20 m. Most houses occupy about 15 metres of frontage. If you compare this with that inner city area in Brussels, it’s almost unbelievable both halves are at the same scale.


Further out, the image is largely the same. Every street here is straight. The blocks became longer, reflecting how these town centres worked. People usually walked towards the shops and the tram line in the centre.

A big contrast with the city centre is the age of the buildings. This is the same area in 1940:

The same area, 1940 *1

Most houses are exactly the same. But there have been some changes around the centre. The intersection in the top centre has grown, and that parking lot wasn’t there yet. The area has been somewhat retrofitted for cars. The tram line, going north to south in this image, has been ripped out. Other than that, thanks to the British love for Big Big Big, the area was remarkably well-prepared for cars.


Image from the Auckland council

The car era

After being held back by World War 2, cars arrived in full force, opening up a seemingly unlimited amount of land, and with that came an entirely new way of building a city.

East of Botany Town Centre, whatever this area is called

Cars are convenient, but not if they are driving en masse past your front door. Enter the quiet cul-de-sac. The grid makes way for a hierarchy of quiet loops and lollipops, collectors and arterials. An odd feature is the sheer size of the houses—at least their footprints. Despite the large lots a lot of houses don’t even have much of a backyard.

To me this image is even more alien than the previous ones. In Belgium this way of building never caught on. If I see that image I think of suffocating blandness and boredom. In reality, there is an actual reason behind that: single use zoning. There are houses here, and nothing else. As if there’s nothing else to do after work.

The town centres also changed.

Botany town centre

Well, town centre. I’d call that a mall. The north is to the left on that image, and that is because otherwise the thing doesn’t fit in that rectangle. When building for cars you have to build big or go home. Cars take a lot more space than people. Go up to the tramway era images, and find the town centre in either image.

Note also the sheer size of the arterials, especially the intersections. I count about nine lanes width in some places. This area breathes optimism, the car was the definitive, ultimate solution to getting around conveniently, forever.

What can we say? Oops.

The North Shore

Until 1959 the North Shore was a mostly rural, as getting to the city required a long detour via the west. Some areas in the south were already developed, since they were reachable by ferry. It’s easy to find these areas on a map, they got the same characteristic street grid as their counterparts south of the city.

Hauraki corner

Then, in 1959 the harbour bridge crossed the Waitemata harbour, and all of a sudden the city was a short 10-minute drive away. The area was developed so fast that a mere 10 years the bridge had to be widened.


That development used the newfangled loops and dead-ends pattern. A side effect of that pattern is that even for a lot of houses or shops nearby, you have to do long detours to the collector roads to another cul-de-sac, but since everybody is now driving, who cares.

If you look around around here you’ll find what is possibly one of the most dysfunctional ways possible to arrange houses in a city. Large houses awkwardly put right in the middle of a lot, leaving a couple metres of grass on all sides. Houses back-to-back, and most space in between taken up by parking and driveways. How did that happen?

Half a century ago, land was cheap and people got large lots. 800 to 1000 m²—not quite a quarter acre, but still a nice large section. Later as land got more expensive, a lot of people subdivided their lot and sold one half (or two thirds) to other people to build their house. The place where that first house is standing made total sense when it was still on that large section.


And that’s more of the same, this time closer to the coast.

As expected, if you build a city for cars, people will get around by cars. After living on the Shore for a while I can tell you that on many streets there’s not much human life to be found. Humans are confined to their homes, and their protective steel and glass cages. Which confirmed that nasty mental image of these dormitory suburbs. You don’t move here to enjoy the city.

The future

By now, Auckland city is no longer a mere 10 minutes away—not when most people are commuting. Some people here are in the process of figuring out that a car-only solution to getting around is prohibitively expensive, and that building an entire city like that is a stupid idea.


It’s not filtering through to everybody though. This one in Millwater is being built as I am writing this post. I have no idea what the plan is with the area in the middle. Oddly enough, the houses became even larger and sections are almost fully covered by the house and driveway.

On the other hand, the development going up at Hobsonville Point is much closer to what you’d see in Europe.

Hobsonville Point

Again, look at the difference in scale between those two last pictures. I double-checked, both views are about 1 km wide. In this age of housing shortage and cut-throat land prices, I’d say the latter is the more rational one.

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