The atmosphere of a city

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In the two months since I moved back to Auckland I have been reassessing and rebuilding my mental map of the streets, routes and landmarks. I am also rebuilding my map of the social scene, of people I know and people I’d like to know. I am testing my assumptions about the places people meet, the places people go to hang out and get food, and the places people go to fulfil basic needs like conversation or knowledge gathering. I’m having to adjust to the new atmosphere. A different mode of urban living.

In the five years I was learning to live as a Wellingtonian, Auckland became the ‘other’ city, less easy to identify and interact with, despite being my home town. Auckland’s ‘spirit’ is slowly coming back to me, but it’s not where my Wellington eyes initially thought to look.

Aucklanders seem to socialise at home a lot more than Wellingtonians, they share their homes with pride, like they personally are a social resource. Yet Wellingtonians seem to get together with more ease and more often, before they even leave town for home. The city itself provides and homes are less important.

It seems that Auckland has less ‘urban vitality’ than Wellington despite being many times bigger. Auckland is predominantly suburban. It feels like a number of small towns stuck together, each a little diffused and lost. Perhaps in Auckland that sense of vitality, of ‘life force’, comes from somewhere else. In Auckland the vitality is found in back yards, not cafés.

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a comparative boasting of home – finer moments of Auckland and Wellington life
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Auckland is about glowing warmth, outdoor living in lush gardens, surrounded by tall palms, fat fruit trees, bright native flowers, living abundance. The outdoors is our biggest selling point. Two harbours, two coasts, two forest ranges, a field of loveable little green volcanic cones each with character and a name. Our sub-tropical paradise, come visit my little bit.

The sprawling nature of Auckland means one’s home can be just as convenient (or not) as any other location. Home is where people are welcomed to for a drink, and to admire personal collections of warmth, lushness and other riches. In comparison public space is vast, impersonal, forgotten.

Being the largest city in New Zealand makes Auckland appear abundant in choices. There are enough people to cater to taste types in commodities: athletic, bohemian, slick, crafty, traditional, comfy, all separate, compartmentalised and marketed just for you.
At the same time no assumption is made about the taste of the masses, we offer bland real-estate-common-denominator beige to all new comers with unknown objectives. We offer you a clean slate. Many bars, cafés and public spaces seem to fall into this set, more about basic transactions than comfort. Here individuals are given all the freedom, and the responsibility, for bringing character to their environments.

Wellington is wholly different. While casual outdoor comforts are reserved for special weather occasions, outdoor activity in public space happens all the time. The wind helps you along, it’s energy a companion to the buzzing crowds of people. Here we revel in chance meetings that are more likely to be accidentally on purpose. Let’s walk this way home and see who we can see. Why would you make everyone go to the trouble of coming back to your house when everyone is already near the cafés in town?

Here the city is full of nearby places to meet and be comfortable indoors. Businesses make it their job to sooth and invite, not just out of the wind, but into genuinely welcoming, homey spaces, available at 5pm, 10pm, even 2am. Cherished places of character are like people you know, more than backdrops, these places join in on the conversation. They revel in multiple sometimes contradictory tastes. Each place its own entity. Homes, shops, institutions, all distinct, a jumble of colour, a clique, a club. Know this place, know us. You can’t change us but you are welcome to join us, or choose another.

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Wellington has spectacular scenery; a series of green belts and harbour city views to make you swoon but the city does not rely on these for its sense of self. The city is a city, full of its own captivating inventions. People interacting with people.

Auckland’s backyards are a suburban feature that is great for urban biodiversity, but where are the fruits of real urban living? Where do I go to get new ideas and be part of what’s happening? Auckland could be so much more than a sea of suburban gardens and hoarded treasure homes. With the best urban design and development to bring people together Auckland could also be a network of real urban centres, a city with everything.

Auckland is lucky: Urban form is a lot easier to change than the local climate.

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Note: I use the word café as shorthand for any kind of place providing the service of being a comfortable meeting place with food, drink, water, toilets, seats, people watching and sometimes other entertainment. Unlike bars, cafés are open to all ages, and therefore more public than most ‘pub’s.


Discussion (2) ¬

  1. Nice comparison Lily! I agree re: aucklanders and their homes. Maybe part of it is control of who is there too? My home is a shared space, but by invitation only. A public space carries with it the risk of having to share space with people who annoy/offend me. And given the wider range of people and their varying ideas of what constitutes appropriate behaviour in public….wow I sound terrible don’t I? But when you live in a larger volume of people, you get over strangers.

  2. Thanks Shona

    Wellington has strangers too! They just tend to look more familiar! Having said that privacy is a slightly different topic: we all like privacy sometimes, and generally we can all get it by going home, to our own private space or room, whether we live in a city, suburb, small town or rural area.

    I think the Auckland /Wellington difference is more about expectation of what people can do in public space, which is never really private though it might feel that way in some places due to New Zealand’s relatively low population.
    Many of the benefits of living in a city come about because we live near so many other people, some of whom are bound to have new or different ideas, including some that we may not agree with, but that intermingling leads to both social and economic growth. It provides interest and insight as well as economies of scale and close location. I feel Auckland could be making more of its ‘people synergy’.

    I would love to hear how you felt about public space in other large cities you have visited.

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