The Good Citizen

The Good Citizen Episode 4 - Ben Van Bruggen

March 7, 2019

Urban designer Ben van Bruggen spoke to Jeremy Hansen about why we should stop listening to the vocal minority attempting to block change, and be inspired about Auckland's development. 

WH Auden once said “we would rather be ruined than changed”. It’s a quote urban designer Ben van Bruggen refers to when I ask him about how we might change the minds of Auckland’s legions of NIMBYs, opposed as they are to increased density, e-scooters, cycle lanes, and anything else that represents a new way of approaching urban problems. But van Bruggen, the Manager of Auckland’s Urban Design Strategy at Auckland Council, says he isn’t going to expend a lot of energy in trying to change these people’s minds. “They are the vocal minority,” he says. “There are a group of people who actually want change but they’re not as vocal or not as demanding, because they may not have seen or been told the stories of what that future might look like. We should appeal to them.”

Van Bruggen is an optimist in a job where optimism is most certainly required. Auckland is in the midst of some acute growing pains, with a burgeoning population putting huge pressure on housing and transport infrastructure in particular. Van Bruggen isn’t daunted by this. In fact, he is so excited about Auckland’s potential that he moved here with his family from the UK in 2017. “I was just captivated by what Ludo [Campbell-Reid, Design Champion at Auckland Council] and his colleagues were saying about Auckland and where it was going. [There was] a discourse around what design meant in a place like this. As an urbanist you don’t get that many opportunities to have a city-wide perspective on what you’re doing. Auckland is small enough to understand, but big enough to matter.”

That said, the city faces challenges on multiple fronts. The population is growing by about 2.6 percent each year which, van Bruggen says, is “a lot to be contending with” for any developed nation. In the 1950s Auckland had a terrific tram system with one of the world’s highest rates of ridership, while nowadays some people (looking at you, Judith Collins) are still resisting a single light rail line down Dominion Road and through Māngere to the airport. The road toll is abysmal, and everyone knows we’re in the midst of a severe housing crisis. Still, van Bruggen’s optimism remains.

On housing: “The global finance approach to housing as commodity exists, so we have a housing crisis,” van Bruggen says. Auckland Council is already acting, he adds, as the planning regime allows for a million homes to be built within the city limits right now. So why do we have a crisis still? “We’ve given over much of our housing development to the private sector ... they focus on a very narrow bit of the market. If we perhaps take more of a lead from Germany or Holland, where the public sector has a much higher role in enabling people to build for themselves – and it enables a rental market in high-quality renting and secure tenancy. Generally the government [there] owns the land and doesn’t sell it off ... it takes a long-term estate management role in the city.”