The alarming disappearance of Auckland’s volcanoes

I must be turning French because I am outraged.

I want to act like a French protester and spontaneously flip my people-mover on its side (kids, husband, bag, phone charger out first) and set fire to it, then go on strike from telling people how great New Zealand is.

Back in my home town, a panel of pointy-headed morons has given the Auckland Council carte blanche to throw out the rules that were meant to protect public views of the city’s fantabulous volcanoes forever – or at least until the city gets blown off the face of the earth.


Honestly, I don’t know why I am always rabbiting on over here about how Auckland is so much more than the airport where you catch a connecting flight to Middle Earth.

“Yes, yes, go see the hobbits, glaciers, fjords and so forth but Auckland is a city nestled into a field of volcanoes!” I gush to anyone, given half a chance and half a glass.

“Gorgeous green mini-mountains dotted between the houses! Volcanoes here, there and everywhere! Each with its own crater! It’s going to be a World Heritage Site.”

My excitable helicopter arms sometimes knock rosé clean out of people’s hands, block access to the eggplant dip, take out beautifully dressed but tiny people tucked in there below my field of vision.

“Don’t muck about,” I warn darkly if they’re showing too much interest in the dip.

“The newest volcano is younger than Notre Dame! Who knows when the next one will appear? Could be next year! In our kitchen! You should book now before your free accommodation goes up in smoke.”

Auckland is dotted with teeny tiny volcanoes no bigger than a medium sized yacht

You would be surprised how many French people would go without a cigarette for 24 hours to fly down and see a thing like that in real life. The volcanic field, I mean. Not the eruption.

The French appreciate natural heritage.

They are very good at protecting it. These days, anyways, without wanting to harp on about the past and the Pacific…

Imagine a French panel of powerful but apparently dim-witted dudes telling the peeps of Provence to chillax about protecting that slab of rock they call Montagne Sainte Victoire – the mountain painted by Cezanne, used by Romans for staging executions, inhabited by humans since the Bronze Age and nested in by dinosaurs.

The dead airspace around Mt Sainte Victoire would be an excellent place for a McDonalds restaurant

There would be shouting.

There would be demonstrations.

Air traffic controllers would go on strike and also taxi drivers, the lift staff at the Eiffel Tower and Marseille docksiders.

The proponents of the idea would be racked, guillotined and forced to eat Marmite until their corpses confessed and admitted they were drunk at the time and thought they were being funny.

Auckland is being told that the protected airspace, around 13 per cent of the isthmus (a tiny proportion of the city as a whole), is a handbrake to growth, and someone must calculate the costs per square metre of having empty air in which no one can make any money.

Croissance, the delicious French word for growth

The French word for growth is croissance, which sounds tasty and would remind everyone they should probably go to lunch instead of discussing something as distasteful as allowing shopping malls and apartment blocks to destroy mountain views.

I wonder how the public is reacting over there in Auckland.

There will be some teeth-sucking.

The odd bit of head-shaking.

Someone will probably write a letter to the editor.

There will be no demonstrations or burning cars or strikes.

You know why? Because Auckland is a city with low self-esteem.

When Aucklanders compare our city to cooler, faster, better-dressed places like, I don’t know, practically anywhere, it’s hard not to melt into a puddle of embarrassment and self-loathing.

Auckland is a sprawling fungus of strip malls and Lego houses and warehouses and concrete apartment blocks a seven year old could have designed with a crayon.

It’s quite hard to stand up for yourself when you’re not sure you’re worth standing up for.

There are a brave and dedicated few who have fought soul-sucking battles to, for instance, protect the volcanic cones from quarrying and residential development, preserve quaint heritage housing, save the odd 19th Century commercial building that didn’t get bulldozed in the 1980s and stop the felling of massive trees all over the city to make way for renovations, extensions and expensive town houses.

The average person doesn’t get involved because they can’t win, they’ve never been able to win.

Crass, piecemeal, low cost development wins every time.

Last time Aucklanders really got upset about their volcanoes was in the 1970s when an architectural turd appeared on the slopes of one of the city’s most important landmarks: Maungawhau/Mt Eden.

The Pines apartment block is a monstrosity of million dollar views ruining the views for the millions of people who can’t afford to live there.

The unprecedented frowny faces of the moustachioed men and floral-frocked women of the city prompted a very smart regional town planner to come over all Da Vinci, scribbling furiously into his notebooks to devise a solution for his beloved and fast-growing city.

He knew that the Kiwi dream of a little wooden house with a back lawn and veggie garden would have to be set aside to allow the city to spread upwards instead of endlessly outward.


His vision was to protect the airspace all around the cones, between the cones and between important public view points and the cones.

As the city climbed skyward all around them, the cones would still be visible and dominant in the landscape thanks to invisible shafts of 100 per cent pure New Zealand air stretching up toward the sun.

This was big picture stuff. Words like “forever” and “future generations” were bandied about.

Clever, eh? The French would have built him a statue.

An example of a statue. Not French. It’s all I had.

Most Aucklanders have never heard of Roy Turner, let alone fed pidgeons around his statue, but the reason they can still see the mountains so clearly from so many places in the city is because of the invisible deflector shields he designed.

We know that when we look up from a certain point on the motorway, for instance, we can see a corridor right through the skyscrapers to a vertical field of green.

If we’re picnicking on the slopes of one of the mountains, we’ll have a clear view of several more, right down to the base.

So now Auckland is in trouble with relentless low-rise urban sprawl, traffic congestion,  an acute housing shortage, dizzying property prices hurtling ever upwards, the youth/elderly/poor locked out of expensive inner city suburbs.

A drastic new plan is underway to get the city growing up. Intensification is on its way.

Lucky the deflector shields are in place to protect the mountains, Captain.

This is what they they were designed for, sir.

But no.

The Klingons have taken over the bridge and the shields are about to be disengaged.

Lawyered-up shopping mall and residential developers along with New Zealand’s wealthiest landlord, the Housing Corporation, have convinced an independent hearing panel that protecting mountain views is a choke-chain on Auckland’s economy and that empty air needs to be filled up.

They’ve just won a monstrous victory.

For most of my adult life I’ve lived within a short walk of one of those cones.

My best days in Auckland always start on the summit of Mt Eden, where your feet can connect with the earth.

You stand on the edge of an immense crater of green.

You look east, past the twins Mt Hobson and Mt St John to see how the sunrise is working out this morning.

You look south-east to the rival giant on the isthmus, One Tree Hill, just a couple of kilometres away as the seagull flies and linked by passages of trees and parkland.

You look south, past Mt Roskill and Big King and Mangere Mountain to Manukau Harbour pitching out west toward the Tasman Sea and Australia.

You look west for Mt Albert and beyond to the Waitakere Ranges to check for rain.

But you save the best for last.

Turn to the North, take a breath and look straight over top of the warts, boils and pox of the central city to the water of the Waitemata Harbour and the headland cones of Mt Victoria and North Head.

Behind them, across the channel, the immense low triangle of Rangitoto looms. A baby in geological terms but already appearing ancient. A desolate, terrifying, dozing giant. Centre stage in a volcano-dotted gulf on the rim of the Pacific Ocean.

It catches you every time. Right in the chest.

It’s the landscape that makes Auckland one in a million.

It’s still winning. It’s still outshining all the rubbish we’ve built on it.

It is still extraordinarily beautiful.

The thought that this landscape will finally disappear behind concrete and steel makes me very sad.

Still, as my boys would say: city versus volcano: who will win?

Maybe it’s all academic in the long run.


5 thoughts on “The alarming disappearance of Auckland’s volcanoes

  1. Karen, this has hit the nail on the head. We are witnessing daily, the rise of the intergration of complete ugliness in the changed approach to town planning within Auckland. If you can pack em in, push him up and rub those big dollars between your fingers then that is fantastic and stuff the rest of you buggers that genuinely care about this wonderful city. The big issue here is that most of the public is blissfully unaware of what is happenning simply because the media are told what to publish and as a result things slip through with no public resistance. Yes we do need some of that French passion to stop the creep of the ugly housing build which is increasingly, pervading Auckland and the volcanoes sadly will be seen as another free space of land to put some high rise apartments on!

    • Hi Trish, since writing this, I’ve read a really interesting article in Metro suggesting that the crazy Auckland house prices are fuelled by dangerously easy bank credit rather than a housing shortage. Cities like New York and London manage to have protected airspace and still manage to be densely populated. A couple of years ago, I interviewed Roy Turner, the planner who designed the view shafts and he was gob-smacked that they were under threat because the view shafts were designed to ALLOW wide-spread intensification without losing the landscape which makes Auckland truly special.

  2. I can’t tell you how depressing it was to arrive back in Auckland – my eyes bled tears with the ugliness of it all.

  3. Well said Karen
    The sad thing is the Planners don’t really care – it’s about a belief in some compact/PT nirvana – key players have actually never lived in any of those! And recent expert work showed they’ll only get 26% of density they want – they really have no proper ideas to out forward, and just want it finished at all costs. It’s all about the process and not the outcomes.
    We’ve been telling them about all the problems – they new 2 years ago they couldn’t get density they wanted – ie knocking down a 1.5m villa for 2, or even 3 can’t be done economically. Sensible alternative is selected areas eg Kingsland/Mt Albert / Gt North rd etc, already ready for apartments – and plan around a strong rail based north/south vertical city. Business is already doing that in brand new design/build industrial areas, and people can then be near their jobs – so that will carry on, because people/businesses are logical – they don’t have to do what a “planner” wants – but the planners legacy will be the new sausage flats of today, blocking view shafts….
    not sure where the “hope” is hiding at the moment – but we need some!

Leave a Reply