New Zealand’s main centre, Auckland, has been named the most liveable city in the world this year – primarily, it seems, by simple virtue of not being anywhere else during a global pandemic.
Like during the 1976 Olympics, where Kiwi athletes collected a swag of coveted running medals largely thanks to a boycott by dominant African nations, New Zealand often shines brightest on the world stage when the rest of the world is otherwise indisposed.
Despite a reputation for humility that verges on the taciturn, New Zealanders love nothing more than international praise, so Economist Intelligence Unit industry director Ana Nicholls, who helped write the report, was duly summoned by local media to explain the outstanding qualities of our Queen city in more detail.
“Shops, and restaurants, and most public areas,” Nicholls mused to the national broadcaster, RNZ, “were open.”
That this accolade was bestowed apparently without regard for the merits of the gateway to the Pacific, the city of sails, does not, however, mean they do not exist.
After all, the nation’s capital, Wellington, is even more Covid-free than Auckland, which has endured a series of short-lived lockdowns since August last year. Wellington managed fourth, proving that pandemic survival isn’t everything, especially when the other things are being wedged between a pair of tectonic plates, a city built on two faultlines, and horizontal rain.
Like more than half of all Aucklanders, I was not born in the place I now call home. Auckland has been the country’s most desirable real estate since time immemorial: before Covid, before colonisation, even before its median house price hit NZ$1m. The isthmus was the home of many Māori iwi [tribes], drawn by its sub-tropical climate, fertile land and proximity to transport routes -in those days, rivers and harbours.
The maunga [mountains] of the central suburbs are dormant volcanic cones, and the city sits atop a still active volcanic field. Nonetheless, in a country prone to unpredictable and devastating seismic threats Auckland is relatively blessed by geology. A rare localised earthquake over a decade ago saw eye witness accounts leading local news, testifying to picture frames wobbling and cups of tea being slightly disturbed.
While eruptions are predicted every 350 years or so, scientists have rigged up sensors in the best Kiwi DIY fashion that promise to give residents at least five hours warning of an eruption – time enough to pack up the car and crawl in Auckland’s notorious traffic at least a couple of city blocks closer to safety.
Like any growing city (now with about 1.5 million residents), it suffers from some underinvestment. Iconic amusement park Rainbow’s End could use a coat of paint to be Instagram-ready; the nostalgic favourite Waiwera hot pools have fallen into disuse after a confusing caper involving Russian oligarchs. A less than state of the art sewerage system can struggle to contain wastewater during heavy rain, rendering some of the sheltered suburban inlets of the beautiful Waitemata Harbour temporarily unswimmable. But beaches and storms in Auckland mean one thing really: a short drive over to the west coast’s moody black sand beaches, surrounded by the rainforest of the Waitakere Ranges.
Auckland is still a crossroads of many cultures. It has the highest population of Pasifika peoples of any city in the world. South Auckland is a genuine cultural feast, both metaphorically and literally at innumerable weekend markets. Only half of Aucklanders were born in the city, and 25% are of Asian heritage.
The Economist rankings, originally devised to guide expat workers in their negotiations for hardship allowances in overseas postings, have an unashamed focus on the elites. The ranking may reflect then, that laid-back Auckland is particularly liveable for the few genuine celebrities who have spent the pandemic here, as a consequence of the city’s down to earth attitude to fame.
Talent explodes into life in Tamaki Makaurau thanks to strong artistic communities. This year’s Comedy Festival featured many of the contemporaries and collaborators of Starstruck’s Rose Matafeo.
Global superstar Lorde can move about relatively freely. Nonchalant Aucklanders attempt to eschew the emotional incontinence of American fans, and not make a fuss of celebrities in their midst.
Because, it may take millions of record sales to help one into a first home in the now famously-unaffordable city of sails, but she is ultimately just like us, another lucky resident of the world’s most liveable city.
Ben Thomas is a political commentator based in Auckland.