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Auckland's real tension of urbanisation

Flying cars and pinnacle-like buildings sound nice, but there's just one problem, says TRA's Amber Coulter: such images miss the real tension that increasing urbanisation creates.

Futuristic images of cities seem obsessed with exotic objects: flying cars or pods and pinnacle- like, metallic looking buildings with an occasional park thrown in to show that grass is not yet extinct. The problem with this scenario is that it misses the point completely in regards to the tension facing growing urbanisation. And, yes, urbanisation is a global trend, but one that is just as relevant to New Zealand.

In fact, by world standards we are one of the most urbanised nations, with 72 percent of the population living in our country’s main urban areas and around one third of the population living in the Auckland urban region alone.

The real tension of urbanisation

A key theme in the changing population is the shifting balance to single and two- adult households. Singles and couples without kids currently account for 3 out of 10 households and, over the next 10 years or so, that group will grow by around 30 percent.

The Golden Oldies will increase by a whopping 57 per cent - you can almost hear the retailers rubbing their hands. Time rich and dollars liberated from real estate, the golden years for city dwellers focuses on coffee stops, the arts and retail leisure.

The increase in people living alone is a global phenomenon. Research published last year showed one-person households were the fastest growing household type in many regions of the world – and it appears that it is an active choice not an unintentional default.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, says that if we can afford to live alone, then we do, seeing it as a mark of distinction, not a social failure.

Living alone feeds our sense of control and independence – you don’t have to negotiate which TV channel to watch, or check if it’s ok to have a friend round, and let’s not even get into what you can wear when there is no one to see.

So Kiwis are giving up the quarter acre and opting for 114 square meters, the average size of Auckland homes currently for sale – and that’s down from 158 square meters a couple of years ago. Whether these homes are rented or bought doesn’t change the fact they are compact, limiting opportunities for outside living and socialising at home.

The city’s social spaces are an extension of apartment living

Yet, we know that the human species is inherently social. We like to have our nest to ourselves, but birds of a feather flock together. So the city’s social spaces become the hub that meets our needs as social creatures. It’s less about going to a store or a restaurant and more about going to a destination where we experience a variety of activities, meet up with others, enjoy the outdoor spaces that mini homes don’t have and relish happy chance meetings or passing encounters. These city destinations are proxies for the big family homes that people reminisce about, the student common rooms and the local town pub.

For Auckland’s apartment city dwellers social spaces make them feel good, playing a much bigger role in their lives than simply parting them from their money. They are an absolutely necessary adjunct to apartment living for our emotional wellbeing.

The social aspect of our behaviour is a key component to our wellbeing. There is a significant change in our brain patterns when we are with other people, even if we are sitting alone in a café or if we are having a quiet romantic dinner surrounded by other diners. Our brain rewards us for this type of behaviour by making us feel good.

We learned millennia ago that hanging out with other people gives us the safety of the herd and ensures we acquire information that will enhance our existence – there was an evolutionary advantage in knowing where the prehistoric predators were lurking but also good to know where the best food source was to be found. Today's equivalent might be what type of coffee are other people ordering? Which shoes are they trying on? At the very least it takes away a whole lot of energy-sapping decision making while insuring we don’t stand out like a zebra in a herd of horses.

Brands can create social endorsement

TRA has found significant value in looking at the importance of social endorsement in changing people’s behaviour, which suggests an opportunity for areas of the city to establish themselves as the place to go ‘for people like me’. These local areas can become brands within the broader brand-Auckland context.

Brands have to deliver though, so they can’t just be fluffy concepts. People define brands by what they do. Brands can no longer rely solely upon the magnetic pull of appealing imagery. TRA measures how brands are performing in this regard because we see the impact it has on the brand’s growth: how the brand behaves versus expectations, how that behaviour fits with people’s personal values, are people clear on what the brand stands for? And is it a brand with energy and momentum – no one wants to hang out with the losers.

We use the term Mana to capture the essence and spirit of what these parameters mean a brand represents to people. So, imagine a city with micro destinations with a distinctive feel and a different Mana; an area that is more than simply a few restaurants and shops like so many others.

Kiwi brands will increasingly need to compete with international brands

With around a third of New Zealand’s population living in Auckland, it isn’t just the city’s social spaces that should be looking at their brand. New Zealand’s brands in general need to find their role in the lives of the ‘new’ Aucklanders and the increasing numbers who live alone and enjoy the city as an extension of their homes.

Iconic Kiwi brands have to work out how to compete and make their mark against international brands. And there will be more of these as the global reputation of Auckland grows – consider the recent influx of international retailers.

Perhaps there is a role for New Zealand brands to partner with the city’s social spaces and create opportunities to show people what they stand for and what they do.

Amber Coulter is a co-founder and partner at TRA.
This article first appeared in Issue 01 of TRA’s Frame magazine. To subscribe to the future issues of the magazine, please email subscribe@tra.co.nz.