Article featured in The Guardian on 12 December 2016. 


Below is my unedited, slightly longer version of this story, you can read the published version here on the Guardian: Insider's guide to Auckland

Sum up your city in five words

More than a layover destination // Not just a layover destination


A South Pacific melting pot // Melting pot of the South Pacific

What sound defines your city?

There is one thing that you’re never really far from in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland: a beach. The central city lies across an isthmus straddling the Pacific Ocean on its east and the Tasman Sea on its west. The wider city stretches out from this strip of land to the white sands of Pakiri Beach in the north, over the Waitakere hill range to the black sands of Piha and Whatipu in the west, and south to the lapping shores of the Firth of Thames at Tapapakanga Regional Park in the south.

In the summer months, the city’s inhabitants disperse to these watery edges. This recording, at Point Chevalier - a relatively central city location, captures the buzz of a city that is defined by its nautical location. Seagulls, sparrows and the native tui bird occupy the pōhutukawa trees above the beach, competing for volume with young people singing and playing an impromptu game of touch rugby on the water’s edge. All these are the sounds of summer at the beach – which as these eager youths attest too – we’re all hanging out for now.

Soundcloud Link:

What is your city’s best building?

It would be too easy to pick the building that gives this city it’s distinct skyline, the Skytower. And while this has been a significant structure in that it has created a central focus for downtown Auckland, it would be remiss to call it ‘the best’. Over the other side of Victoria Street though, if you skirt across Kitchener Street to the south, you’ll find the Auckland Art Gallery backing onto Albert Park. With its remodelled main atrium opening in 2011 just in time for the Rugby World Cup, the building – and particularly its ceiling - is a refined example of elegant architecture that pays homage to New Zealand materials. The stunning Kauri wood ceiling consists of 28 pods towering 15 metres above the entrance. Its intricate detail and local craftsmanship impresses every time. The council-owned organisation, with its building designed by Sydney-based FJMT (Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp), Auckland-based Archimedia and Auckland City Council - has picked up a swag of awards that reflect, in my opinion, it’s justified wording as the city’s ‘best’ building.

And the worst?

A few years ago, Auckland-focused news magazine Metro published an article titled The City’s shame: Why is Auckland’s Urban Design so bad?’ The modern city is born of kitch, humble villas and larger buildings of an Edwardian and Victorian style. Metro’s argument in the article is that between the 1950s and the millennium the city somehow dropped the ball on urban development, neglecting good design for the most part. Broadly speaking, the city has expanded outwards and upwards since post-war state housing developments gave way to a laissez-faire approach to planning from the late 70s through till the turn of century. Since then we’ve started to see a renewed and necessary interest in smart urban design that will help the city respond to its burgeoning growing pains. But this buffer of in between time saw the unfortunate rise of several concrete bunker-style apartment blocks in the central city. In my opinion, these soviet-style block towers are an eyesore in a city where attention should be won by it’s natural beauty.

Homegrown talent

The post-graffiti movement has really taken off in Auckland in the last few years, with street art following a global trend of being elevated from back streets and train lines to the front pages of society as a medium for socially conscious messaging and just damn good art. Aucklander Elliot O’Donnell, better known as Askew One, is a progressive force in this field. Askew strongly associates with the South Pacific; its colours, its produce and its politics. He has been involved with local Auckland graffiti art collective TMD, and more recently much of his work has been influenced by the PGP Post Graffiti Pacific movement. He’s had his bright, refined and layered street work commissioned on walls and exhibited in galleries around the world and has been commissioned to create is stunning public art everywhere from Detroit to Berlin to Tahiti. See his work on the walls of Cross Street and Mercury Lane in Auckland, and read about the progression of his work, and his interest in the politics of Pacific food, in an article for local food culture magazine Stone Soup Syndicate.

Street style – what’s the look on the street?

What is your city’s most under-rated location?

On a bus trip out of the city I recently heard a Kiwi give advice to a tourist telling them to avoid K Road (Karangahape Road) because it’s ‘a bit dodgy, if you know what I mean’. Avoiding K Road on a trip to Auckland would be like dismissing the Reeperbahn in Hamburg: It may not have a stellar, pristine reputation but it certainly makes up the fabric of the city and that’s why it’s a must visit. The notoriously boheme street has been known as the red light district of Auckland, the gay district and generally just the welcoming, all embracing home of the artists, the cultured and the misfits.

Hit by a recent wave of gentrification, the street is also changing and for the better or worse – depending on who you talk to – it’s now becoming a modern foodie destination, spearheaded by growing influence of local’s favourites like bistro Cocos Cantina. The slightly grunge Peach Pit a few doors up also does amazing share food while former strip club Las Vegas, across the road, is now home to a stylish dumpling and cocktail bar, which will be the reward of those willing to go behind the building’s seedy and famous façade and up some creaky stairs to its velvet interior. And that’s just an appetiser to the street’s offerings. Don’t be put off by small-minded advice: Make sure Karangahape Road is on your ‘must-visit’ list for Auckland.

Best Instagram account for your city?

A few years ago Courteney Peters returned from Melbourne determined to prove that Auckland was as good of a place to live as its hip city cousin across the ditch. Born of her desire to showcase local food, art and talent here, Gather and Hunt has become an evolving platform to showcase the best of trendy Auckland. In its earlier days it was more of a classic city food and culture guide but these days Peters has refined her offering and works on curating local events and a seasonal magazine. Her Instagram still provides that classic feeling of an insider’s guide, stocking images of the city’s best eats along with FOMO shots from her outstanding event Art Dego – which is exactly as it sounds: A bespoke feast pairing the city’s best artists with the city’s best chefs for a night where food is art and art is food. So good.

Biggest controversy?

In October New Zealand has held its local council elections. In Auckland, voter turnout was a poor 35.18 per cent. In a city where average house prices have recently creeped over the million-dollar dollar mark and families who can’t afford rent are sleeping in cars – such voter apathy is disappointing and unhelpful for progression. Not least for the fact that it leaves citizens with little direct democratic ability to steer the city in a direction they want on bigger, more controversial issues such as housing or transport or the development of Auckland’s port. But this poor turnout is also controversial for the fact that nobody can decide whose fault it is: Are Aucklanders, particularly young people, just too alienated from local body politics to care about voting, did the politicians run particularly boring campaigns, does the council just not make the voting process relevant and easy, or did the media just provide spin and irrelevant coverage? And how will the city collectively invest in making voting in local elections something that actually happens in the future?

Moment in history

Almost 30 years to the day after a cessna plane flew low over the city and dropped flour bombs on the field in the middle of a rugby test match at Eden Park, Auckland remade it’s sporting history. The Springbok Tour of 1981 cut to the core of New Zealander’s identities - did being a sportsperson and having the freedom to ‘just get on with the game’ mean more than being a tolerant, accepting and global citizen aware of the apartheid struggles in South Africa? While today the majority would recognise that sport should have the power to foster dialogues of diversity and inclusion, at the time the issue was divisive. Welcoming sporting teams from 20 nations into Auckland three decades later on September 9, 2011, for the opening night of the Rugby World Cup, certainly was a moment to celebrate (as in one giant city-wide street party) and a chance to reflect on how far the city, the sport and the nation has come.

What does your city smell like?

If the noises of the city are those at the beach – then the smells are equally so. There is not a lot that’s more satisfying than a summertime backyard or beachside barbeque – and walking home along streets where the smell of soft smoke from a barbeque grill wafts over the fence is about as homely as it gets.

That is, until you travel abroad. After living in Northern Europe for some time where cities often have the stale smell of cigarettes hanging in the air, arriving back in Auckland and being hit with the smell of sea is literally like a breath of fresh air, every time. Auckland Airport is situated on the edge of Manukau Harbour, and you’ll get that first salty whiff of clean air as soon as you exit the airport. Nothing like the smell of the sea to know you’re home.

Top insider’s tip

Treat Auckland as more than just a layover destination for New Zealand’s picturesque South Island and you’ll see why roughly one quarter of the country’s inhabitants live here. With its magnificent harbours, beaches, islands and regional parks the city is a destination in its own right. Spend a day or two wandering around the inner city going from cafés to art galleries or museums and then out to dinner along Ponsonby Road, Karangahape Road or near Britomart. If you’re here in the warmer months add in spending an evening at the open air cinema at Wynyard Quarter’s Silo Park, where you’ll be treated to a movie screened against old silo tanks with the harbour bridge as a pack drop - ace. But even better, stay long enough to make time for a ferry ride to explore some of the islands of the Hauraki Gulf – swim and hike around Tiri Tiri Matangi, Rangitoto and/or Waiheke, the latter of which has the bonus appeal of an abundance of wineries. For the more adventurous, take a longer ferry ride to the remote and stunning Great Barrier Island – an island haven still within the city’s boundaries. And whatever you do, don’t rely on public transport to take you further than you can walk. Hire a car to get to the outskirts of the city and take a few day trips to walk and swim at the fine sample of parks and beaches on offer.

What does your city do better than anywhere else?

While New Zealand as a nation has a bicultural framework there’s no denying that Auckland is multicultural. It is the biggest Polynesian city in the world and is a diverse Asia-Pacific hub in its own right; being home to two thirds of the country’s Pacific and Asian identifying populations. This, combined with its Māori and Pākeha (white) heritage, means that Auckland is a South Pacific melting pot like no other.

The extent of its diversity is ever present in politics and particularly in regards to socio-economic issues. But a more tangible and positive expression of its unique make-up can be seen through the local cuisine and creative communities. Not surprisingly, much of the city’s vibrant arts scene revolves around people trying to understand and make sense of their identity in relation to this place. The team behind Flat3 webseries is a perfect example of this. Their wry and witty take on being 20-something Kiwis of Asian heritage, trying to make it in Auckland, is not only hilarious but a grounding reminder that there is at once a collective experience of being young in this city and a disconnect between the lived-experiences of people from different cultures calling this place home. Questions of identity in relation to place are a common thread within the city’s artistic communities.

The foodie scene in Auckland is also distinct and diverse and a reflection of it’s unique ethnic make up. The city’s restaurant of the year 2016, for example, went to a Modern Indian restaurant, Cassia, while the best new restaurant for the same year, Saan, is Thai. But it’s more than just trendy inner city restaurants that give an Asia-Pacific flavour to Auckland. Transport yourself to Asia for fresh vegetables at the Avondale markets or to the Pacific Islands at the Otara Markets or any of the city’s Night Markets. Visit Dominion Road for some of the most authentic dumplings this side of China.

Make sure you have a flat white while in the city too – while Auckland may be multicultural and busy it also has a laid back vibe – long weekend brunches and good coffee are definitely appreciated – and Auckland does these things better than most. Organic café and local coffee roaster Kokako is leading the way in this regard.

How green is your city?

Everything in this guide seems to come back to geography. Earlier I explained that the city is formed on an isthmus. To give more context to this, it is an isthmus consisting of more than 40 volcanoes – many of which are either green reserves or able to be walked over, with respect. Like Rangitoto, the bell-graph shaped backdrop to the city’s Waitematā Harbour, or Maungawhau (Mt Eden) which has recently become a car-free reserve perfect for an inner city hike with panoramic city views. Naturally, this makes the city pretty green. The 2010 amalgamation to Auckland Council helped with this too. In expanding the city’s boundaries, it picked up a few regional parks like Wenderholm, Shakespeare and Tapapakanga, meaning that you can now go camping in the countryside while technically still being in Auckland.

But despite its abundance of parks and outdoor spaces the city still struggles massively with poor public transport and clogged motorways. There’s ongoing debate as to whether focus should be on building more motorways or investing in better public transport. In terms of being environmentally friendly in this regard, the city still has a long way to go but it’s making baby steps every day – with a dedicated cycling lane over the Harbour Bridge recently being formally approved.  

Five to follow?

Auckland Museum:

Metro Magazine:

The Pantograph Punch:

Flying Nun Records:

Rachel Soh:

To keep in mind:

Thanks to The Guardian for featuring this piece!