New Zealand’s cities have a hard row to hoe. Most of their revenue comes from rates, a tax on land, and unlike, say, the Swiss cantons, there are very few financial levers that Dunedin can deploy to persuade business to create jobs there rather than in Christchurch, 360-odd kilometres up the road.
If you can’t compete on revenue, you have to compete on everything else. So you’d think that New Zealand’s cities would be bending themselves into pretzels to distinguish themselves from each other. Is that the case? I looked at the vision each of our main centres has given itself.
Dunedin’s vision is fairly clear. It wants (unsurprisingly, given its current makeup) to be a knowledge centre, and it also wants to be a business mecca, probably for the creative industries. You can see what it might try to attract, and, crucially, what it might say no to.
But looking at the rest, are you much the wiser?
Wellington could absolutely, positively distinguish itself, though it doesn't. Staying with our Swiss example, you can easily build a brand around being an arts and culture capital (think Wellington to Switzerland’s Basle), just as you can around being a commercial centre (think Auckland to Switzerland’s Zurich).
Auckland wants to become what the Germans call an eierlegende Wollmilchsau - an egg-laying woolly milk-pig, a beast that is everything to everyone, and so risks becoming nothing special to anyone. Competitively, the message to business is, We do everything: don’t bother looking anywhere else. And that’s fine, as long as no one does look further - but it doesn’t say much about what Auckland’s especially good at if they do.
Christchurch’s vision is universally applicable for the opposite reason: it’s so anodyne that it could apply to every decade from the 1850s - and perhaps especially the 1850s - on. Ironically, its message (“we’re safe and predictable”) runs counter to the one thing that’s recently put Christchurch on the map: the series of earthquakes that created opportunity through crisis.
Do our cities really understand that they need to compete with each other? .