How socialist urban design will save New Zealand from climate change

Safeguarding New Zealand against the devastating impact of climate change could mean seizing the means of production.

US landscape architect Billy Fleming has a radical vision for the country's future if it's going to survive rising sea levels and extreme weather, and it involves the dreaded s-word: socialism.

The former Obama policy advisor, who now heads an urban ecology thinktank at the University of Pennsylvania, is in New Zealand as the Festival of Architecture's keynote speaker.

Speaking to Newshub in a hotel overlooking Auckland Harbour, the Arkansas native is concerned about the long-term tenability of the waterfront.

"I look out and see all of this new construction, all these new buildings, all of this incredible vibrant amenity along the waterfront, and I wonder where all the protection for these very important investments are as well," he says.

"It's hard to imagine all these things remaining in place as they are now without that second layer of protection down the road as well."

Build the wall


When it comes to what that protection might look like, one of Fleming's suggestions echoes his home country's current climate-change-denying leader: build a wall.

"So much of Auckland is right up against the water and on fill, so a lot of the terrain is quite soft. You're probably going to need walls."

Holland keeps the rising seas at bay through the use of dikes and drainage canals along the Dutch coastline, but Auckland will require more robust structures including pumps to drain seawater when it encroaches on the city.

But Fleming, who was struck by Auckland's sprawling low-density housing areas during his first visit here, says it's not just the CBD that will be affected.

"I do wonder what the region might think about doing for the parts of the city that are… in areas that will be close to underwater in a few years as sea levels rise, and where the investments are a lot harder to justify because you don't have the concentration of valuable urban amenities."

Where will we go?


New Zealand finds itself in the same position a lot of smaller island nations are in. Most of our population lives along the coast which will become more flood-prone, due to both rising seas and more extreme storms. But when living at the waterfront becomes impossible, where do those people go?

"You're not in the position Australia or Canada are where they have lots of land you can imagine people moving to as sea levels encroach," Fleming says. "That process in other places will be incredibly expensive and politically fraught and hard, but they have the option of thinking about that.

"That's much harder to imagine in New Zealand, and it's why I think a city like Auckland will have to think seriously about how it armours and protects its coast in a way cities like Miami or New Orleans or Houston might not have to."

Billy Fleming
Billy Fleming says urban design needs to benefit the many, not the few. Photo credit: Newshub.

What New Zealand needs


Tony van Raat, festival director and head of architecture at Unitec, says he wanted this year's festival to delve into the existential issue of climate change to enable the public to "differentiate good design from bad".

He says New Zealand is ideally placed to carve out a reputation as a model climate community - but we're not doing anywhere near enough to earn that yet.

"We suffer from an advantage which is also a disadvantage: we're a relatively small population on a large landmass, we have a benevolent climate and therefore we haven't had to try very hard to meet the standards that are now demanded of us."

Our cities need visionary urban design, combining innovative public transport with more 'green spaces', pre-fabs and low-carbon buildings.

"We need urban and suburban environments which are both more complex in terms of sophisticated technologies but also simpler, in that we can live closer to nature."

He says that vision must extend to social housing to keep climate solutions democratic and accessible, citing the first Labour Government of 1935 as a success story. Thanks to thoughtful design and well-built structures, much of its ambitious state housing programme is still standing.

Van Raat says Fleming is "completely aligned" with the issues currently being worked through by New Zealand designers, embracing the fusion of social sciences with architecture and opening those innovations up to the public.

Capitalism: incompatible with human life


For Fleming, socialism is inextricable from the issue of climate change. Capitalism, with its relentless growth demanding more and more of the Earth's resources, is inherently incompatible with sustained human life. Things need to change, and they need to change fast.

"We're going to have to do a whole lot of things really quickly, faster than we've ever done them, better designed than ever, and we're going to have to balance that with a very real need to make sure there's deliberation and public ownership over that process," he says.

"Part of that means discarding the idea that markets can solve all of these problems for us, which is not a radical statement at all in most parts of the world, but in the United States is something that gets you thrown out of rooms."

The housing market has been completely turned over to the private sector, which means any 'managed retreat' from vulnerable coastlines will mirror society's current wealth inequality: the wealthy will be able to up and move inland when the time comes, leaving the working class to fend for themselves.

"It will play out that way in every scenario where we let the private sector determine who gets to stay and where they go when they leave," he says. "The state has a really important role to play in managing the retreat from the coast. If we leave this up to the folks who fund private development, the real estate developers who design and build it, and we call architects in at the end to design beautiful things for the rich and don't do anything else, then we know who wins and loses in that scenario."

A new New Deal


Fleming is a vocal proponent of the Green New Deal, the ambitious legislation put forward by progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and says urban design will play a key role.

"The Green New Deal built around three pillars: decarbonising the economy, climate adaptation and social justice to centre those most affected by climate change," he explains. 

"All three of those things imply a very radical restructuring of our built and natural environment: our public works, where and how we live."

While most architects are happy to sit on the fence and call themselves apolitical, Fleming is insistent on the need for his contemporaries to be more involved in a radical rethinking of the urban landscape.

"If we come to the table now, we can think through these huge projects… we can do much more on the front end to understand how the world we build through a Green New Deal might be more sustainable, more just and more democratic than the system we have now."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a sponsor of the Green New Deal. Photo credit: Getty

And it's not just those who "wear black and talk about architecture with a capital A" that should be more engaged with design. Fleming says because design touches every aspect of our lives, everyday citizens benefit from being involved.

"People are hungry for ways to plug into some kind of response to climate change. That's why you get people who are so gung-ho about metal straws. It's a signal that there are people who are hungry for change on the climate, and there's a paucity of options for them to plug into a vision of what the world might look like."

The US is seeing a growing resurgence of socialism as a viable political ideology, particularly among the young. Fleming hopes people around the world can get past the mental images of gulags and bread lines and embrace the beauty of design for the many, not the few.

"If you think about the way the right talks about design, they always say that if we were to leave design up to social democracies or democratic socialists you end up with a bunch of boring grey boxes. But actually that's what the right, when they're in power, is building - really boring stuff like strip malls that look the same everywhere you go."

He cites Red Vienna - Austria's temporary socialist utopia that briefly flourished between the First and Second World Wars - as a shining example of state-built social housing that didn't compromise on visual beauty.

"When you starve the public sector of resources, you get bad public projects. When the public sector is strong and there are resources for good design, you get good design. It's not that complicated."