Why would anyone think I’d vote for them if they give me a leaflet I don’t want! Look – it says ‘NO CIRCULARS’!” I consider explaining that local body election leaflets are actually not ‘circulars’, or indeed, advertising at all. They are instead an important part of the democratic process. But I fear a bureaucratic distinction will be lost on this vehement elderly woman intent on keeping her letter box clear of bumf, and for that matter, on most others whose letterboxes are firmly labelled as to what can and cannot be posted within.
Husband Steve and I have been helping out two friends standing for office in Nelson delivering leaflets around our Stoke neighborhood the week before the postal ballot papers drop. It’s been pleasant, taking gentle exercise in the spring sunshine, enjoying gardens bursting with daffodils, freesias, heavily scented magnolia and michaelia and frilly pink and white cherry blossom. The tiny lawns are emerald green and the trees and shrubs that edge them are almost fluorescent, so glowing is their fresh, lime-green growth.
But walking the streets of Stoke has given me time to think about the way we live in the urban environment. And, despite the burgeoning spring growth, my thoughts were not altogether happy.
Stoke began to grow as a suburb in the 1950’s and 60’s in response to the post-war baby boom. Before that date hops, orchards and farmland spread out around the small village that grew up centered on the stone and brick homestead begun by Thomas Marsden in 1848 and completed by his widow in 1883.
In 1977 Steve and I bought our first home, a weatherboard 1960’s ‘baby-boom’ house on a fifth of an acre. Since then the suburb has grown steadily into a densely packed urban sprawl. The last twenty years has seen great swathes of single-story, grey-roofed houses cover land previously used to grow apples, pears and peaches. Built on pocket-handkerchief sections and surrounded by wooden paling fences often 1.8m high, most are classic building company ‘starter’ homes.
Apart from that one assertive woman, the weekday afternoon streets were almost totally empty, the houses shuttered, the spring air dense with silence. A few dogs barked at me from behind high fences, obviously pleased to be able to react to something live moving in their territory. There were one or two elderly men cleaning their cars with laborious attention and a woman pulling paspalum from amongst her daffodils, but that was all.
I tried a cheery, “Good morning, what a lovely day!” The car cleaners didn’t respond and the weeder agreed and then turned back to her ill-disciplined border. It was downright odd and even a little bit eerie. On Saturday morning I set out again. This will be livelier, I thought. But no. I saw more people but they were in their cars, driving away.
Walking around Stoke’s empty suburbia took me right back to Pakuranga in January 1986. Steve and I were moving north from Nelson and house hunting with some urgency. At the start of December, he’d been appointed Head of Commerce at St Peters College in Mt Eden.
On Christmas Day our third child was born, we’d sold our Stoke home after Christmas, booked the moving company and now we needed to find somewhere to live. And so we found ourselves, plus four-week-old baby, in a Real Estate Agent’s car, turning off the Pakuranga Highway and winding through the suburb’s streets. Something felt very wrong. The baby began to grizzle and wouldn’t stop. We walked through a couple of brick and tile houses. Built in the seventies, decorated in brown and gold tones, bottle glass screens and wrought iron balustrades were everywhere.
The prices were realistic but the houses were awful and Steve’s commute into Mt Eden was going to be long and pricey and so we told the agent, “Not this area thanks.” As we drove back towards the center of the city, I realized what had spooked me. The streets were empty. Not one mum pushing a stroller, no dog walkers, no joggers – not even a mailman. Here was a true dormitory suburb and I had no desire to be trapped in such a place.
Thirty-five years later in New Zealand we’re still building suburbs just like this, sucking up valuable rural land around cities in ‘green fields’ developments with scant regard for infra-structure or community facilities. It’s no surprise that depression and suicide statistics are climbing.
It’s no surprise that, despite living cheek-by-jowl, community cohesion is failing or that loneliness is rampant amongst the elderly and housebound. And, I thought, as I walked through those empty streets, it’s also no surprise that people are disengaged from local body politics. Our built cities have an impact on the quality of life of everyone who lives in them. We need to do much better and I’ll be looking for local government candidates who are promoting change.