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Why all the fuss over six trees?

by Rhys Jones

Auckland Transport’s decision to remove six mature pōhutukawa from Great North Road near the SH16 interchange has got many Aucklanders fired up. Protesters have adorned the trees with signs, online petitions have been set up, vocal opposition has been expressed at public meetings, and social media is buzzing with people determined to save the ‘Pōhutukawa 6’ (including, apparently, the trees themselves). Campaigners have promised to take legal action unless Auckland Transport changes its mind.

So why are people so up in arms about an issue that, on the face of it, seems somewhat trivial? Aren’t there bigger problems to worry about? Sure, those trees are valuable in many ways, both tangible and intangible, but shouldn’t we be more concerned about kids going to school hungry or people being unable to afford housing?

Part of the answer is that the process has been appalling. At the resource consent hearing, the vast majority of submissions (mine included) were deemed invalid as they had the wrong reference number. More recently, in the face of public discontent, Auckland Transport has shown a belligerent attitude with a ‘my way or the highway’ response (or should that be ‘my way is the highway’?) There is certainly a sense among many commentators that unelected officials have been given far too much power and that the views of ordinary people are being ignored.

But still, it’s only six trees. What could explain this level of public outrage?

Perhaps it’s the recognition that, in a sane world, this decision could not have been reached.

It’s impossible to imagine anyone looking at that vast expanse of tarmac and saying to themselves, “you know what this area is crying out for – another lane of road”. Or, “gee, I wish someone would get rid of those trees – they’re ruining the uninterrupted asphalt landscape”. And yet that is the decision that has been made – to destroy six 80-year-old pōhutukawa, planted by our forebears so that future generations could enjoy their amenities – in the name of progress.

And what is the incredibly valuable social goal that requires such a sacrifice? Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s so that in about ten years’ time motorists can save a few minutes going through that intersection at certain times of the day. And even that is based on a hypothetical future scenario, using traffic projections from a parallel universe in which current trends are reversed and we inexplicably decide to drive our cars a lot more.

How could this possibly have happened? Surely, when senior Auckland Transport officials were presented with the plan, the response would have been something like, “sorry, that’s not what we had in mind. The aim wasn’t to see how many traffic lanes you could fit into that space – we’re actually trying to achieve a functional, vibrant and attractive area that is designed for people. After all, our city has aspirations to be the most liveable city in the world. So I’m afraid it’s back to the drawing board.”

That is how one imagines our transport leaders would have responded in a sane world. Yet that was not how things transpired – the plan for the intersection was approved, along with the requirement to remove the six pōhutukawa. That is despite the plan being unfit for purpose, having been roundly condemned by transport commentators as being entirely out of step with 21st century design principles.

So we stand to lose these valuable taonga, “the only bit of civility in this area”, for the sake of a negligible time saving for motorists in a distant scenario that, in all likelihood, will never eventuate. Have our priorities really become so distorted that social ideals such as healthy and safe environments, vibrant communities and quality spaces for people are trumped by the desire to drive from A to B more quickly? Has ‘liveable’ really come to be synonymous with ‘driveable’?

In a sane world this decision could not have been reached, so the implication is that we live in an insane world. That is, a world in which decisions are made that go against the best interests of its inhabitants and disavow the values that have allowed human societies to prosper for thousands of years. A world in which power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of privileged elites who exercise that power in ways that make things worse for the majority of us. And that is something that strikes a nerve with people, whether or not they would ordinarily care about a few trees by the side of a road.

It is extremely heartening to see so many people engaged in active citizenship in an attempt to save those six grand, old pōhutukawa. It is undoubtedly a worthy quest: those trees deserve to be cherished and protected. But they also represent the tip of a deeply troubling iceberg. Their planned removal provides a very palpable example of a society moving in direct opposition to the values and aspirations of the people. If we can sit idly by and let this happen – something that is so clearly wrong – what else are we prepared to tolerate?

The fight to save those six trees is symbolic of the broader struggle to save our values, our decency and our humanity in the face of powerful opposing forces. I believe that is why we’re seeing an outpouring of passion and determination seemingly out of all proportion to the issue at hand. That is why so many people are pushing to have the decision reversed – such an outcome would offer hope that the voices of the people can be heard in finding solutions to other, arguably more critical problems. We need to believe that sanity has a chance of prevailing in what increasingly feels like an insane world.

Dr Rhys Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu) is a public health physician and Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland.

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