It boasts beautiful beaches, a temperate climate and a multicultural population that has fostered an eclectic mix of food, music and arts. But is Auckland, a remote outpost in the South Pacific, really the world’s most liveable city?
A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit released this week ranked the New Zealand city above Vienna, Melbourne and other previous winners, thanks to its success in suppressing Covid-19.
Wellington, the New Zealand capital, also shot up the rankings to fourth place, while four Australian cities made the top 10.
The survey compared 140 cities across the world in terms of stability, healthcare, culture, infrastructure and a range of other factors.
“New Zealand’s tough lockdown allowed their society to reopen and enabled citizens of cities like Auckland and Wellington to enjoy a lifestyle that looked similar to pre-pandemic life,” said Upasana Dutt, head of global liveability at EIU.
The accolade surprised some New Zealanders, who pointed to the harbour city’s housing crisis, traffic gridlock and low wages. Auckland was recently ranked the fourth least affordable city for housing in the world by Demographia.
European and Canadian cities slipped in the Economist’s rankings because of heightened stress on healthcare caused by the second wave of Covid-19 cases and requirements to maintain social distancing restrictions.
Compared with many people living in cities in Europe or North America in recent year, Auckland’s 1.7m residents have enjoyed a charmed existence. In February, the “city of sails” hosted the America’s Cup yacht race, while spectators have flocked to rugby matches, concerts and other entertainment events for most of the year.
Schools have largely stayed open as authorities’ early decision to close the country’s borders and introduce social distancing restrictions limited the number of infections in New Zealand to fewer than 2,700 cases, which led to just 26 deaths.
Friday marks 104 days since the last case of Covid-19 community transmission was reported, on February 28.
It is no surprise then that more than 40,000 New Zealand citizens have returned from overseas since the pandemic struck last year, a trend that pushed the nation’s population to more than 5m late last year.
“I always intended to come home, it’s part of the Kiwi mentality to go overseas and gather experience and bring it back,” said Jane Henley, who gave up a job at the World Bank in Washington to return to Auckland as the pandemic began to spread.
Henley said she returned home a little earlier than intended in part because of concerns about guns laws in the US. But she has few regrets, citing Auckland’s friendly culture, access to nature and laid back attitude.
But Henley, an expert in sustainable building programmes, admitted that Auckland had considerable challenges including traffic congestion, expensive housing and comparatively low wages.
“House prices are similar to London or New York, or at least equivalent compared to wages. But wages are a lot lower than they should be compared to the price of houses,” she said.
House prices in Auckland have surged 21 per cent in the year to the end of May, with the average house price now NZ$1.3m (US$934,000), according to QV, a valuation and property services company in New Zealand.
New Zealand is grappling with a severe housing shortage, with about 22,000 people on social housing waiting lists despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s 2017 electoral pledge to tackle both the housing crisis and inequality.
“The truth is we have a two-tier city,” said Jan Rutledge, general manager of De Paul house, an emergency housing service in Auckland.
“This is a beautiful city for those with secure housing and employment, but it is very challenging for those without.”
New Zealand’s Covid-19 success has boosted its economy, which is forecast to grow 2.9 per cent in 2021. Unemployment is 4.7 per cent.
The pandemic has also fostered a boom in film production in the country, with projects and international stars seeking safe conditions and a lifestyle free from lockdowns.
James Cameron is filming multiple Avatar sequels in New Zealand and work is continuing on Amazon’s Lord of the Rings television series, with the government granting border exemptions to enable crucial personnel to travel into the country. International film productions will generate NZ$730m spending this year, according to the New Zealand Film Commission.
Cameron, who is Canadian, and his wife Amis told an audience in Auckland this week that they were living full-time in New Zealand and “loving it”.
The film director said the past four years had been “absolute hell” in the US during the Trump presidency.
New Zealand has shown the world another way, Cameron added. “It’s a certain sense of duty to each other, that you’re part of a team, that you will sacrifice for each other.”