Time to take on our cities hidden challenges

Unless you’re a geotechnical engineer or one of the other professionals that focuses on a city’s hidden challenges there’s a good chance that February’s floods looked like a news story from another country.

For most of us, our understanding of the natural and man-made fabric that holds our cities together is limited to being told that we can’t build on more of our section or trim a pohutukawa that’s blocking our view. Floods in our streets, escarpments shorn of vegetation and sometimes houses, mountains of TVs and fridges at the local tip; all of that had an unreal and even foreign quality. That shock and disbelief is fully understandable, but it should also be seen as a warning that we all have to get involved.

There’s been much talk through last year about local government and central government agencies focussing on ‘core business’ and it has generally been safe to assume that traffic congestion, a housing crisis, or tackling lawlessness were near the top of our concerns. But it’s the hidden consequences of being ill prepared for weather patterns that now seem violently out of kilter that should have been gaining more of our focus.

This isn’t intended to be a political point that I’m making, but when I read about what the experts are saying we need to do to prepare for a climate that’s less benign, I see echoes in the Three Waters debacle.

In both cases, the electorate has trusted its representatives in Parliament and Council to look after the hidden challenges. But we are now seeing that all of us need to be engaged in the conversation to ensure what’s important gets dealt with. Three Waters is an over-reaction from central government to multiple infrastructure issues that that were ignored for too long. This is because we live in democracies, at a local and national level, and we expect our representatives to react to what we believe is important. For the most part that’s exactly what they do, which is why the hidden challenges get relegated.

I’m not suggesting that we should become as knowledgeable about the geology of a slope that’s stacked with homes as we are about travel times on Lake Road, but we do have to signal its importance to the decision makers. We have to take addressing hidden challenges as seriously as we want our elected representatives to.

And this is the critical point. Government action, whether it’s centrally or locally generated, should be a response to the popular will, that’s the point of democracy. Which means each of us has a responsibility to be aware of the challenges our communities face: the obvious and the hidden ones. Because the alternative involves relinquishing our ability to influence decision making, as in Three Waters, or having to pick up the pieces in a city that’s no longer as familiar as it once was.