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Towards smart local living in a successful economy

Guest Blog by John Gallagher, 24 October 2008

My previous blog asked how New Zealand could situate itself best in a changing wider world. This blog looks at making the most of the locality.

ThinkTank Cafe @ Smart Village in Cairo

The next blog will draw these perspectives together, establishing ground from which to launch a framework for a wider, more connected discussion – an “Antipodean Atheneum.”

I would be very interested to hear from any readers if they see resonances between the issues discussed here and what is happening in their own parts of the world.

A current New Zealand election campaign spat between the left leaning Green and Labour Party on one side, and the right leaning National and Act Party on the other is hardly surprising. However, it points to a need to learn how to develop more subtle framing before the next election’s debates.

According to The Press report 21 October 2008, after the Greens scrutinized the policies of the two major parties, Labour and National, they announced they could not coalesce with the National Party if it won the election. About then, National leader John Key was scoring campaign points by depicting a Labour-Green coalition as “basically a no-growth government.”

The issue here should not be simply growth, but quality of growth. Growth that is both environmentally and financially sustainable. Financially this growth needs to restore positive balances between income, savings/investment and expenditures. With over $NZ150 billion of external debt – per capita among the highest in the world – we have obviously not balanced income and expenditure. We have not since 1973.

This problem is not just about individuals. The nation has yet to create a culture or framework that enables it to pay its collective way in the world. And our political and economic decision-makers have yet to demonstrate the ability to recognise and get on top of the huge socio-economic changes of the last three or so decades.

One problem is that growth is not what it used to be. Once, growth was an unproblematic concept in that there simply had to be more of it. Now limits to various forms of growth are increasingly widely recognized, especially resource-and fuel-intensive and polluting growth. With the critical eyes of the world’s customers and competitors sensitive to such growth, simple-minded dependence on it can quickly become economically self-defeating.

On the other hand, it would be useful if much more was made by Greens (and others) of forms of growth that were both sustainable and desirable. In other words, smarter ways of framing and implementing growth are needed. This means going on new learning curves together.

It is certainly time for all New Zealanders to review – comprehensively – the smart ways for them to pay their collective way in the world. Smarter local planning, mostly overlooked in public discourse and by policymakers, could be very rewarding.

For instance, planning more locally integrated lifestyles could progressively reduce massive fuel-intensive transport and commuting costs involved in much current, geographically dispersed production, employment, marketing, educational and residential spaces. One community with such locality-building initiatives is Project Lyttelton.

Much smarter use could also be made of communications technologies. San Francisco began leading the way especially in 1989 when an earthquake ruptured its major roadways. Many quickly discovered how much of their work they could do from their home computers (The New York Times 15 November 1989). Now with broadband coming into vogue, in conjunction with chronic fuel price and financial instability, I believe that such cost-saving telecommuting is set to become ever more popular. (Refer to a report and discussion about the pros and cons of telecommuting in the Information Week, Jun 18, 2008).

New communications technologies could offer some very exciting possibilities for a remote New Zealand that gets smart about developing brokering relationships of various kinds with the rest of the world.

It is also my belief that there are ways in which the locally-based forms of networking could give considerable depth to such brokering activities, making their implementation highly robust and effective. I shall begin to take these up themes in my next blog.

Your comments, questions, and ideas are most welcome.


  1. Don says:

    Hello John

    I have some comments I would like to make about growth and New Zealand earning its way with a massive load of debt.
    When I first visited New Zealand and Australia in the 1980s, I was impressed with several things. One of these was the public health system and the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme. It appeared to me at that time that the governments were endeavouring to reduce the cost to their citizens of basic services. Victory food gardens during the wars are an example of positive community response in adverse circumstances.
    A similar approach should be taken now where installing renewable energy and public transport would achieve two things: promote self sufficiency and reduce overseas debt, eg oil. Community food gardens could be another. Car sharing and cohousing are other options.
    However, it appears that growth these days is promoted via McMansion housing estates and greater consumerism.
    This, of course, is the path to permanent indebtedness, and great unhappiness.
    The networking of individuals as you describe is crucial to success, as very few councils or parliamentarians are forward thinking.

  2. John Gallagher says:

    Yes, thanks Don – I have just been re-reading your very practical and right-on comments. They express sentiments that I have been thinking more about again lately.

    A basic aspect of a successful economic strategy to get on top of international debt is indeed to spend less by doing more locally and sustainably.

    Your examples are obvious, yet they are only given very limited attention in public policy or discussion – such as growing more food in local community gardens for local consumption, and making much more use of shared public transport to take “more people for more miles per gallon.”

    Increasing international concern about “food miles” will increasingly focus more and more minds in these directions.

    The principle is, do first at a local level what can be done locally, and when things can’t be done locally, move to national, and then to international levels.

    More locally-based re-cycling is another obvious way to go.

    This doing more locally what can be done locally, and then going up to the next level through to international levels, is called the “principle of subsidiarity.” The term has currency in Europe, although the very local aspects of this are not always stressed there.

    I would like to see more discussion about subsidiarity in New Zealand. There would still be national and international trade in goods, but there would be less of it where they could be obtained at more local levels.

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