Traveling in Auckland, New Zealand, for the first time I am struck by the cleanliness of the city.

One morning, my wife and I walk a stunning 2-mile stretch of harbor on a wide pedestrian promenade dotted with flora thriving in planters along its border. Immaculate stainless-steel restroom facilities flaunting graffiti-free surfaces are interspersed every quarter-mile or so. Dozens of shiny waste receptacles in perfect condition perch on sturdy waist-high stanchions, and though small by our standards, not a single one overflows with trash.

In fact, along our entire walk, absolutely nothing is broken, vandalized or out of place. Nothing. But, as impressive as the land conditions are, the harbor itself is even more remarkable.

The Auckland waterfront is a city-side stretch of the southern Waitemata Harbour coastline in Auckland City, New Zealand. It is increasingly open to recreational public use with a number of former wharves being converted to office, entertainment and also some residential use. Whither Honolulu? Flickr: Bernard Spragg. NZ

It is ridiculously clean. As we walk, my eyes search the water with increasing disbelief; there isn’t a single speck of rubbish. And, in a harbor that houses more than 2,000 boats, not even an oil slick mars the water’s surface.

A mile along, I am absolutely certain that this Disneyesque perfection cannot continue. Certainly, a discarded water bottle, a plastic bag, a candy wrapper, a damn cigarette butt for gosh sake, will rear its ugly head and quell the distressing discontent growing in my stomach.

Over a thousand paces later our idyllic harbor walk ends as beautifully as it began. It is a revelation. But, it is also a huge confront, as my dissatisfaction surges and I can’t help but think: Why can’t our own island home in Hawaii be like this?

Our Lowered Expectations

On the return walk, I ponder how such incredible conditions can exist in the peak summer period, with maximum usage of the 2,000 boats, and thousands of locals and visitors traversing the boardwalk daily. I am certain that any number of civil servants working hundreds of hours could not maintain this degree of cleanliness.

Extraordinary conditions like this would take a concerted effort by an entire community with the rest of the city also as clean and impeccably maintained as well. And two words come to mind: civic pride. Then, the sad realization: They obviously have it. And we don’t.

The author and his wife found downtown Auckland extraordinarily clean, unlike Honolulu. Flickr: Jason Pratt

Not that none of us in Hawaii has it or even that a majority of us don’t. But, to have conditions like this harbor and the rest of the city, everyone — or at least the vast majority of us — has to have it.

On our return leg of our walk we see several tour buses dropping off dozens of Asian tourists, many of whom immediately crowd the restrooms, while others begin walking along the boardwalk to stretch their legs. Many light up cigarettes but all are mindful of their beautiful surroundings and do not toss their butts onto the ground or into the harbor. They mindfully use one of the many convenient waste receptacles which have ashtrays built into them. I think they would sooner toss their litter on the floor of the Sistine Chapel than in this pristine environment.

Our expectations for our city have been lowered to a point where we accept what is generally unacceptable in many places around the world.

A few nights later we are having a conversation with our host and I express my admiration for the extraordinary cleanliness we experienced along the harbor and in his city in general. He laughs and says, “We don’t think it’s clean enough.”

I look at him to see if he’s kidding but he’s not. And that seems to be the difference: Our expectations for our city have been lowered to a point where we accept what is generally unacceptable in many places around the world. Because, “That’s just the way it is here.”

The next day, walking the Auckland city center, I see a worker scrubbing what appears to be remnants of graffiti from a public statue. It is the first evidence of graffiti my wife and I have encountered after walking and riding in and around the city for several days.

One Tree Hill, also called Maungakiekie, is a 597-foot volcanic peak in Auckland. It is an important memorial place for both Maori and other New Zealanders, and the summit provides views across the Auckland area. Flickr: Bernard Spragg. NZ

As I pass by him, I hear his grunts of effort and turn to see a look of total disgust on his face as he works to eliminate what I’m sure he considers to be an unacceptable blemish upon his city. This act of vandalism was obviously offensive to him. By contrast, we seem resigned to similar acts. Otherwise, why do we tolerate so much of it?

And it’s not just the lack of litter or vandalism that is impressive but also the lack of homeless people sleeping in the parks and on the sidewalks.

Riding an Uber, we ask the driver whether his city has a homeless problem. He tells us he’s seen a big increase of homelessness in the past few years. Surprised, I ask him where they slept, because unlike Honolulu, in an entire week we had seen exactly one person sleeping in a doorway in the park. He mentions a few places far outside the city center.

That night I ask our host whether it’s against the law for the homeless to sleep in the parks or on the sidewalks. He says matter of factly, “No it’s not, but they have better options.”

I say, “You mean like shelters.”

He simply replies, “Yes,” looking at me like of course there are viable homeless shelters in his city.

Who’s Responsible?

Many of us are familiar with the “Broken Window” theory where minor social disorders are a precursor to more serious crimes. The theory also addresses the social cycle of litter and vandalism: “Consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse. Vandalism… can occur in any civilized community when communal barriers — the sense of mutual regard and obligations of civility — are lowered by actions that suggest apathy.”

When things begin to fall into disrepair and are not fixed or cleaned in a timely manner, it says that no one cares, which invites others to be equally uncaring, the result being increased litter and vandalism. Litter begets litter, vandalism begets vandalism, neglect begets neglect. Lower expectations and apathy create a race to the bottom.

In 2014, Auckland Airport announced a 30-year vision to build the airport of the future. More more $1 million is being invested every working day in aeronautical infrastructure to ensure that the facility can accommodate 40 million passengers and 260,000 flights by 2040. Flickr: xiquinhosilva

It takes weeks, even months, and shockingly, sometimes years for things to get fixed in this town; a clear failure of our city and state government. But, as taxpayers, we aren’t demanding quicker and more effective action; a clear failure of our citizenry.

Whenever we talk about improving things here, whether it is vandalism, the poor condition of our public facilities or homelessness, the usual excuses come up. “Well, that’s how it is. It’s the unions’ and politicians’ fault or the public just doesn’t care.”

Our resignation and apathy is reflected in the poorest voter turnout in the nation, but is only part of a wider cultural malaise.

Like our host in Auckland, who expected his city to be even cleaner than what my wife and I already considered immaculate, we need to raise our expectations of our city and state officials and also of ourselves. But only if we want the kind of city we think we deserve.

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