Can We Reach a Solarpunk Future in Tāmaki Makaurau?
by Liam Hansen (they/them)
Liam delves into the sunny, sustainable and sci-fi world of Solarpunk - they chat to researchers about how its ideas can be implemented in real life and sits down with Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick to figure out why the government won’t change anything.
Early in the morning, you wake up to the smell of homemade bread, the sound of chirping birds, the taste of cool fresh air, and the feeling of the sun washing over your face in a plant-filled bedroom. The natural flora outside of your window is radiant and beautiful, with the concrete streets below barely visible from the overbearing nature which has taken hold. Your kitchen contains fresh, unpackaged ingredients, your closet is full of quirky thrifted hand-made gems, and a Studio Ghibli score is playing in the background. You leave your home and step out directly onto a solar-powered streetcar, staring out the window at various crops, vineyards, farms and flower patches. You hop off the streetcar and enter the city, where trees line every street, package-free markets sit behind pedestrianised areas, and shoppers carry tote bags filled with fresh produce. You join them, energised and fulfilled with your life and environment. You do not live in Auckland. You live in a solarpunk fantasy novel. God, I wish that were me.
Solarpunk envisions a universe where we got our shit together and beat the climate crisis, phased out all the things contributing to the destruction of our environment and its inhabitants and replaced them with technology that sees the world clean, green, and absolutely fuckin’ mean.
The speculative fiction community has been creating stories of rebels in dystopias for decades. At this point, you can basically take any term popular in a sci-fi or fantasy novel, smack the ‘-punk’ suffix at the end of it, and boom: you’ve got a new cyberpunk derivative that suckers like me will spend the next three months hyper-fixating on. There’s steampunk, dieselpunk, dungeonpunk and mythpunk, atompunk, stonepunk, nanopunk and raypunk - the list never ends! But these subgenres are usually focused on creating hypothetical dystopias, worst-case scenarios or alternative histories where things went wrong or diverged. But it’s easy to get bogged down with the excessively pessimistic views these pieces of fiction provide - especially when the 21st century is seeing the real world hurtling towards an actual cyberpunk dystopia (with less emphasis on the cool robot arms and more on a post-capitalism hellscape). These worlds were originally created as a response to what could happen, but now with the ideas terrifyingly feasible, how do we approach the invention of new, fantastical worlds that could be seen as any worse than the one we’re already plummeting towards?
Enter solarpunk - a ray of hope for the future of humanity. First defined on the internet in 2008 (but having existed since long beforehand), it takes all the ideas seen in cyberpunk and its derivatives, from adapted forms of modern technology to new ways of presenting cities, and turns it on its head.
Solarpunk envisions a universe where we got our shit together and beat the climate crisis, phased out all the things contributing to the destruction of our environment and its inhabitants and replaced them with technology that sees the world clean, green, and absolutely fuckin’ mean. Think ecovillages centred around farming communities, and cities with dense housing, efficient public transport, and moss growing up the side of skyscrapers. Think community gardens, plant-based homegrown food, and streets where animals happily coexist with humans. Essentially, solarpunk is the good timeline - a source of escapism where we can imagine a world where we can disconnect from our shitty, carbon filled unsustainable reality and pretend that everything is okay.
But happiness and sunshine aren’t the only thing differentiating solarpunk from other punk subgenres. The stories built around these universes have continually made audiences stop, and think “Hey, why don’t we actually do these things? Why don’t we bring these incredible ideas of renewable energy and sustainability into reality?” Sure, many of the ideas in solarpunk are entirely fictional and pretty dang hard to bring into reality - but the concepts aren’t out of reach. For a matter of fact, they’re staring us right in the face. We could bring back old, pre-capitalist systems, like food markets and car-free streets. Solarpunk isn’t just a fantasy - it’s a possibility.
Now, what started off as a late noughties online sci-fi community has developed into a fully-fledged social and environmental movement. Solarpunk gives us an idea of what our future could look like. It romanticises it and fuels a subgroup of angry but hopeful young folks with tactics and methods to fight for a future worth living in. But, just as the solarpunk literary/art movement existed long before people labelled it as solarpunk, the social proposals of the movement have been around for years. Ivy Scurr, a digital ethnographer and PhD student at the University of Newcastle, noted how proto-manifestos to the movement outlined its goals before there was really a term to explain it. Ivy has been researching the online development of solarpunk, from its roots as a media genre to its rise as a social movement, and how it provides a framework of hope to approach the future with. “It's not just art, and it's not just fiction,” she told me. “It's people working in local government policy, architecture, design, DIY - it's people doing activism, engaging in workers rights, working across refugee issues, and everything else in between, so that we can bring everyone along to a future that we all can live in.”
Solarpunk can easily be seen as a purely environmental movement, and for good reason - fighting climate change is at the core of what solarpunks do. But climate change isn’t a solely environmental issue: The working class and poverty-struck people across the world are already being hit hardest by the climate crisis. Solarpunk aims to fight every aspect of that - which Ivy reckons is reflected in its name. “Solar energy comes into solarpunk, not just because it's renewable and doesn't burn fossil fuels to make energy - though that's a big part of it. But also because they allow you to decentralise the energy grid. You can build things at the communal scale, and make interconnected networks of communities that are all equally maintaining and sharing the energy from solar farms as it's needed. It’s decentralising political power, economic power, and - ya know, literal, electrical power.”
Ivy described the bulk of her research as “hanging out in all of the online solar punk spaces I can find, and interviewing and interacting with and following solar punks around the globe.” These communities contain a wide variety of solarpunk-related things - pieces of art, short stories, literature, etc. But it also showcases the direct action solarpunks are taking and seeing in their community that work toward the future they strive for. These sides of the solarpunk community are incredibly interconnected. Even though the fiction side is often having fun with speculative fantasies, Ivy called what they were doing a form of "radical imagination” - an idea brought about by British academics Alex Khasnabish and Max Haiven. We can have these fantastical ideas as a goal whilst actively working towards that future to the best of our abilities. Through her online research, Ivy discovered that solarpunks look for practical action they can take that helps those in their community struggling more than they are.
When it comes to the ways that people can begin practically advocating for and practising solarpunk concepts, the methods and forms of action are practically endless. Generally, everything starts with a kōrero - getting the community together to discuss the ways they can and have implemented solarpunk into their daily lives. An example Ivy bought up was the Italian solarpunk collective Commando Jugendstil. “They've been getting little grants and going to the communities, asking 'What are the problems? What are your anxieties about the future? And what do you want your community to look like? How can we change political environments, energy systems, the economy, etc.' They then collate all of those and write like a little bit of a story about what that positive future town looks like, but then go ‘Alright, how can we work towards that? Are we going to start a community garden? Are we going to start a local renewable energy co-op?’” It’s also common for people to share the action they’ve taken via the internet - that’s where much of the movement for solarpunk began, after all. It’s fascinating, all the different ways people have brought solarpunk into their professions and hobbies - Ivy made an example of an ecologist using mushrooms to rehabilitate their local ecosystem. “They're working in forests at major bushfire risk due to the eucalyptus present. So they're finding all the dead growth, and then inoculating them with specific varieties of fire retardant mushroom spores. So the thing still breaks down and helps the local ecosystem, but it's less of a bushfire risk.”
While these DIY tactics to spread solarpunk ideas are awesome and necessary, a small group of people won’t single handedly be able to transform cities across the world into sustainable utopias. Ivy pointed out how many of the people she spoke to also spent time campaigning on local council issues to improve green spaces, public transport, cycleways, and more. Many are even campaigning for local boards themselves - maybe our future mayor will be inspired by scrolling through solarpunk art on Tumblr or Reddit!
What could it look like in Tamaki
When it comes to the actual changes we need to make in Tāmaki Makaurau, I spoke to Priscila Besen, an architect and lecturer at AUT's School of Future Environments, about the real, practical ways Auckland can become truly sustainable - not just environmentally, but socially and politically. The core of Priscila’s research is based around regenerative design - which aims for self-sufficient designs and practices that actively improve their local environment. “Everything is about restoring natural ecosystems and trying to heal what was done in the past and really go beyond,” Priscila told me. “For example with rainwater, you could clean it on site and harvest it - that could avoid flooding and the spread of waste, but also create habitats for biodiversity. Things like green roofs that are covered in plants and flora can become a habitat for birds and insects.” Regenerative design often adds to existing buildings - which saves time, money and resources. This goes against a lot of solarpunk ideas, which starts from scratch - especially the more speculative examples. For example, glass skyscrapers and strangely-shaped buildings reminiscent of what we all thought the future would look like as kids (with some plants thrown in). It makes a lot more sense to retrofit the buildings we already have, make them safe and healthy to live in - while adding solar panels, green roofs and irrigation. As Priscila said, "When you think about the big picture, we don't want to just demolish things to build new because of all the waste.”
Te Kura Whare
One of the best examples of fantastic regenerative design that Priscila showed me was Te Kura Whare - a headquarter space built by and for the Ngāi Tūhoe iwi of Te Urewera, in the North Island's east coast. Te Kura Whare is an incredible display of kaitiakitanga, being the first building in the country to receive a Living Building Challenge certification referring to an internationally recognised set of strict practices and achievements a building can do to actively improve the surrounding environment. It ticks all the boxes - Te Kura Whare generates all of its own power, treats its own water, has a botanical waste water system, is designed with a ventilation stack that allows fresh air to enter the building overnight, had ninety percent of its construction waste diverted from landfill, and is elevated to protect against flooding and earthquakes - that’s not even the entire list! The mahi and results that came out of this building are a first for our country - and it isn’t really surprising that iwi are leading the way. Ivy pointed this out directly in our chat - “If you're wanting to improve your area's environment and make it more solarpunk, go and speak to the indigenous people. It’s their country, they've been living here for a lot longer than you have, in a very close relationship with the local ecosystem. Ask them what this place was like before it all got colonised and developed with built infrastructure. The ecosystems group like Māori had before colonisation worked, and they could definitely see you in a useful direction.”
Seeing more buildings in Tāmaki Makaurau altered to become regenerative would be an awesome step towards practically making us a solarpunk city - but the movement aims to see regenerative ideas implemented across all aspects of life. In solarpunk art and advocacy you’ll commonly see things like efficient public transport systems, high-density housing and pedestrianised streets. It’s no secret that having fewer cars on streets will lead to less pollution - but these people-centric ideas will also improve people's wellbeing, the city's economy and its housing crisis that leaves many without homes. People often push back against these concepts on the grounds of “preserving Auckland’s character” - by which, they mean keeping up the damp and mouldy Victorian villas seen in central suburbs because they’re pretty to walk past. But we can create more housing density in Auckland Central without destroying the character - it’s already happening overseas. Take The Annex, a historic neighbourhood in Toronto full of mansions originally designed for the richest of the city. But many of these homes have since been subdivided into sole apartments. Imagine if we took large buildings that already exist in Auckland, split them up into different units, and improved them to become healthier and better for the environment. We would see exactly what we see in solarpunk art and fiction - people happily living in eco-friendly homes, situated in walkable areas near public transport.
“If you're wanting to improve your area's environment, and make it more solarpunk, go and speak to the indigenous people. It’s their country, they've been living here for a lot longer than you have, in a very close relationship with the local ecosystem. Ask them what this place was like, before it all got colonised and developed with built infrastructure. The ecosystems group like Māori had before colonisation worked, and they could definitely see you in a useful direction.”
Auckland Central Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick has been advocating for these ideas since her mayoral run back in 2016, and has continued onwards as she’s progressed into her current role. She reiterated the same ideas Ivy and Priscila spoke about, such as regenerative design and kaitiakitanga: “We’re kidding ourselves thinking we can offset our way out of the extraction and destructive practices that humanity has undertaken. In terms of solarpunk and the trends that we're seeing internationally with urbanism and ecosystems, we have a really fascinating context in Aotearoa through engagement with mana whenua to learn what it looks like to live in harmony with the ecosystem, and therefore, to understand the history of the land.”
“If we daylight those streams, then we also have a city centre that is far more resilient to the likes of the extreme weather events that are climate change that we saw on the Auckland anniversary flood weekend.''
An example of this difference between the sustainable and regenerative approaches can be seen in the pedestrianisation of Queen Street - one of the topics Swarbrick has been most vocal about. She pointed out how we could go even further by restoring Waihorotiu Stream - a river that used to run through Queen Street before colonisation. Not only would the lack of cars and increased biodiversity be incredible, and not only would we be restoring an important part of mana whenua that was in the city centre, but we’d also be better off in terms of safety. “If we daylight those streams, then we also have a city centre that is far more resilient to the likes of the extreme weather events that are climate change that we saw on the Auckland anniversary flood weekend.” Swarbrick also highlighted the long-term wellbeing and economic impacts that reinstating Waihorotiu Stream could have, and spoiler alert: they’re good. “We have reams and reams of international economic research on this, which shows that when you move towards creating spaces that are more people friendly, then people aren't just passing through them. They will meaningfully meander, explore, be curious, and enjoy being in those spaces. Queen Street should not be a thoroughfare - it should be a destination unto itself.” It’s not the only time we’ve seen regenerative ideas avoided - take Auckland’s Light Rail plans, which were confirmed last year to be built partially underground. Bringing more efficient public transport to Tāmaki Makaurau is core to improving the lives of Aucklanders in almost every way, especially when millions of dollars are involved, so it’s important to approach it in the most efficient way possible. For the Greens, that looks like above-ground light rail, but the government instead went for the tunnelled Metro - which Swarbrick says “is far more expensive, far less accessible, with far more embodied carbon and far more time wasted.” She spoke on the small businesses along Albert Street who have been impacted by the necessary disruption as a result of the underground development of the City Rail Link and reckons it’s clear evidence that the underground metro isn’t any less disruptive than above ground transit.
Where to from here?
It’s frustrating how easy a solarpunk Auckland could be. We could pedestrianise roads, add regenerative aspects to pre-existing buildings, and create more greenery in the central city. It’d be so easy to take cues from cities overseas to implement regenerative ideas of environmentalism, urbanism and socialism that would combine into a solarpunk oasis. Examples include how George Street in Sydney was pedestrianised, how population density in Toronto’s The Annex was increased, how Amsterdam became the cycling capital in the world, and the different approaches to artificial air-purifying trees seen in Serbia and Singapore. However, Aotearoa refuses to change, no matter how many benefits are obviously visible. Swarbrick only has so much power to advocate for these ideas - she represents Auckland in parliament, but the Auckland Council has the power to loosen restrictions and make our city more livable. Unfortunately, they don’t do that. There are councillors advocating for things that would lead to a solarpunk Auckland, but they’re often outnumbered by those who Swarbrick claims profit from the status quo and paint every threat to it as a threat to “our way of life”. This is a wider cultural issue in New Zealand, which is especially prevalent among those who vote in local elections (i.e., old rich white dudes). The local election voter turnout was pretty abysmal last year, and I hope that changes in 2026. Regional politics are the first step to structural change in our cities, and taking part in decision making is crucial to gaining any semblance of perseverance through the climate crisis. Diving headfirst into solarpunk has ripped my brain to shreds, made me feel every emotion conceivable, and led to me lecturing my poor flatmate about how fucking stupidly easy the solutions to improving our city are. It feels like every sensible decision is avoided, and a better future is slipping further away by the minute. But fatalism defeats the purpose of solarpunk - as Swarbrick says, “The only thing that's ever changed the world is community building, and I don't mean to say that as an esoteric answer - there are very tangible things that we can do to achieve that.” Swarbrick raised several examples taking place right now in Tāmaki Makaurau, from the ‘For The Love Of Bees’ urban community garden in Eden Terrace, to the groups actively fighting against the cuts to Auckland's climate budget through direct guides on how to make a submission - which led to the biggest amount of feedback the council had ever received to an annual budget proposal. As Ivy, the solarpunk researcher we spoke to earlier pointed out, “There's a whole lot of areas where you can ask, ‘What's the thing I'm interested in, what's a problem in my local area, and what can I do to help fix it?’”
Diving headfirst into solarpunk has ripped my brain to shreds, made me feel every emotion conceivable, and lead to me lecturing my poor flatmate about how fucking stupidly easy the solutions to improving our city are.
If you want to become a solarpunk and join this movement in changing our world for the better, this is where you start. Take a look at yourself and ask what you can do to help make change. You can look critically at your own habits and see how they can be improved - and channel that māhi into making the world a better place. The solarpunk utopia is fantastical, but it isn’t impossible. Everyone I spoke to agreed that it was so important to hold this glimmer of optimism close and use it to form communities that are engineered to force our society to change. I mean, the fact that I was able to talk to Chlöe Swarbrick about this weird and incredible sci-fi social movement clearly goes to show that solarpunk is making a difference, and she agrees that there’s no way in hell we’ll be stopping any time soon. “We're starting to see the proliferation of totally different attitudes, which are very disruptive to the status quo,” Swarbrick said. “That's where I think we’re truly seeing the seeds of hope.”