NZ’s perennial parochialism: why it has no place in the Christchurch rebuild
New Zealand’s central government politicians have proven time and again that they don’t understand urbanism. The current government’s position on Auckland for example is essentially that the city is an inconvenient obstacle to efficient freight movement. They don’t seem to grasp that people are the lifeblood of cities: the idea of the city as a place for people is alarmingly foreign. This attitude is routinely attributed to New Zealand’s anti-urban view and the idealisation of the large lot and rural lifestyle. It is oddly paradoxical that a country with almost 90% of its population living in urban areas is apparently anti-urban. Is it just the politicians?
The politicans’ anti-urban streak reared its ugly head again this week after the release of Christchurch City Council’s vision for its city centre rebuild. The document was put together by 60-odd planners, and drew on the vast bank of ideas that the people of Christchurch had submitted to the ‘Big Idea’ website (which incidentally is one of the best examples of public participation in the planning process that I’ve seen). The plan is indeed full of big ideas: a wide green corridor around the Avon River, a light rail system, human-scale buildings, a memorial to the Earthquake victims. Above all, it is a vision, ambitious and aspirational in its scope. It deserves the highest praise.
Cue the party poopers from Wellington to pour cold water on the plan. Immediately, Gerry Brownlee pronounced the plan “a pretty big wish list”. Jim Anderton was spewing out soundbites about how stupid an idea light rail was, how light rail bankrupts cities, how we need to be realistic about what we can afford, how Bob Parker was “in dreamland” (mayoral election’s over Jim), and about how we should be spending our money on helping victims not on grand plans. This response shows us that while our politicians make all sorts of aspirational noises, their usual approach to an urban problem is parochial, short-sighted, lowest-common-denominator, she’ll be right mate, as long as there’s plenty of roads and parking. They get away with their parochialism by disguising it behind the smoke-screen of fiscal prudency.
Christchurch needs its businesses trading to recover. But even more so, it needs its people back. In the immediate aftermath of the February earthquake, the city lost 65,000 people. While many returned, projections show that Christchurch will lose 15,000 people permanently -4% of its pre-quake population. If people are the lifeblood of cities, then Christchurch is worse off for every person lost. To bring the people back, there needs to be something to come back to. This demands more of the rebuild than more of the same. Christchurch must set itself apart: the vision delivered by Christchurch’s planners, and inspired by the ideas of Christchurch’s residents; does just that.
Natural disasters on the scale of the Christchurch earthquake are a human tragedy, but the silver lining can be in how a city reinvents itself. New Zealand’s best example is Napier which rebuilt itself as an art-deco town following its big quake in the 1930s and has subsequently become defined by its architecture. San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake flattened the Embarcedero Freeway, an ugly stretch of motorway viaduct which ran along the city’s waterfront. Today in its place is one of the world’s great public waterfronts.
Christchurch now has the opportunity to remake itself in a similar way: to attract its people back, make itself a destination again, even an example to other cities in the same way that Napier and San Francisco are. It’s what the people of Christchurch want, need and deserve. It’s what Christchurch’s planners have tried to deliver. Now is not the time for small-minded decision making by our politicians. Obviously affordability and fiscal prudence is important. But when the government is already committed to spending almost $9 billion on the rebuild, why not spend a little more and make Christchurch a great city rather than a merely habitable one?