Saturday, January 14, 2012

Observations on My Vacations, 1: The Transformation of Christchurch

I've just spent approximately three weeks in the South Island, including Christmas, New Year, two weddings and trips to Hanmer Springs and Queenstown. As usual, this has inspired me to have partially-informed opinions on things, about some of which I intend to write a series of posts. The posts will be, probably in this order:
  • The Transformation of Christchurch
  • The Continuing Dominance of the Motor Vehicle
  • The Cafeterisation of Provincial New Zealand
The Transformation of Christchurch

Any discussion of Christchurch these days immediately devolves to the series of earthquakes that have battered the area. This is fair enough, given the human tragedy and unplanned destruction that has occurred. However, in the longer term, I think the earthquake will be seen as accelerating a transformation that was already happening.

I visit Christchurch on average a couple of times every year, and have the opportunity to draw a contrast both with my more youthful memories and with Wellington. Every time, I get something of a shock at the sprawl, the acres of space dedicated to car parks, the aircraft carrier-sized big box retailers, Riccarton Mall slowly consuming the surrounding streets.

The days are long gone when Christchurch was an "English" market town ordered around its central square. Rather, it has become a loosely ordered regional connurbation that links the port and airport with intensifying farming on the plains, giant malls, sprawling suburbs, clusters of services and manufacturing, and the satellite towns to the north, west and south that are gradually merging with the outer suburbs. Its role model is Auckland, and beyond that, the ribboned cities of the American west and south.

Public discussion of the "rebuild" of Christchurch has tended to focus on what might be made of the central city. But I think that's something of a distraction. The earthquakes that have so undermined the swampy centre and east have pushed traffic and activity to the west, onto the gravelly ground of the plains, ensuring that the city's centre of gravity will ultimately settle there.

The string of further sizeable quakes that kicked off on December 23 have solidified this process. Already, ideas about the "rebuild" are being scaled down and there's talk about the temporary "pop-up mall" in shipping containers on Cashel St becoming a semi-permanent feature.

There may well be something attractive to come out of a central city redevelopment If the opportunity is not taken to create a space completely friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, there's truly no hope for humanity. However, this is unlikely to be the city's commercial heart. To obtain any sort of insurance, permanent structures in the area will need to have the highest level of earthquake safety, making them expensive to build, own, and of course rent. The central city will be unlikely to be abuzz with small businesses; nor will it be a bohemian den of students and artists.

I can see it eventually becoming an "old town" of parks and gardens, some government services, boutique retailers, maybe some bars and cafes. It should be friendly to tourists and local visitors alike. Hopefully there'll be ruins that are preserved and turned into museums and memorials and the condemned land in the northeast will be transformed into landscaped recreational space. Meanwhile, the mallification of the city will continue apace, and it's most dynamic activity will be based around distributed centres in Riccarton, Papanui, maybe Sydenham/Addington.

I actually like some of the longer-term changes that are in the works, in that they acknowledge what the city has become and make something coherent out of it. The new express route linking Rolleston with the southern motorway will make sense of the weight of population that's shifted there and end the pretence that a country road gently working its way through the outer suburbs can support the roaring semi-trailers, the tourists and the burgeoning commuter traffic. The four-laning of Russley Rd and the proposed flyover at Memorial Ave will eventually create a genuine north-south bypass. These road systems should produce a better functioning regional hub that links the northern and southern hinterlands.

How sustainable this is going to be as oil gets inexorably more expensive, I don't know. For that reason, but also because I'd just like to see it, I hope there are some plans for the parallel development of alternative transport options. If the satellite towns are going to continue to grow, these could improve the viability of a commuter rail service along the existing lines. As new motorways are developed, this could create the space for protected cycle routes along the older roads. However, given the apparently universal assumption that everyone has a car and drives it everywhere, all the time, I'm not getting my hopes up.

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