Four years after the big quake central Christchurch continues to go backwards. The city feels dead, writes James Dann.
FOUR YEARS ON from the biggest quake, and most of the discussion about the rebuild still focuses on the central city. Despite the fact that hardly anyone lives here, and not that many people even work here, the city is still the symbol. I realise it’s a narrow focus, and that me and people like me, who have done things like writing a book about it, have contributed to this obsession. Greg Jackson summed it up well at Public Address:
Along with most of Christchurch the preening, keening, posturing and wrath of the inner city dramas is totally peripheral to our lives. Christchurch devolved to residents living in their villages post-quakes and in many ways it has stayed that way, even with a unifying City Council in place.
While I’d like to spend more time talking about the suburbs, I’m once again going to touch on the centre. Without boring you too much with the back story, I’ve lived in the central city for most of the last decade. I moved back in to the CBD after the quake in December of 2013. Back then, 15 months ago, it felt like the city was making progress. Cafes such as C1 were buzzing, and lots of people – not just from out of town, but from the suburbs of the city – were visiting. But now, it feels like the city is going backwards. Shops are closing, or looking like they’re about to close. Outside of the main tourist area, Re:Start mall, the city feels dead. It’s not just me who’s observed this:
On weekends I drift from street to street in search of company, but all I see are empty car parks, dusty building sites and quiet streets. The few people who do venture into town cluster in a few select spots – New Regent St, the Re:Start and Victoria St at night.
A lot of visitors to the city can’t believe how slow things appear to be going. Sure, there are a lot of flash buildings going up down Victoria St and Cambridge Terrace – but if you look a bit closer, you’ll see that many of them are untenanted, and have been for more than six months now. Beyond the office blocks and monolithic government projects, there is little to see, four years on. The minister insists that housing is something that is best left to the free market, but with almost no residential development being consented within the CBD four years on, it’s clear that the market has made up it’s mind; Central Christchurch is no place to live.
When the council and the CCDU suggested that they would like to see 20,000 or 30,000 people living within the four avenues, I argued that they weren’t being ambitious enough. Now, with fewer than 5,000 people living here, and most of them living on the northern and eastern fringes of the avenues, it is clear that 20,000 or 30,000 was far too ambitious a total. Without some significant change in either local or national government’s attitude to proactively intervening in the central city housing market, we have to accept that the utility of the central city will be limited. The area will continue to hollow out, like it was pre-quake, with shoppers increasingly voting with their cars and heading to the malignant suburban malls. Small sections will come alive at night, as younger people coming to drink and vomit at whichever bars are currently on-trend. The retailers in the city will try and compete with the malls by becoming more and more like them.
None of the positive connotations we associate with a metropolis – vibrancy, change, bustle, convenience, choice, innovation – can be found here at the moment. While in the time after the quakes, cities such as Melbourne were frequently mentioned as to what Christchurch could be; those sort of calls aren’t heard any more. Sadly, future Christchurch is more likely to look like a Turbo Timaru or a Hefty Hamilton – a rural service town on steroids. It’s not what the people asked for in Share an Idea, but it’s what we’re getting. While the central city is bogged down with grand government visions (and their nonsensical attempt to prop-up property prices), the suburbs haven’t looked backwards.
A couple of months after the big quake, there was a daft “Love Christchurch” advertising campaign. Four years on and sadly, there is no city to love. Christchurch is a collection of a mega malls and their feeder suburbs, with a better-than-average rugby team. There is no better symbol for the neglect the government has paid to the central city than their treatment of the Cathedral and the Town Hall – buildings of religious and civic togetherness respectively, which the authorities would happily see wiped off the street maps of any future city. I’d love to see a vibrant, bustling, liveable central city – but after four years, it has become clear that that won’t be happening in this city under this government.
This article was first published by Rebuilding Christchurch.
* The YouTube video is of the Sleater-Kinney song from which this post takes it’s name.