A shaky future still for Christchurch


By Don Gordon-Brown

Can I be terribly blunt for a change? Christchurch in New Zealand was no great shakes as a city even before the events of September 2010 and February 2011.
Too soon? Too late?

Too bad. Let me explain. In a recent visit, the place didn’t knock me off my feet (too soon?). Neither did it when I was lured there in 2005 to watch Test cricket between Australia and the Blick Cips but I did come away thinking that first time: “Would I have gone there otherwise?”

Then the country’s second largest city in population, Christchurch had some things going for it but not the full “must see” package. I recall block after block of fairly non-descript low-level commercial buildings that all seemed to have an All Blacks merchandising outlet on every corner and sometimes in between.

Christchurch Cathedral and cathedral square were fine enough – it was lovely to be able to hear the voices of the choir boys raised on high and that might have been because they were singing  – as was the stroll up to the new art gallery and the university precinct. And, yes, there were many lovely heritage buildings and that wonderful splattering of timber structures – domestic, commercial and government – that remain a delight in most Kiwi towns and cities because Johannes Bjelke-Petersen didn’t hail from them before he moved to Australia.

And its little stream … sorry, Avon River… meandering through the city centre, was post-card perfect. But countless English villages have  real English streams that are better, and the Avon does makes the Yarra look positively Danubesque. And calling it a river might find you facing Trade Practices Act sanctions.

Back then Christchurch felt a bit like Toowoomba; not on a range but on a plain. A bit plain. A lot like Brisbane: a stopping off point and a quick peek before heading off to somewhere interesting, in NZ’s case all those places in NZ nestled around lakes overlooked by snow-capped peaks or green-pastured hills dotted with nervous sheep.

So my main interest this time around centred around a few simple questions: has Christchurch made the most of the terrible price it paid, mostly in the earthquake of 2011 with its terrible death toll and the loss of so many heritage buildings? Is a better city emerging from the rubble? Has the chance to rebuild with not just safer structures but a reshaped city heart that beats better than ever before – a place people want to live in and visit – been grabbed by many hands?

christchurch cathedral.jpg

I’m sure many, many minds much smarter than mine worked on a vision for this rebuilt Christchurch but I feel that maybe, just maybe, opportunities are being missed here. Perhaps I’m speaking through my arse; I often do.

I can’t quite remember where the old tourist tram route took back in 2005 but this time round, for a $25 all-day ticket, the tram with its all-female crew headed up Worcester Street to the Avon, took a sharp left just below it and trundled back down Cashel Street, revealing not just the variety of new eateries, retail and banking outlets but just how much damage the quake caused.

Here, within a stone’s throw of the battered cathedral, is a whole massive area of new buildings around the occasional saved facade. The tram lady proudly showed us some of the quirky new architecture and that’s fine. You’d expect that in what is basically a brand new shopping precinct with a tramline running through it.

And if one of the visions of the planning folk is to turn Christchurch into a living, breathing open-air art gallery with all sorts of installations and sculptures that people might one day want to visit just for that alone, you get the feeling the plan is half-baked, underfunded or has a long way still to go. Tram lady points out distant mid-height residential complexes; the planning aim is to build the number of inner-city residents from 5000 to 20,000 and that can only help the CBD’s vitality. There won’t be many car spaces so that will help too.

The tram does a little figure eight and trundles back up past the art galley to the university sector with its grand century-old buildings, the ones that could be saved still under costly repair. The 1944 Sydney-built tram then rattles its way down Armagh Street and squeezes itself through another rebuilt commercial area, this one more like an Asian food lane on European steroids.

I left the tram at its terminus with the sound of rebuilding still all around, wondering if Christchurch is making the very best of the terrible situation it found itself almost eight years ago.

Does the vision for the future slant more towards residents, tourists or equal measures of both? Auckland is the financial centre where the money flows; Wellington is the political capital where the bullshit flows. Both are blessed with beautiful harbours and far more interesting topography, their resident bizzoids and well-paid public servants can probably afford an overpriced coffee or a gastro meal any time they like at any number of the fancy cafes and eateries festering like boils in these cities. Christchurch for mine appears to be on far shakier ground (too soon?), with tourism only slowly rebuilding and I suspect with many young locals, students or otherwise, wondering if they have a future here despite the very optimistic promotional pitch by our lovely tram driver.

As stated, I don’t have a ready answer – they may in fact be doing absolutely nothing wrong given the natural inclination by civic authorities that every dollar spent must be recouped in some way – but I shudder (too soon again?) at the thought that maybe a golden opportunity is being missed here.

Photo credit: Banner images courtesy Tourism New Zealand