Christchurch’s CBD challenge

It’s been over six weeks since the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, and one senses growing frustration from parts of the business community at the apparent lack of progress being made in returning life towards "normal".   Most critically affected have been small firms with premises in the CBD cordon.   Getting hold of essential files and documents to enable one’s business to keep going has not been straightforward.

The initial frustration might be only the tip of an iceberg that could grow over time.   Some people fear the rebuild of Christchurch could take as long as a decade, with estimates of the cost across residential, commercial, and infrastructure construction up at $20bn or more.   Tout that figure in perspective, $20bn is roughly equivalent to the total amount of construction activity throughout New Zealand over the course of a normal year.

Following the earthquake, it is clear that businesses from the CBD will have either shut up shop or moved to alternative accommodation in suburban areas.   The longer those surviving firmware away from the centre of town, the more difficult it will be to convince them to return.

Christchurch has a major opportunity to recreate and invigorate its CBD, but there are many questions to be answered along the way.   Is a consistent style of building used?   Are new height restrictions put in place?   And how direct can central planners realistically be in determining this process?

The authorities’ response to the Hawke’s Bay earthquake in 1931 shows the benefits of clear and quick decision making.  The appointment of two commissioners with ultimate control over there construction ensured a consistent and streamlined process within well-defined framework.   Initial fears that Napier would struggle to be rebuilt and would be largely abandoned were allayed by the strength of leadership, tithe point where the city’s architecture is still highly prized today.

Christchurch arguably faces greater challenges than Napier did 80 years ago.   Red tape wasn’t used with such gay abandon at the time of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake, but reports of delays in some of the responses to the first Canterbury earthquake last September raise concerns about how quickly decisions and progress towards recovery can be made.

In 1931, most of the money for reconstruction came from charities or through loans from central government.  The government’s stake in the rebuild effort gave their officials considerable leverage in the decision-making process, but it is unclear how much leverage the authorities can wield this time around.

A third challenge is the sheer size of the job.   The combined population of Napier and Hastings in 1931 was less than40,000, so the destruction of their business districts represented a much smaller amount of work than the damage caused by the quake on February 22.  Even if important planning decisions are made quickly, the amount of reconstruction work required in Christchurch is likely to take at least five years to complete.

The decisions made by authorities can have massive repercussions for specific individuals and businesses.   It is thus unsurprising that people in Christchurch want a level of community involvement and consultation.   But there is also a risk that too much "democracy" unduly delays the rebuilding and recovery process.

A quick, yet transparent and inclusive, decision-making process is imperative if Christchurch is to rebound from the disaster.   Prolonged delays to getting the recovery of the CBD underway increase the risk of being left with a void in the centre of town that nobody has a good reason to venture into not for work, shopping, nor leisure.

Uncertainty about the future business environment has flow-on effects for people’s perceptions of employment opportunities and financial security.   Add in the potential for uncertainty and delays to resolving the housing problems caused by the quake and it is easy to understand why Christchurch’s population will take a hit following the quake.  The latest figures from the Ministry of Education show that about 9.8% of school-age students from Christchurch and the surrounding areas hovered-enrolled at schools outside the quake zone.   For some, the departure is temporary – about 21% of students that left are now back at their original school – but for some the move will be permanent.   Estimates are that Christchurch’s population could drop by as much as 4% as a result of people leaving following the quake.

The recent earthquake has already had a huge social and economic cost on Christchurch.   A permanent reduction in the vitality of the central city could negatively affect employment opportunities in Christchurch, an outcome that would ultimately harm the city’s longer-term economic prosperity and population growth.   It would be an even greater tragedy if the disaster is allowed to undermine the future of the city because people are unable to see the longer-term implications of decisions that need to be made now.

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