Byron Clark, Christchurch branch organiser for Workers Party
The public consultation for the rebuild of central Christchurch – done though a combination of public meetings and the web 2.0 ‘Share an Idea’ website has thrown up some great plans. The summary of submitted transport ideas outlines a walkable central city with greater cycle facilities, integrated public transport with a central hub, and surprisingly for a city with one of the worlds highest car ownership rates, talk of a car-free central business district like some European cities are heading toward. Is that what’s going to happen though? Architect Ian Athfield who was appointed the city’s architectural ambassador after the September 4 earthquake, has told The Press that his bottom line for the rebuild was “no one-way streets and no unnecessary buses through the city”. Mayor Bob Parker said he has”lots of sympathy” for Athfield’s view.
The need to reduce bus congestion in the central city is a valid one, indeed the public consultation has brought the suggestion of small shuttles in the CBD connecting with the suburban bus routes (and potentially light rail, something the city is yet to develop). Significantly however there has in the past been opposition to public transport initiatives (especially bus priority lanes) from business owners in Christchurch, who see private transport as drawing in the most customers. As such, businesses want car parks near their shops and building owners want to meet that demand to attract tenants.
For those who work in the CBD (a third of Christchurch workers prior to the February earthquake) the city already had one of the highest ratios of car parks to employees in the OCED, and a central hub for public transport would make it the most viable option for workers commuting to the city from the suburbs. Athfield has said “We need to remove buses from the middle of town and replace them with people,” but more likely than not removing buses will replace them with cars, requiring more space for parking and less for people.
Given that both of Bob Parker’s prior election campaigns have been backed by the city’s building owners (his relationship with David Henderson is particularly infamous after the council bailed out the bankrupt property developer) it’s likely that his support for Athfield’s view is reflective of the desires of the people who financially supported him in his mayoralty bid. The Central City Business Association, a cabal of property owners including Henderson, Antony Gough and Richard Ballantyne, was the leading force pushing for de-pedestrianising Cashel Mall, a move the council voted to go ahead with despite 70% of public submissions being opposed to it (though in the end the council did bow to public pressure on this issue). Is public consultation a farce when the councils record shows their reluctance to listen to the public?
Improved public space has been a popular idea as well; prior to the earthquake the city was moving more toward pseudo-public space – seating on public footpaths reserved for paying cafe patrons for example. Cashel Mall was a place where, unlike the suburban malls, activities other than shopping (for example, political leafleting, collecting for charity, and meeting friends with no intention of buying something) is permitted, but the council approved a team of private security guards (paid for by the Central City Business Association) to patrol the area. They also approved building owners to install speaker systems to play music with the aim of driving out undesirable youth (this was not a success – evidently the local bourgeoisie underestimated young peoples appreciation for classical music).
The owners of central city land, whose newly formed lobby group Core (City Owner Rebuild Entity), shows their attitude toward the city, will be excited about the ‘blank slate’ given to them by the earthquake providing an opportunity to recreate the city in their own interests, with a city council they know they can rely on. Those interests are going to come into opposition with the interests of the community, who have demonstrated they care just as much about what kind of city they end up with.