Byron Clark is an activist based in Ōtautahi / Christchurch.
This article was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City. To susbcribe to our publications, click here.
Six years on from the earthquake that levelled much of the city, the population of Christchurch has almost returned to pre-quake levels. As with everywhere in New Zealand, house prices are up, but rents have fallen slightly from the high point of the city’s accommodation crisis.
Construction is now more common than destruction. In fact, much of the recent population growth has been driven by skilled tradespeople moving to Christchurch from overseas and elsewhere in New Zealand to participate in the rebuild.
The story of Greater Christchurch is different, however. When people moved out of the city following the quakes, many didn’t move very far. While Christchurch’s population declined, the surrounding districts of Waimakariri and Selwyn swelled. These continue to be popular destinations for people searching for relatively cheaper homes than those offered in the city.
In the past year, the population of the Waimakariri District grew 3.7 per cent, and that of Selwyn District 6.6 per cent. This compares to 1.9% for Christchurch City. Even before the earthquake, almost half the population from these districts either side of the city commuted to work in Christchurch. The northern motorway into Christchurch now sees 50,000 cars a day – 10,000 more than before the earthquakes.
Waimakariri is now the South Island’s third largest population centre, bigger than Nelson and Invercargill. However, the regional council (Environment Canterbury, aka ECan) has been ineffectual at providing transport options. In 2014 commuter rail was ruled out as the $10 million price tag was seen as too expensive. Yet currently, $900 million worth of motorway projects are happening around Christchurch.
Despite some bus priority lanes in the northern suburb of Belfast, public transport commuting from North Canterbury is no quicker than travelling in a private motor vehicle. Buses are an option mainly used by those without the option of a car.
Meanwhile, the new commuter town of Pegasus, promoted as a place where one could “live where you play”, was a spectacular flop. The development shifted hands from one property developer to another while those who bought homes there never got the promised amenities such as a supermarket – let alone the yacht club and equestrian centre that were promoted in advertising for the town.
Now a new development, Ravenswood, is about to begin construction. Larger but less ambitious than Pegasus, artists’ conceptions of Ravenswood depict – refreshingly honestly – enormous car parks surrounding the buildings in the commercial area. Anchor tenants have already been found: a supermarket, a petrol station and a fast food outlet. Ravenswood in its current conception depicts an anachronistic model of suburban living that is not sustainable in the twenty-first century.
In the south-west of the city, while commuting times might be shorter (thanks in part to an already completed motorway project) the same suburban story is told. Writing in The Press, Philip Matthews describes the new subdivisions of former farmland:
“Wigram Skies and other new suburbs tell you that the near future will still be car based. These are not pedestrian suburbs. You rarely see anyone walking. The monotony of housing is broken by occasional playgrounds and childcare centres but there are no corner stores and few community facilities. No churches. Shopping is the communal activity.”
The rebuild of the central city has looked more positive. With a new bus station and cycle lanes separated from the roads, Christchurch is starting to look like a modern city should. However, most central city apartment complexes and town houses have been priced out of reach for all but the wealthy, with some priced as high as $1.5 million.
The boarding houses and bedsits that once provided shelter to the inner-city poor are gone, and social housing hasn’t filled the gap. The City Council had 2649 council homes for rent at the start of September 2010, but only 2292 available for rent as of 11th December 2016, according to figures from an Official Information Act request obtained by the State Housing Action Network. Meanwhile, central government plans to sell 2,500 state houses in the city.