Christchurch was never going to be rebuilt quickly or entirely

Christchurch was never going to be rebuilt quickly or entirely.

Half a decade later it’s still looking like the remains of a city. It’s a shell of its former self with most of the CBD looking like a car yard or a tidier Chernobyl waste land.

In a way, the CBD is the perfect back drop for a post apocalyptic zombie flick: desolate and abandoned.

That some people are upset Christchurch hasn’t much transformed and are now lamenting the fact doesn’t surprise me. What did they expect?

Did they really think the city would be rebuilt in five years? Surely not? But apparently so.

What people in Christchurch are discovering is the grim reality that property developers all over New Zealand have known for a long time – that nothing happens quickly. For lots of reasons.

One reason is that everyone moves, including businesses that shift in the weeks after disaster to any working accommodation that can be found….. to become locked in long-term leases and unable to return to their old locations.

Homeowners discover more exciting new suburbs or decide to quit the city and haunting memories. Old suburbs lay forgotten.

Sure, lots of stuff has happened in Christchurch. This isn’t to ignore that. But it’s not back to its former glory. The CBD isn’t rebuilt. Key projects aren’t done.

But a lot of people were promising it.

The fact is that cities don’t transform quickly. It’s more like a slowly dripping tap. ??

Bureaucracy, finance, design, consenting and limited custom drip feed the opportunities over lifetimes. Investors miss out. Some strike it lucky.

Property developers and investors scoop up the dregs of what they can pull together when the opportunities come and the rest of the time they wait. That’s the cycle. That’s how cities are built. In a piecemeal fashion over a long time.

Christchurch shouldn’t be a surprise. It should be a stark reminder of how hard it really is. The city is a new canvas awash with insurance cash and residents’ needs and where plenty of vacant land sits ready to rebuild upon for commerce and residential.

All the vacant land loudly advertises itself as opportunity. But the grim reality is that rebuilding a city is such a slow-moving feast that one would wonder if it is opportunity at all.

So what’s my point?

Well it got me thinking about Auckland: a city that hasn’t been ruined by disaster and where every piece of land is used for something. Auckland is busting at the seams but it’s not really changing any faster than it has in the past.

Auckland’s change is piecemeal and sporadic. It’s not momentous.

If it’s hard to rebuild Christchurch, then it’s plenty harder to transform Auckland.

No land sits idly by in Auckland ready for someone to develop. The city even has a Council that is harder to work with. At least in Christchurch they want something built.

So how’s a compact city dream for Auckland meant to happen?

Christchurch is our living example of what really happens. And the truth is – not a lot and certainly not a lot quickly. It’s a painfully slow process that will take decades. If not longer.

Which leads to the nuts of this….

In both cities the expectations don’t match reality.

In part that’s because reality isn’t a great story to tell. For our country and civic leaders it’s much easier to sell a dream, and for residents it’s also comforting to hear.

What it isn’t is true. And the truth isn’t pretty – cities don’t change fast. They take lifetimes to change.

After World War 2 much of urban Germany was still undeveloped into the 70s. It took decades to rebuild. And that’s a country with a massive economy.

Christchurch will still have plenty of vacant land about for decades. And Auckland will still be struggling to become something else. Neither is going to happen quickly because cities don’t transform quickly.