A rare opportunity for excellence

Colin James for Boardroom on Christchurch and Auckland 28 March 2011

Christchurch was a mostly flat and mostly unremarkable place, with a CBD out of proportion to its modern economic weight. That’s a common Wellington view. Sure, Canterbury is 15% of the national economy but much of that is outside Christchurch. What’s the fuss, now it’s (nearly) off the TV screens?
The fuss is the opportunity. For New Zealand.

There is a another big national opportunity in Auckland, now that it has a political and administrative structure that enables it to operate as one unit.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown most wants it to be the world’s most liveable city. But that is an Auckland-only opportunity, not a New Zealand opportunity, unless it generates other changes that have wider reach.

Brown calls the Auckland spatial plan, now out for discussion, “Auckland Unleashed”. But Auckland has not been on a leash; it underperformed without needing external constraints. If it is to be the dynamic economic and creative catalyst some hope for — the “innovation capital of the Asia-Pacific” the discussion document grandly imagines — it has a big step up ahead.

The challenge for the Auckland Council and the government is to make a plan and policy settings that attract creative people — from artists and researchers to professionals and entrepreneurs — to congregate there and create a high-income centre that lifts the whole country.

That requires imaginative framing plus come-with-me leadership. At the discussion document launch Brown was more declamatory than inspirational. Prime Minister John Key was a good and amiable friend rather than team leader.

It’s early days but if the tone at Auckland “unleashing” is replicated in Christchurch’s revival planning, Christchurch is unlikely to realise its opportunity and in turn the opportunity for New Zealand it offers. That will require more imagination and enterprise in the Beehive than good and amiable friendship.

One model is Napier — as it turned out 60 years after its devastation.

In Napier after a government grant fast-tracked “tin town” to get the place back to business, the town’s four architectural practices combined to design a modern centre. Though they employed different styles, art deco predominated, backed also by the architects retained by nationwide firms to rebuild their branches. Now Napier is a renowned art deco show-town to which cultural tourists come from around the world.

Emulating that microcosm of modernity — say, combining 2010s building designs and human-friendly spaces — is one option for the future Christchurch. Lincoln University specialises in landscaping. Canterbury University’s engineers have developed methods to strengthen wood to use as structural building material and the university has spawned a cluster of high-technology firms. Sir Miles Warren lives there.

But whether that option or another, such an out-of-the ordinary reinvention of the city centre requires imaginative framing and captivating, motivating national and local leadership of the same order Auckland needs to make itself special. This is a high-order management challenge to politicians and officials. Some good news: some big national design businesses have got interested.

The Beehive focus till now has been on rescue and recovery. Rebuild comes next. The government’s drive to balance its budget needs reconstruction started and Christchurch back in business as soon as practicable.

The bigger question, which will be answered long after the budget is fixed (or not) is whether what is rebuilt is just Christchurch or a nationally prized city — a mediocre, functional transit zone tourists come in through and produce goes out through or a feature-city you fly or drive to, not through.

The first option, of course, might serve as an emblem for our she’ll-be-right nation, as has till now the sprawling, brawling Auckland archipelago of overgrown villages.

The problem with that is that the country has been feeling less right to too many people: large numbers decamp to Australia. This was an election issue in 2008 and will be again in 2011, 2014 and probably beyond — unless the mould is broken.

The second option is the national opportunity Auckland and Christchurch have simultaneously presented: to make them emblems of a people hunting excellence instead of she’ll-be-right. Rarely are a government and people anywhere presented with such a game-changing opportunity. Can “ambitious-for-New Zealand” Key seize it?