Here is an idea for the rebuild of Christchurch that I’d like to put forward, a mere suggestion, something to be critiqued, laughed at, pooh-poohed or championed – I don’t know. But I do know that I’d like to have a discussion about the CBD, and this could be a starting point for it.

Let’s move the CBD. Let’s rebuild it where Sydenham used to be, between Brougham St and Moorehouse Ave. This region – apart from Sydenham, which was largely destroyed by the first and then the second quake – is mainly brownfield. Former factories and low-density industry. Not generally a good use of space. Few of the buildings here have much architectural merit. The only buildings that people would really miss have already been knocked down by nature or demolition crews.

So why build the CBD here? Well, I think it has a number of things going for it. Brougham St and Moorehouse Ave are two of Christchurch’s largest arterial roads, which make access from most parts of the city reasonably easy. But more importantly, if we are thinking about a post-petroleum future, the main railway line in Christchurch runs parallel to Moorehouse Ave. This could be brought back into use for passenger rail, which would connect offices in Sydenham to workers coming in from Lyttelton, Opawa, St Martins and Waltham to the east and south, and Addington, Riccarton, Fendalton, Merivale and Papanui to the west and North. It would also mean that our importers / exporters / manufacturers were closer to the shipping system, the main means of getting things in and out of Christchurch – and a method that will become even more critical as oil prices rise.

By relocating the business district, the focus of Christchurch would move slightly to the south. It is about 2km from Bealey Ave to Moorehouse Ave, so it is not a great distance in absolute terms. But shifting towards the south would produce natural barriers to the further expansion of Christchurch. At the moment, urban sprawl is probably the city’s greatest urban development problem, as more and more suburbs pop up to the west and north of town – and then suburban malls pop up to service those populations. Sprawl needs to be heavily disincentivised, something which consecutive councils have totally failed to be able to do. As oil heads to $3 a litre at the pump, heading to who knows how high in 20 years, a commute from Rolleston or Northwood into Sydenham is going to become prohibitively expensive. This could be used to spur on medium to high density residential developments in the band of suburbs to the south of Brougham St; Spreydon, Barrington, Somerfield, Beckenham, Waltham. Whilst people will be reluctant to live in low to medium rise buildings this soon after the quake, we know that they can be designed and engineered to withstand quakes, and with modern techniques would actually be safer than many of the old brick and weatherboard houses we currently live in.

And what of the current CBD? When the wrecking balls have moved out and the dust has settled, we will see a barely recognizeable central city. Many of those buildings that are left will have to be rebuilt over many years. Most of what is important about central Christchurch was cultural – the Cathedral, the Arts Centre, the Art Galley, even Ballantynes is as much a cultural institution as it is a retail one. So we rebuild within the four avenues with the focus on residents, retail and on culture; bring people back to live within the four avenues, build them an urban environment that encourages good living and community. Change the city plan so that new buildings can be three or four stories at the maximum; ground floor retail with quality residential in the floors above. The fabric of the CBD is so completely unravelled that we have a once in multiple-generation chance to recast it to a new pattern; a pattern that puts people first and foremost, rather than an afterthought. One that encourages the extinct community aspects of a capitalist society – short walks to the butcher, baker and greengrocer, rather than long drives to the fluroescent soul-pit of the suburban supermall.

Look at a city like Paris. The centre city is build to a strict code, no buildings over six stories, dense apartments with shops along the street at the bottom. The business district – La Defense – is out of the centre of the city, in a special area where buildings can be much taller. It’s connected by the metro to the rest of town, meaning an easy trip to the shops or an art gallery. Now, clearly we aren’t Paris and never will be. We are at best a large agricultural service town with some dying manufacturing and a couple of government departments thrown in. But if we just say that we will never be anything great, so why bother, then that is exactly what Christchurch will be; tilt-slab hell. This is our chance to make something better, for the future. For New Zealand, we need a city that can counter the economic dominance of Auckland, else we continue to become merely another city-state in the Australian Commonwealth. For the world, this is an opportunity to show how a forward-thinking, independent nation can use passion and vision to rebuild a Christchurch that is a model for a changing 21st century.