The idea of moving the university back into the centre of town has come up a couple of times in the last few days – once in the letters page of the Press, as well as being mentioned by Bob Parker on his interview on Close Up last night. It’s hardly an original one – but one I am very supportive of (you hear that Bob? I agree with something you said!) Universities and students bring a vibrance to the centre of cities that business districts can’t compete with. They attract people who are a little rough around the edges, who have different ideas and different ways of doing things. Many people have said that the demise of the Christchurch CBD began when the University moved out to Ilam in the 60’s and 70’s, though something clearly had to happen to accommodate the increase in students at that time. While many people have issues with Ilam, I am a big fan of the brutalist style that defines so many of the campus’s core buildings (though some, notably the registry, may not be standing in a years time.) Though it’s location and architectural style have their critics, that alone is not a convincing argument for simply abandoning a huge amount of infrastructure.

So while bringing University back into town is an idea I support, it could only work as part of a nationwide reassessment of our educational priorities and our vision for what a New Zealand city should look like in the 21st and 22nd centuries. We already have two Universities and a Polytech in Greater Christchurch, and the financial situation of each of those institutions has been in the news since the reforms of the early 90’s. The University of Otago also has a strong presence at Christchurch Public Hospital (where I am a student), with around 1000 medical and postgraduate students per year. Does Christchurch have the population to support all these educational institutions?

At this stage, I would suggest the answer to that question is no. It will be interesting to see what effect the quake has on the rolls of the institutions, especially Canterbury. One would suspect that enrolments – both internal and external – will dip next year. This may have serious ramifications on a University that was already attempting to do things like cut back on library staff. Assuming that in say, five years, enrolments across tertiary institutions have stabilised again, a central city campus might be viable.

The idea of relocating the University of Canterbury into the centre of town might be nice, but doesn’t address what to do with the Ilam Campus. Sure, you could knock it all down and build some more houses for the customers of Riccarton Mall. I don’t think that’s what the city needs. Moving a whole university out of their largely undamaged – or at least salvageable – buildings would also be a gross waste of capital for an economy that is clearly on it’s knees. Why direct money that we don’t have and tradespeople that will be in short supply to build something that is a duplication of a perfectly functional campus? That would seem to be the perfect definition of one of Bill English’s infamous “nice to have” things. However, I don’t think that we should rule out the idea of a University in the centre city just yet – but it would be contingent on our plans for the city as a whole. How do we see Christchurch in 50 years? What do we think the population will be, and where will they live?

My admittedly utopian vision is of a Christchurch of 750,000 – 1,000,000 people, with a significant number of them  (250,000 ish) living within the bounds of the Four Avenues. Given that we had around 10,000 people who were living within the Four Aves on February 22nd, suggesting that we have 25 times the number of people in the area is a little mad. But increasing the urban density of our city in a marked way like this is the only way we will be able to justify infrastructure improvements like light rail and a city university. The area bound by the Four Avenues is actually really big, and really badly utilised. By building medium to high density 3, 4, 5 and 6 storey buildings, it should be achievable to house that many people, as well as businesses. Unfortunately, in New Zealand we are still tied to the myth of the quarter acre dream, and are unsustainably tearing up paddocks on our city fringes to make that happen (here’s looking at you, Rolleston.) Work, community, transport – so much has changed since the 1950’s, but our collective vision on urban design is still firmly rooted there.

Christchurch’s Australian sister city, Adelaide, would seem to be a good point of comparison. Sure, it has a population around 3 times that of Christchurch, around 1.2 million, but is largely flat, has a meandering river through the centre, lots of cathedrals, and for some reason, the beach suburbs are miles away and kind of forgotten. It has 3 main universities; Adelaide, South Australia and Flinders, which have a student population around 72,000. That doesn’t include polytechs or other research institutes. The University of Adelaide is located on the edge of the CBD, next to the Art Gallery, Hospital and the Botanic Gardens (sound familiar?) Adelaide may not be as trendy as Melbourne or Sydney (in the same way that Christchurch will never been seen to be as cool as Wellington or as busy as Auckland) but it is functional and a highly livable place. Those would seem to be reasonable, achievable and desirable goals for the rebuilding of central Christchurch.

If Christchurch could get to a population of around three quarter of a million, then a central city university (the University of Christchurch? University of Otautahi?) might then become a viable proposition. It could assume the medical teaching and research functions of the University of Otago’s Christchurch School of Medicine, expanding on that institution’s strengths in medical and clinical research. This would not encroach on the University of Canterbury’s strengths in the “hard” sciences, engineering, law and some arts subjects, and Lincoln University’s scope of farming, agriculture and business. But it will take some time for Christchurch to get anywhere near that sort of populace; in the mean time, whoever is running this show could earmark some land for a future university, and use it for the medium to long term (20 – 30 years) to house people and businesses displaced by the quake. Put the central city university idea in a folder titled “nice to have” and open it up in 2030.