Last week I went to a community meeting about the rebuild of Sydenham. It was filled with people, all brimming with ideas. After a quick briefing, we were given a sheet of butter paper and a map of Sydenham, and told to draw our ideal Colombo St. After half an hour or so, the groups put down the coloured pencils and presented three of their ideas to the rest of the room. There were some very interesting ideas, some predictable ones, and a few more bizarre ones (a pet cemetery for Colombo St!) If there was one common theme, it was that the suburb should look to mixed-use buildings, with retail and offices on the ground and first floor, with residential apartments on the third and fourth floors. Great idea – so what’s the problem?

Participants in these meetings – and in other community engagement projects like the “Share an Idea” website being run by the council – are all based around what people want. Wants are not always the same as needs. Many of these ideas are nice in concept, but will they work for the street, the suburb, the city? What if we zone Colombo St for mixed-use, 3 or 4 storey buildings – and nobody wants to tenant them?

Malls are another example. Many people have been saying that they don’t want any more suburban malls – and neither do I. However, we have malls because people use them. If people really want to stop the growth of the malls, they should stop using them now. We don’t need an earthquake – or a heavy-handed council plan – to stop them; we need a change in the way we interact with our urban environments. The long term city plan is part of that, and I applaud them for their attempts at community consultation on the plan. I worry that the community see the rebuild as an easy way for someone else – council, government – to fix problems that Christchurch has had for years.

Wants must be balanced with needs, otherwise Christchurch could end up as a city by committee that is even less functional than it was before the quake. Sydenham, the centre city – large parts of Christchurch were dead or dying before September 4th and February 22nd. Now we have an opportunity to rebuild the city we want – and the city we need.