Is the Central City Fit for Purpose?

Christchurch’s city centre seems to be like Marmite: people either love it or hate it with no in between.

Just from my personal observations, I reckon people who spend a lot of time in the central city tend to love it, whilst people who only visit occasionally or not at all tend to hate it.

One example, the post below I saw on social media from an occasional visitor saying he hates it:

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but it is important to remember views like this are just that: one person’s opinion. I’ve pulled together some data below suggesting that this is a minority view and not reflective of most people.

Christchurch City Council publish a dashboard here with a range of indicators showing how the central city is tracking.

A few key points from this dataset are listed below.

Firstly, there’s a residential building boom going on right now in the central city. Canterbury is building more homes per capita than anywhere else in the country, and a good chunk of these are in Christchurch’s central city.

This is being driven in part by high demand for central city living. There are already more people living in the central city than there were pre-quake, despite large swathes of it still being under construction.

Central City employment had been coming back strongly until covid arrived. The outlook is much more uncertain now, as is the case with cities all around the world. We’re currently sitting about 85% of pre-quake employment levels.

International visitors dropped off for two years, and are just beginning to creep back now.

Despite covid and lack of tourists, spending in the central city is growing strongly. It is higher than any of the suburban centres, and the gap between them is widening not closing.

The graph below illustrates this by showing the proportion of Christchurch’s spending that is occurring in the central city (for the retail core, the wider core, and everything within the 4 avenues). It shows a very strong upward trend pre-covid, before hitting a rocky patch for a couple of years. The last 6 months has seen it resume strong growth and it’s now basically back at pre-covid levels.

Just for context, the ambition for the central city (everything within the 4 avenues) was to hit 18% by 2028:

The actual spend so far across 2022 was 19%:

So despite covid, spending in the central city has absolutely smashed expectations. It first hit 18% in November 2018, a full decade earlier than the ambition. If covid hadn’t hit we’d probably see it pushing up over 20% by now.

Based on these numbers, I think it’s pretty hard to argue that the central city is not fit for purpose.

I think the problem for the original commenter is that he’s trying to bring his car along with him when he comes in. In doing so he’s in the minority, as shown by this 2019 graph. Around 40% of people in the central city arrive in a car, the other 60% arrive in a bus, on foot or on bike.

Cars can be great, but one downside is that they don’t scale. Anywhere you have 50,000 odd people in one place it’s never going to be physically possible to fit them all in if they each bring a car with them – this is basic geometry and no amount of clever engineering can change this fact.

So designers don’t really have any choice but to design city centres assuming the majority of people will be arriving by public transport, walking and cycling. That’s what been done in Christchurch and the indicators, particularly the spending figures, suggest this approach is working well for the majority of people.

Beneath the original post, there was a little exchange with a friend that I really liked.

So good – here’s hoping he has a positive experience!

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