Tale of
two cities

An Article
by
Andrew Barclay
10–03–15

Within the next 10 years there will be a transformation in our two largest cities. For very different reasons, both Auckland and Christchurch will metamorphose and New Zealand will be changed forever.

This metamorphosis will not be the result of gradual, evolutionary or organic action. It won't be the outcome of careful planning based on some long-standing strategic 'roadmap' for change. And that's what makes it news. The magnitude of change in both cities and the rapidity of its onset is historic and - in the case of Christchurch - literally seismic.

We will witness a drama played out between reconstruction and reinvention. A cursory comparison of Auckland and Christchurch as seen through the lens of an inquisitive alien landing in 2010 and again in 2020 would reveal a physical – and perhaps cultural - transformation. Even this emotionally disengaged creature would have to recalibrate its settings on reviewing incoherent data sets separated by only a decade. In both cases the urban landscape will have been fundamentally altered and with that the question of what it means to be a New Zealander will have been reframed.

In early 2010 Christchurch was a city in low-altitude stall. The forward-leaning city of the late 1980s, under the leadership of mayor Vicki Buck, had disappeared, replaced by an introspective, regionally obsessed and conservative city with declining civic morale. Nothing was happening. Local media portrayed a world in which mundane crime reportage and lost cat stories dominated pertinent local governance and world affairs. It was a city with a deep schism between self-criticism and obsessive defiance against external criticism.

The city which had pioneered the reinvention of the British Empire in miniature at the very end of the earth seemed to have run out of ideas. Christchurch's definition of itself was calibrated essentially by what it was not rather than what it was. It was definitively and stridently not Auckland. That much hasn't changed although everything else most definitely has.

Without warning in late 2010 and again in early 2011 a relentless series of vicious earthquakes shredded the city and many of its residential suburbs. The entire centre of the city was utterly destroyed, killing 185 people and causing $30 billion in damage. Initial reactions within the city and nationally, were interesting. Estimates of reconstruction programmes varied from five to ten years depending on where one sat on the sliding scale between defiant optimism and unapologetic pessimism. Not many would have been willing to speculate that no one then living would see the reconstruction fully completed.

Auckland's story is equally important, if less kinetic. After decades of well-earned self-deprecation, Auckland is quite suddenly an aspiring world city, full of compelling reasons to fall deeply in love with itself. Like its favourite musical daughter, Auckland seems to have skipped puberty and headed straight through the Grammys to global superstar status.

But if Auckland is an arriviste in city supermodel stakes, what has brought this about? Perhaps Auckland has arrived at its new status as a city in transition in the same way as Christchurch has; not through careful planning or forethought, but via external and largely unforeseen forces. The shifting plates of global economics, the gradual erosion of the tyranny of distance, the emergence of Asia as the new centre of international trade and the world's restless search for beautiful isolation are key drivers for Auckland's new place in the centre of the 'coolest destinations' psyche. Suddenly Auckland has one of the most aspirational lifestyles in the world, chasing down Melbourne, Sydney, Vancouver, Vienna and Zurich for the coveted pole position at the apex of the 'liveability' grid. Conde Nast and Lonely Planet, the opposing vertices of the travel advisory triangle agree… Auckland is the place to be. 


The National Business Review - Tale of Two Cities 
(File size: 950KB)

Interesting questions arise for both Auckland and Christchurch. If the former is Exhibit A for New Zealand's maturity and destination-desirability and the latter a future poster child for post-disaster Lazarus-like rebirth, what will be their individual talismans? With which objects will they evidence this new status? And what will it mean for New Zealanders when our alien returns in 2020 or 2025?

We can now begin to make meaningful speculations by accumulating evidence. 

Both cities will be populated by buildings and infrastructure that take a country that is recognised globally for its natural beauty into a new and exciting phase in its own evolution. These projects will serve as the physical evidence of New Zealand's new confidence, its new extroversion, its new expressionism and its new appetite for global interaction. At the cost of many billions of dollars, Auckland and Christchurch will have been outfitted as fighting fit centres for some of the most adventurous, creative, innovative, determined and optimistic people in the world to live in. New Zealand will have been re-equipped with the latest gear for its next ventures.

Explored more forensically, the elements of this urban transformation can be clearly defined. With 2020 now only five years away, imagine the landscape. Both Christchurch and Auckland have new international-quality convention centres, attracting thousands of visitors. Auckland has a new integrated airport (now only 20 minutes from the city centre thanks to the recently completed tunnelling courtesy of the relentless grindings of Alice). Christchurch has a new world-leading Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, a new public transport hub, two new major hospitals, a new performing arts precinct, a new MetroSports centre and 20 new office buildings. Auckland has a new Central Rail Loop and Wynyard Quarter is largely completed, finally transforming the city’s relationship with its harbour. The Downtown site has been fully redeveloped with a new retail centre and office tower. Auckland and Christchurch have several new world-class 4 and 5 star hotels. Central Auckland regains its status as the retail hub of the city with dozens of new international brands. The tertiary education institutions in both cities are brimming with new visually excitingbuildings attracting students from around the world. And that's just a quick glance at the more or less immediate future. By 2020 the citizens of upper and lower Middle Earth will have moved from under the comforting glow emitted by Lord of the Rings and Lorde of the Charts into a wider national confidence engendered by a sense of collective destiny.

Infrastructure will be built in a tsunami of activity driven by the desperate need for recovery (in the case of Christchurch) and the pressing need to take advantage of New Zealand's opportunity to leverage its relative financial health and growing destinational gravitas. The important and enormously impressive fact is that New Zealand will recover from one of the most expensive natural disasters in history while simultaneously re-tooling its major population centre. The scale of this can only really be appreciated through statistics. The rebuilding of Christchurch will cost $40bn which is just under 20% of New Zealand's annual GDP. If the same 'percentage damage' was applied to Australia, they would be facing a bill of $250bn. Applied to the United States, the figure would be an eye-watering $800bn.

Such staggering comparisons aside, there is an inevitable question lurking in the shadows: will all of this make New Zealand a better place to live and to raise new New Zealanders, a better place to visit and a better place to do business? The answer is resoundingly affirmative.

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