The government rightly took a lot of criticism for its initial attempts to artificially restrict downtown land supply to force a compact city form and encourage higher-valued development. The planners here exhibited basic cargo-cult thinking: because successful cities have high downtown property prices, they thought they could make Christchurch successful by forcing prices to be high. Well, that doesn’t work: high prices in successful cities reflect that people get a lot of value from being located in great downtowns, not the other way around.
In the longer term, because so much has moved on to the suburbs and to neighbouring districts, downtown land prices will have to drop. When that happens, developers will be able to bring to market properties with rental rates that could draw in tenants – if the planners don’t mandate that everything be plated in gold. Downtown will then come back but as part of a polycentric city.
This too should not be overly lamented. While I really love the tight downtown core in my new home, Wellington, it is risky. Faultlines can open unexpectedly and in unanticipated locations. Wellington really cannot have multiple downtown cores because of geography but Christchurch can build in resilience against future events by having lots of centres of economic activity. And, fortunately, while the economic literature points strongly to the benefits of urban agglomeration and of having lots of people in a city, it is far from clear that those benefits require having a single dense centre.
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