This is a guest post by Christchurch resident and urbanist Brendon Harre. An earlier iteration of this post originally appeared at Making Christchurch
Is Christchurch a provincial market town, or a diversified commercial city?
Sheep sale, Addington, Christchurch, [ca 1920s]
Recently on the transportblog website Stu Donovan someone who I respect for his expert analysis and articles, wrote the following, as a comment about Auckland’s population growth.
…. I only wish central government policy-makers grasped that distinction. That while the rest of the country depends on good roads, Auckland city will increasingly depend on public transport and walking/cycling. That while the rest of the country depends on an efficient agricultural sector, Auckland depends on a diverse and innovative service sector….
Stu of course is allowed his opinion and I believe it comes from a good place. He loves the urban culture of Auckland and can see ways to improve it for all our benefit (a stronger Auckland strengthens NZ). The problem I have is the implication that the rest of the country doesn’t have or need an urban culture –that all they need from the government is some roads and an efficient agriculture sector.
For instance, I think Christchurch needs support to restore and grow its urban economy and this too would help New Zealand. In the 2013 census, Greater Christchurch’s population was 436,000. After a post-earthquake dip in 2011 and 2012, population growth has been strong at about 8,000 new residents per year and by the end of 2015 it is likely the metropolitan area has around 450,000 people. If growth drops down to a more typical increase of 4,000 to 6,000 per year then the city can expect to hit the ½ million mark by around 2025. This is a long way behind Auckland, which reached the ½ million mark in the 1960s, but by international standards it is significant.
If Christchurch was a city in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark, then it would be the 6th largest city. Gothenburg in Sweden is the 5th largest city and has a population of 550,000. Tampere in Finland is the 6th largest city with a population of 317,000.
These cities are proud of who they are and would not accept being labelled provincial market towns. Gothenburg gives the world Volvo. While Nokia, which birthed the phone company of that name is a satellite town of Tampere. Mid-sized commercial cities, which is what Christchurch is, have more to offer than a nice leg of lamb or a surplus of milk powder. Of course you don’t even need to be a city to offer the world something more than raw commodities. Lego’s home town and still where Lego’s head office is located -is the small town of Billund in Denmark–population 6,000.
Denmark should be a fascinating place for New Zealand, because they have done something we in New Zealand struggle with. Before New Zealand was supplying the UK with food, Denmark had reconfigured its economy so that the UK would take all its bacon and butter. By 1900, 60% of Denmark’s exports were food items to the UK. Yet somehow in the intervening years Denmark has diversified their economy in a way that New Zealand has not. Perhaps, because Denmark embraced a diversity of new concepts, such as design, this has allowed them to progress their economy?
Further, Denmark has done it in a way that has given their people higher incomes and arguably at a lower environmental impact. I have asked various experts how Denmark has achieved this and nobody really has an answer. Most recently, I asked Michael Riddell former Reserve Bank economist and now blogger at CroakingCassandra.com. There seems to be no clear consensus on what New Zealand could be doing differently, although we both gave our opinions.
In Christchurch’s case it is slowly getting back its mojo from the devastating series of earthquakes five years ago. For instance, Canterbury has been the hub of outdoor design and manufacture since Fairydown, a Dunedin based sleeping bag firm created by the Ellis family in the 1920s was sold off to international interests in the 1980s. The next generation of the family set up Earth, Sea and Sky based in Christchurch, to be with other similar outdoor orientated companies. Earth, Sea and Sky have a philosophy of using local talent to create and make specialised garments here in our own back yard. Macpac a garage start-up done good, is another firm in the outdoor design and manufacture cluster. A recent entry into the outdoor equipment stable is a firm –Uprising Climbing Holds -that makes rock climbing holds and exports them to the world. After the central city YMCA climbing gym was knocked out of action the company built a new gym near the trendy Tannery shopping complex in Woolston. The gym as well as being a business in its own right has the important side benefit of providing research and development information on new holds for the company.
Uprising Boulder Gym owner Sefton Priestley in the climbing room where customers test new climbing holds.
On another track, Tait Communications is a genuine Christchurch based export success story –it makes radios for emergency services and for the likes of London’s buses. It has had a tough year; revenues have retreated from earlier highs of over $200m to about $160m-$170m. Despite this setback they remain optimistic, recently targeting Rio Olympic security concerns and achieving big increases in sales through that marketing route.
The $35 million Tait campus development is set on 11ha of land alongside Tait’s existing buildings and features the construction of an über energy efficient new headquarters for up to 350 of its Christchurch-based employees
These examples demonstrate the diversified strength of Christchurch’s commercial city that is independent of Canterbury’s farming hinterland.
In the normal course of events I would have shrugged off Stu’s comments. He expressed an opinion, I was able reply with an opinion, which got some favourable comments –so no harm done on transportblog, just some healthy debate.
My opinion which I wrote at the time being;
…. if NZ developed a post farming economy based around a diversified urban economy of agglomeration, affordable housing, good transport provision, attractive amenities for skilled workers and business etc, that is often discussed here on tranportblog, then Christchurch would be the biggest winner.
But I have noticed the ‘urban Auckland versus the rural rest’ opinion is quite widespread and being touted by some pretty influential individuals. I wonder if it is the spreading of these sort of cultural/political ideas that is holding us back?
The newly formed Committee for Canterbury chair Gill Cox recently had this to say.
Boiling it down, it starts with the economic truth that the fates of Christchurch city and its rural hinterland are absolutely intertwined. “Christchurch is a market town,” says Cox simply. “Christchurch would struggle even to have a reason for being if Canterbury were not there. The economic driver is not the city but the region.” This is why it ended up as the Committee for Canterbury rather than the Committee for Christchurch, he says. The divergence from the “committee for” movement’s city-based template was quite deliberate. Cox says before the earthquakes, Christchurch had become somewhat politically disconnected from this fact. It had dreams about being a world-class small city riding the high tech “knowledge-wave” — a mini-Copenhagen at the bottom of the world.
Of course, says Cox, Christchurch should still want to do its best on this score. But really, as a long-term strategy, it just pits the city against every other city….
Christchurch has to concentrate on its true natural advantages, says Cox. And when it comes to NZIER’s analysis, these are simply the two things that Canterbury can be a premium-quality food basket for the world, and that Christchurch can get a free ride in being the tourist and freight gateway for the South Island.
Again, news that is no surprise for those who are in business in Canterbury. But Cox says our politicians and the general public may not have the same tight focus on how the region’s bread is buttered….
Note how in Gill Cox’s opinion Christchurch is a market town not a city, that economic opportunities lie in rural not urban areas (with the exception of the city being a freight and tourist gateway) and that wanting to be a diversified economy like Denmark’s is ‘disconnected’ and ‘dreaming’.
I don’t think Gill Cox speaks for all businesses –I think many city-based businesses would be surprised about his bias. Gill Cox’s comment that the general public cannot focus on how the region’s ‘bread is buttered’, is in my opinion code for saying that the region’s economy should be directed by ‘experts’ such as himself and that democracy and debate is unnecessary. That there is no need for Canterbury to have a public conversation on how regional public resources should be allocated.
Gill Cox delivers Committee for Canterbury’s Case for Canterbury at November launch party.
If Gill Cox was just a chair of an obscure think tank then his opinion wouldn’t matter much, but he is one of six NZTA board members (the board can have up to eight members). The board is appointed by the Minister of Transport and is responsible for making independent decisions on allocating and investing funds from the National Land Transport Fund.
Transport as everyone knows on transportblog is one of the key determinants of how a city grows. NZTA is the key funder for new transport projects. Local authorities spend a lot of money on transport, but it is mainly on maintenance –they lack the financial resources to go it alone with new projects –the existing framework of local government taxation means local authorities have to co-operate with NZTA funding with regard to new projects. Unfortunately for the commercial city of Christchurch it has a funder who is completely dismissive of its needs. For example, with Gill Cox’s attitude what are the chances that Greater Christchurch will get commuter rail or any other rapid transport solution to solve its congestion problems, as has been proposed by Christchurch City Council?
Congested Christchurch streets
The NZTA has a history of being biased against Canterbury in the 2002 to 2012 period, when the NZTA significantly underspent in the region compared to elsewhere, the cynic in me says that will continue, at least for city residents and businesses, if not for the whole region. Recent per capita spending doesn’t look so bad for Canterbury. But considering the infrastructure deficit from a decade of under spending, the amount of earthquake damaged roads, the dispersal of residents post-quakes and the strong population growth (second fastest growing region in NZ). Then Canterbury is due for some high NZTA spending — will Gill Cox and his other Board members agree to that and if they do, which new transport projects will get funding?
I wonder if Gill Cox has read the research about how transport can improve a city’s productivity and income. Alain Bertaud in his paper –‘Cities as Labour Markets’ -compiled the following studies.
In Korean cities, a 10% increase in the number of jobs accessible per worker corresponds to a 2.4% increase in workers’ productivity.
Additionally, for 25 French cities, a 10% increase in average commuting speed, all other things remaining constant, increases the size of the labor market by 15 to 18%.
In the US, Melo et al. show that the productivity effect of accessibility, measured by an increase in wages, is correlated to the number of jobs per worker accessible within a 60-minute commuting range. The maximum impact on wages is obtained when the number of jobs accessible within 20-minutes increases; within this travel time, a doubling in the number of jobs results in an increase in real wages of 6.5%. Beyond 20 minutes of travel time, worker productivity still increases, but its rate decays and practically disappears beyond 60 minutes.
Both papers demonstrate that workers’ mobility –their ability to reach a large number of potential jobs in as short a travel time as possible, is a key factor in increasing the productivity of large cities and the welfare of their workers. Large agglomerations of workers do not insure a high productivity in the absence of worker mobility. The time spent commuting should, therefore, be a key indicator in assessing the way large cities are managed. (p. 24, 25).
Given the way people were re housed after the Canterbury earthquakes -being population fell in central/inner city areas and increased in distant peripheral satellite towns then it is likely that congestion and commuting times have increased. Also the number of jobs accessible by workers in 20 minutes has probably declined. This means Greater Christchurch’s economic potential has been setback and it will not be remedied until Canterbury receives a compensatory improvement in transport infrastructure.
On the issue of whether it is better to be a market town or a diversified commercial city, research from around the world shows that market towns have the lowest income when it comes to the different types of cities.
Note the small share of value added that agriculture (in black) contributes even in market towns. Cities are competitive diversified economies and to function at their best they need to be supported as such. Christchurch as a market town is the past. Christchurch as a modern, diverse, competitive commercial city is the future.