This article was originally posted on Making Christchurch, a group blog set up by Barnaby Bennett in the wake of the 2011 Canterbury Earthquake, at the invitation of Transportblog commenter Brendon Harre.
Why do cities grow and change? And how can cities harness those dynamics?
Last month, I took a look at agglomeration economies, which describe the productivity and innovation gains arising from urban scale and density. The advantages that cities offer for production have underpinned urban success throughout history.
Economic productivity is important. To paraphrase Paul Krugman, in the long run, productivity growth underpins our ability to consume more of everything from electronics to healthcare, and to have more of the non-economic things that make life enjoyable. All else being equal, people tend to move towards more productive places in search of higher living standards. But economic productivity isn’t the only thing that matters for wellbeing — or for growth and change in cities.
Urban economics tackles urban amenities
For a long time, people assumed that cities offer advantages for production but disadvantages for consumption. This assumption, which shaped a lot of economic analysis and policymaking, was understandable. After all, modern cities first arose as manufacturing centres at a time when manufacturing was a dirty business. People could get jobs in the city’s “dark Satanic Mills”, but they had to suffer bad air, choleric water, and high crime rates to do so.
But things appear to have changed over the last half century, at least in developed countries. The bad aspects of cities, such as crime and pollution, have improved, and the good parts have also gotten better. Cities have become attractive for consumers as well as producers.
A pioneering 2000 paper by Ed Glaeser, Jed Kolko and Albert Saiz explored these dynamics. They argued that the availability of “four critical urban amenities” would shape future urban growth:
- The availability of a rich variety of consumer goods and services — which, in the era of Amazon.com and the iTunes store, means “non-tradables” like restaurants, live bands, bars, and dating opportunities
- Aesthetics and natural settings — in other words, the quality of the city’s architecture, public parks, natural environment, and climate
- Good public services such as schools and low crime rates
- The quality and speed of transport systems — cities that make more destinations accessible are more likely to be attractive to residents.
In their view, the rise of the “consumer city” opens up other pathways for urban growth. If cities want to attract new residents and businesses, they don’t have to focus only on providing “producer amenities” like convention centres. Supplying great “consumer amenities” can also foster ongoing vibrancy and growth.
Here, I want to look at the prospects for New Zealand cities, and Christchurch in particular, to become successful “consumer cities”. I’m going to focus on the first two dimensions — variety in goods and services and aesthetics and natural settings — and leave a discussion of transport for a future post. (Public services are a bit less relevant to urban growth in New Zealand, as education and law enforcement are run by central government.)
Goods and services
New Zealand cities are coming around to the importance of consumption. It hasn’t always been thus. In the middle of the 20th century, when my parents were growing up in Auckland, the country was firmly in the grips of what historian James Belich called the “tight society”:
homogenous, conformist, masculist, egalitarian and monocultural, subject to heavy formal and informal regulation. There were no licensed restaurants, little weekend shopping, one supermarket (opened in Auckland in 1958) and a very limited range of goods and foods to buy in the shops and unlicensed restaurants that did exist… School milk was free, but you had to drink it.
A lot has changed since then, economically and demographically. While the wholesale deregulation of the 1980s was not an unmixed blessing, it certainly expanded the consumption choices available to New Zealanders. A more liberal migration policy brought new migrants with, thank goodness, new cuisines. And since the advent of mass-market international air travel, Kiwis returning from OEs have come back with new ideas for things to do in cities — from rock bands to restaurants to cycle lanes.
The result is a favourable climate for the adoption, invention, and proliferation of a variety of goods and services in cities — especially when it comes to bars, restaurants, and entertainment.
Christchurch has been instrumental in shaping a key part of the hospitality market: beer. When I started to be able to afford to drink nice beer in bars, the best thing on tap was often from craft breweries in Christchurch like Harrington’s and Three Boys. Their success has fostered competition: craft brewing has since taken off in Wellington and, more recently, Auckland.
In short, New Zealand cities have potential, but they may have to do a few things differently in order to fully realise it.
The first is simple: get some of the barriers out of the way. For example, minimum parking requirements can be a major impediment to opening new restaurants and bars, or converting old warehouse space to retail. They often require restaurants to devote more space to parking than to dining areas, which can be the kiss of death for hole-in-the-wall eateries.
The second is to understand — and take advantage of — positive feedback loops between population density and consumer amenities. Neighbourhoods with more people support a greater variety of consumption choices. While density isn’t for everyone, cities need some medium-to-high density, mixed use neighbourhoods to supply a rich variety of urban goods and services.
In medium-sized cities, city centres have traditionally filled that role. As the following population density maps (darker blue = higher density) show, that’s an area where Christchurch lagged behind Auckland and Wellington even before the earthquakes. The destruction caused by the 2011 Canterbury Earthquakes has created an opportunity for revitalisation on different lines — but government bungles seem to have delayed the process. It’s important that it get back on track.
Aesthetics and natural settings
Christchurch, like many other New Zealand cities, has some intrinsic aesthetic advantages as a result of the natural landscape. Here’s the view west across the city:
New Zealand’s environment has always drawn migrants, who often come for the landscape and live in the cities. Take, for example, novelist Eleanor Catton’s description of what drew her family to Christchurch:
I grew up on the South Island of New Zealand, in a city chosen and beloved by my parents for its proximity to the mountains — Christchurch is two hours distant from the worn saddle of Arthur’s Pass, the mountain village that was and is my father’s spiritual touchstone, his chapel and cathedral in the wild. For many years while I was growing up my parents did not own a car. We rode around town on two tandem bicycles and one single (a source of considerable embarrassment to me at the time) and at weekends we would occasionally rent a car in order to drive into the alps, and go hiking.
However, urban aesthetics also matter — even if you go tramping on the weekend, you still spend your weekdays in the city. This is an area where Christchurch has some strengths and some challenges.
From the start, Christchurch had a reputation as a “garden city” as a result of its large public parks and street trees. Although the idea of parks as a city’s “lungs” is less salient today than in Industrial Revolution cities, parks and street trees are still public amenities. They make people better off simply by existing in the vicinity.
The earthquakes seem to have opened up some opportunities to enhance the garden city — particularly along the Avon River, where many houses have been red-zoned. In addition to the central government-promoted Avon River Precinct, some community groups are calling for a forest park out to New Brighton. Others have simply gotten on with creating something new.
The built environment, however, is more problematic. Central government oversaw the demolition of over 1200 buildings in the city centre in the years following the earthquakes, including many of the city’s historic buildings.
This has been controversial and at times acrimonious. As I am neither an architect nor a Cantabrian, I’m not in a good position to weigh in on the debate. But as an economist from Auckland I’d observe that heritage buildings have a definite public value — not one that trumps all other costs, but one that should be accounted for in decision-making. At the very least, it would be smart to replace any demolished buildings with more attractive and usable ones.
Prospects for population growth in Christchurch
Thus far, I’ve considered — in a thematic way — some of Christchurch’s challenges and opportunities as a “consumer city”. But what would success look like?
Let’s take a look at a few data points. First, here’s a chart showing Statistics NZ’s latest (2015) regional population projections. The Canterbury region, which includes Christchurch and its satellite towns, is projected to grow faster than all regions other than Auckland over the next three decades.
In other words, Stats NZ expects Christchurch to be relatively successful at attracting and retaining people. But look at the range on their estimates: the city could grow faster than Auckland, or it could hardly grow at all.
Without digging into Stats NZ’s forecasting methodology, it’s difficult to say why they’ve picked such a wide range. But perhaps it reflects uncertainty about the future attractiveness of Christchurch as a consumer city. Wages in Christchurch tend to be lower than in Auckland and Wellington, meaning that urban amenities potentially have a stronger role to play in fostering urban growth.
A second data point. A few months ago, I took a look at the sources of Auckland’s population growth. I found that natural increase accounted for the majority of growth but that net migration — more people arriving than departing — fluctuated wildly from year to year. Here’s what the picture looks like for Canterbury:
Net migration to Canterbury has followed a very similar trend as net migration to Auckland — the peaks and the troughs coincide remarkably well. However, the troughs are just a little bit deeper in Christchurch, as substantial numbers flow out of the region in a bad year. In Auckland, by contrast, net migration seldom turns negative.
Net migration will always be a bit of a rollercoaster in New Zealand — it’s followed a boom-and-bust cycle for a very long time. But it’s possible — with the right combination of a resilient economy and good consumer amenities — to reduce the depths of the troughs and raise the height of the peaks. It might not be an inspiring mission statement for a city, but perhaps it’s the right one for Christchurch.