Guest post from Brendon Harre that although Christchurch focused, raises New Zealand wide questions of importance, such as, inner-city car parking policy and how to rebuild extensively damaged city centres.

Christchurch’s earthquake damaged city exposes many underlying urbanism lessons. Minimising land wastage on car parking is one lesson.

Image: Up to 70% of Christchurch’s CBD buildings were fully or partly demolished as part of the earthquake rebuild. Many became gravel car parks often then leased out to private car carking firms. Photo Source

Christchurch often has local spats that generate more heat than light. The public argument about whether the Council continues to waiver inner-city development contributions is such a spat.

The policy since 2014 has cost the Council $12.9 million in uncharged fees and it has announced a further $7.1 million in funding.

Some have characterised this as “fat council handouts for property developers but austerity for the rest of us”. The connotation being that it is big corporates who are benefiting and ordinary people who are paying.

As someone who has written in The Press about a NIMBY Stoush changing Canterbury’s ‘can do’ building culture. I think this building fees spat is the wrong war.

A successful Christchurch requires inner-city landowners to build something useful. Useful to themselves, useful to customers, useful to tenants and useful to the community.

Christchurch’s city centre is a fabulous resource for New Zealand. Its planned street layout and its centrality means it is accessible to nearly ½ million residents. Measured from the Cathedral Square only the centre of Auckland has more people living within 5, 10, 15, 30 km distance.

Given the Covid-19 economic recession it is vital we use our resources wisely. This includes the spatial resource that allows us to connect, meet, play, partner, congregate, employ, share, learn and trade with a greater number of people.

Waiving fees to construct an inner-city built environment where people can walk and bike everywhere at a total cost of $20 million, is much less costly than other policy proposals, such as free busing, which would cost $20 million per year.

It is understandable that the Council is using the fees rebate to strive toward its goal of an inner-city residential population of 20,000. But the Council needs to take the next step of asking what else would help.

Below is a map depicting off-street parking in Christchurch. It was created by a brilliant young Christchurch cartographer, Andrew Douglas-Clifford who runs the website –The Map Kiwi.

In Central Christchurch 12.6% of the land, excluding Hagley Park, is off-street parking, often just gravel plots. In comparison only 23% of the land is buildings, being 3146 buildings on 4152 separate property parcels.

Unfortunately, the donut -empty in the middle -description of Christchurch is accurate.

Excess car parking space could be used for desirable activities -homes for 20,000 residents, new shopping and hospitality districts, trendy new commercial spaces… Given the lack of international tourists this sort of domestic city-focused economy is vital.

The Council has tried to revive inner-city Christchurch by reducing building fees. Unfortunately, this has not achieved the hoped-for transformation. Something new needs to be tried.
Christchurch’s original built environment was constructed pre-automobile. There was no need for city land to be used for car parking.

Early Christchurch had walking and cycling for shorter distance journeys.

Trams for mid-distance journeys.

And trains for longer journeys.

The second Moorhouse Ave station was designed in 1875 by John Godfrey Warner who was the railway engineer of the Canterbury Provincial Council. The foundation stone for the building was laid by the Provincial Superintendent William Rolleston on 22 November 1876 and the building opened 21 December 1877. Source

Expanding the cycleway network, facilitating the safe introduction of e-scooters and successfully implementing the $2m investigation study for rapid mass transit will allow more people to access the city centre while decreasing the demand for car parking.

The Council changing its inner-city property tax regime (rates) could also be transformational. Taxing land not buildings. Currently Council rates are based on the capital value of both land and building.

Land value taxes have been around for an exceptionally long time. New Zealand’s Governor Grey was an advocate of land value taxes after personally meeting the philosopher John Stewart Mill and the economist Henry George.

Modern economists like Edward Glaeser (author of Triumph of the City), while downplaying the more grandiose claims of land value taxes, promote their use in cities because they reduce the marginal cost of building upwards and increase the holding costs for land banking.

Inner-city landowners who have taken the risk to construct something of value should pay the same rates as landowners who bank land in the form of gravel car parks, i.e. both should be rated on land value only.

In this way the playing field is tilted towards enterprise and egalitarianism and away from speculation and a property-owning aristocracy.

Car parking economist Donald Shoup believes it is wasteful that land for car parking is given away for free. He advocates for removing arbitrary off-street parking requirements and charging a fair price for on-street parking to keep the car parking zone uncongested (an idea that Christchurch transport planner Axel Wilke has also promoted). Donald Shoup has compiled evidence showing not doing this is a hidden subsidy costing cities $billions.

Christchurch taxing gravel car parks at a lower rate than neighbouring built upon land is the same mistake. It is a hidden subsidy benefiting car parking firms but not the wider community.


Further Information on land value taxes

Land taxes are sometimes referred to as a tax on locational rent because it taxes property owners fortuitous yet un-earnt property value resulting from the land’s location, which are often the result of community action like infrastructure provision, whilst reducing tax on the labour and capital spent on adding improvements to the property. Taxing socially generated locational rents is discussed in the below video about the history of Denmark.

For a radical modern look at locational land rent from a UK perspective check out.


What Can be Done to Improve Inner-city Christchurch?

  • The city council could change the rating system to increase the weighting on land value for private property within the four avenues .
  • Another issue is firms giving car parks to employees is exempt from fringe benefit tax yet if firms pay for employees public transport that is taxed. To rebalance this issue the city council could impose a levy based on the locational value of car parking spaces and use that funding to introduce cheaper monthly/yearly public transport cards.
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34 comments

  1. Very helpful post Brendon, ‘In Central Christchurch 12.6% of the land … is off-street parking, this seems a bit low, I have measured close to 2/3 of the land in central Hamilton as being used for car storage. In the 1990s Hamilton city council increased minimum parking requirement to the city centre (now removed), so for every new business an existing business needed to be removed to provide land to meet new min parking requirements. I am thinking having minimum park requirement force every new business to have above average parking supply is one of the biggest barrier to opening entry level business.

    1. Minimum car parking requirements are stupid. They subsidise car use at the expense of increasing house and business construction costs. They are anti-competitive. The RMA should forbid them. Householders and businesses should be free to decide how many, if any, car parks they require.

      1. I don’t think there is any evidence that parking policy is the cause of the decline of the Christchurch CBD. Nor is there any evidence of that in Hamilton yet. In Hamilton the CBD failed to respond to the retail competition at The Base. Any reduction in parking isn’t going to address that but it may well make things worse.
        The CBD in Christchurch has been hollowed out in large pockets by unsafe buildings and that has been exacerbated by a master planning exercise that tried to get rid of activity that still remained but was judged to be in the ‘wrong place’. by planners.
        The real success story in Christchurch has been the resilience of the employment areas outside the CBD and the ability of satellite towns to take up the slack.

        1. Nice reframing Miffy. The city centre is not declining. Employment numbers are rising. Resident numbers are increasing. The issue is why this is not happening more quickly? Why are there still so many empty inner-city plots. Why are so many of them gravel car parks?
          These are important questions. Christchurch will not be only NZ city that has to rebuild after a disaster.
          It will happen again. Hopefully not in my lifetime.
          Lessons should be learnt.

        2. Peter nice graph. It backs up what I said above that there is no evidence that parking policy has caused the decline. The decline in recent times is the loss of retail trade to areas outside the CBD. Why? Maybe people like parking at the shops. Hamilton City Council has responded by building parking but for financial reasons has allocated it to commuters rather than shoppers.
          Brendon I hadn’t realised Christchurch CBD was doing well. It just looked sad and stuffed to me when I was there in October. Outside the CBD and in pockets within it was humming. The gravel carparks have nothing to do with parking rules and the proportion of land used for parking is an effect not a cause of the problems there.

        3. Miffy there are about 10,000 more people working in the CBD now compared to 2013. The city centre is not flash. But it is improving.
          Also the focus of my paper was on rating land more and buildings less not on-street car parking policy. Although levying work car parks to fix the ‘fringe benefit tax’ car parking subsidy is an attractive idea.

  2. The gravel carparks might not be to everyones taste. But they look a whole lot better than the brutalist architecture that had infested Christchurch up until it was fixed by the wrecking ball.

    1. Most of the buildings lost were Victorian era brick buildings. Brownlee went through the city with a wrecking ball.
      It is a shame he wasn’t as efficient at building as he was at demolition.

      1. There was a mixture of both. There were some lovely old buildings that were lost but there have also been a lot of Soviet era buildings that have gone and definitely wont be missed.

        If people are missing the 1960s era buildings then a quick trip out to the university will more than satisfy that.

        1. Fair enough. I don’t mourn the loss of the brutalist police building as one example of poor 1960s architecture.

      2. Adding to what Jezza said it would have been a bold or stupid Government that would have left unsupported brick structures standing after the second quake. Dodgy buildings isn’t the best way to inspire confidence in an area particularly a quake prone area where the authorities had pretended for years there was no problem.

        1. There were examples of quake strengthened historic buildings that were pulled down because they did not fit Brownlees planning/precinct vision.

  3. Great article Brendon, I think those unfamiliar with Christchurch will miss the broader context though.

    Post-earthquake urban planning in Christchurch has been completely stuffed ever since the community input driven, future-looking blueprint was completely overridden by Gerry Brownlee and co. in favour of last century’s solutions. This has left a legacy of rampant land banking while property owners wait for it to be worthwhile constructing new buildings.

    Not building a lot of CBD apartments early in the rebuild was clearly a mistake. The government did make some half-hearted moves in this direction but they were always based on private developers taking the risk (they weren’t willing to) and based on long out of date urban planning ideas.

    One success story of the rebuild was the way private sector developers and construction firms built so many new houses that house prices and rents have been pretty stable. Unfortunately all those houses were built on the city fringe and in satellite towns. This has made traffic a lot worse and means there are few people around the CBD outside of office hours because there aren’t many residents within the four avenues.

    The good news is that the opportunity to build lots of CBD apartments is still there (see all those empty gravel lots). The problem is that, due to relatively stable house prices, there isn’t a lot of incentive for developers to build them. Changing rates to be based on the unimproved value of land is a very good idea but it’ll only make marginal differences, not usher in the apartment construction boom necessary.

    For large scale apartment construction to happen in Christchurch is going to require the state to shoulder the risk for early developments. The council could do it itself if they weren’t locked in to a punitive cost sharing agreement for a variety of white elephant “anchor projects” like the convention centre, stadium etc. Central government could do this under Kiwibuild if they had got the program working properly.

    Without significant intervention I expect we’ll see the Christchurch CBD continue to stagnate. It’s very disappointing because it has so much potential.

    1. Yes. The decision to rehouse in sprawl was ideological, and it pervades planning in New Zealand. The supporters of this ideology have the ear of the establishment, and are killing our chances of liveable and low carbon cities.

      Question is how to move forward.

      1. Some of it will be due to Christchurch having multiple councils. Selwyn and Waimakariri were more than happy to take new ratepayers.

        Also people in Christchurch have spent a decent chunk of the last 10 years thinking about how solid the ground is below their house rather than how close to town they are.

        This has lead people to favour surrounding satellite towns over the CBD or eastern suburbs.

        It’s also worth remembering that the public was very much in favour of the green frame around the CBD until they discovered it wasn’t going to be a park but developed into apartment with green space interspersed in between.

        1. “Also people in Christchurch have spent a decent chunk of the last 10 years thinking about how solid the ground is below their house rather than how close to town they are.”
          Yes. I think the same happened in Wellington as well after the Kaikoura quake. It wasn’t even Wellington’s quake yet people in CBD apartments had to leave and stand in the dark streets unsure of whether they should stay put to avoid a building collapse or go back inside to avoid a tsunami. There is a lot to be said for a single story timber frame with a back yard you can camp in.

      2. Heidi re ‘how to go forward’ there is not one issue. There is no silver bullet. But if reforms happened at a number of different levels -land-use, housing, construction, transport… then change could be significant.

        1. “There is a lot to be said for a single story timber frame with a back yard you can camp in.”
          Indeed there is. After the 1931 Napier earthquake all of these were reduced to smoldering ruins and reconstruction could start almost immediately as there was little to clear away.

      3. Answer – for the government to build many more apartments in central locations. There’s a very limited private market for that.
        What most people, including most people here, fail to understand is how profoundly we need the government to intervene in the housing market. It’s so broken it’s not funny…

      4. Christchurch CBD was built in the 1870s. 150 years later most of this land is still sitting empty. CRAP Christchurch council

    2. Very good comment L-Bear.
      I would add that if Christchurch received a Mass Rapid System similar to Wellingtons and Aucklands then that would also incentive turning inner city gravel plots into something more useful.
      Congestion road pricing a policy of the National Party would also be helpful if the money generated was hypothecated to stay in the city (not National Party policy) to be used to improve alternative more spatially efficient travel modes.
      There is plenty that local and central government could do if they had a mind to changing the current land-use, housing and transport policy settings.
      I of course agree the state should take more risks wrt the construction industry building state housing, community housing provider rental housing and Kiwibuild housing.

  4. Thanks for the post, Brendon. If it’s good enough for Sydney to reduce the resources and land wasted on city centre parking by using a $2500 parking levy, I’m sure Christchurch and Auckland can benefit from it too. And with a one year warning, perhaps, to allow land owners to get their stuff together, I could envisage a rating system that charges more for undeveloped sites.

    1. Given central government has not fixed the problem that free work parking is not subject to fringe benefit tax yet employee subsidised public transport is taxed by a FBT then local councils should look at imposing car parking levies to stop this hidden subsidy for car use. Basing the levy on the land value of parking space taken would make sense.

  5. The sad irony is that what gave early Christchurch its ideal characteristics for cycling and trams would later make it a paradise for those ultra-boring boy racers.

  6. Central Christchurch was not a very salubrious place before the quakes at night, and there were no high quality supermarkets nearby for bus users. There were lots of backpackers and outdoor shops, but apart from the library, the Cathedral and Ballantynes, there was no reason for many Christchurch people to go downtown. Christchurch’s large electronics industry was mostly located near the airport, and the suburban shopping malls were very strong. In the central city all sorts of morally dubious services were available at night, but buying a loaf of bread involved a long hike. It is hard to think of a similarly sized city where the central city was less relevant to most people.
    I can see the point of a land tax and reducing car parking requirements. However, there is also a need for more intensive housing in the suburbs near the hospital, university, and the airport, and for the transport system to work for those who live and work outside the central city. For instance, currently many hospital workers commute long distances and there is pressure for additional free car parking near the hospital, with some arguing that green space at Hagley Park should be converted to car parking. Vocal Christchurch residents often want to block any developments that involve relatively little car parking, without realising that some people can manage without a car and that higher density housing will increase the range of nearby shopping opportunities.

  7. Auckland should also tax land value/landbanking tax

    There are so many vacant site that remain vacant such as Elliot st/victoria st, shortland st/fort st.

    The owner simply proposed a plan (like the NDG) but never intent to build. The owner just looking to sell the vacant land to the next buyer and make the profit from it. The next buyer is also thinking the same. So after 10 20 30 years the land is still vacant. With the current tax system, there is more profit to land-bank than actually taking the risk to build it.

    1. Yes by increasing the rates weighting on land there is a nudge towards putting city land to it’s best use and nudge away from land banking. Over time it would make a difference to issues like housing affordability, adaptation to climate change and giving more people agglomeration productivity opportunities.

  8. I should add that I found life in the suburbs near the university relatively easy without a car due to the supermarkets being open until 11pm and the frequent bus service. The point I’m trying to make is that concentrating on policy settings for the central city in Christchurch is probably a mistake, because lots of people live and work in the suburbs and never go near the central city. That said, if central city living worked for hospital workers it would be a short walk for some of them to the hospital and there would be less pressure for new car parking buildings at the hospital.

    1. The mass rapid transit study will be important Mathew for creating new suburbs where Christchurch residents are not automobile dependent. This could be a game changer for Christchurch. Changing attitudes, policy settings etc.
      Pre earthquakes inner city Christchurch was getting a vibe going. I am sure a supermarket close to the square would have opened. There is one now.
      Christchurch has a lot of opportunities if it can get its policy settings right and receive it’s fair share of infrastructure funding.

  9. Reply to miffy 2:41 pm – Before the Base opened central city retailers used to blame Chartwell square.
    If you are interested in effect The Base has on Hamilton Central, the link below includes several graphs showing this.
    Point to note: “If restraints on the parking supply really did limit economic vitality, one would expect to find some evidence, but there is none” Page 558 Christchurch – Central City Technical Appendices E-P01
    http://hamiltonurbanblog.co.nz/2018/02/parking-evidence/

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