Imagine if Wellington could be rebuilt from scratch.
Major roads would be routed around, rather than through, the central city, converted office buildings would be replaced with purpose-built apartments, green space would be better integrated into the overall design and, most importantly, the city would be reoriented to make maximum advantage of its greatest asset - the harbour.
A city built for the horse and cart would be rebuilt for modern public transport, foot traffic and cycles.
That is precisely the opportunity afforded Christchurch by the tragic events that claimed 185 lives and destroyed, or rendered unusable, 70 per cent of the buildings in its central business district.
No-one envies Cantabrians the circumstances that have delivered the city fathers and mothers what one planner has described as a "once in several lifetimes opportunity". Nor should anyone underestimate the continuing hardship and frustration experienced by some homeowners who have been told they may have to wait five to eight years to discover whether their damaged homes will be repaired or replaced. While EQC and insurers argue about liability, the suitability of land and logistics, they are stuck in limbo.
Some delays were inevitable given the scale of the destruction and the continuing tremors, but insurers should now make good on the contractual obligations they entered into when they took property owners' premiums. Just as it would be unreasonable to expect a vehicle owner to wait five to eight years for a replacement for a stolen car, so it is completely unreasonable to expect families who have paid their premiums to wait five to eight years for a weather-tight home.
However, the understandable frustration of property owners should not be allowed to blight the exciting vision for a new, low-rise city framed by the Avon River and swaths of green unveiled by the Christchurch Central Development Unit on Monday.
It is a plan that recognises Cantabrians do not want to work or shop in high-rise buildings any more and that the old city was already ailing before the February 22 earthquake struck. It had too much unlet commercial office space and too many empty shops. The new city will be compact, contained and people friendly.
Many important questions have still to be answered. Included among them are how Christchurch residents will pay for the spectacular new venues intended to draw people back into the city, how much it will cost to acquire title to the sites on which the proposed convention centre, covered stadium and indoor sports complex will be built, and whether private developers will be prepared to sink their capital into complementary projects.
But at first glance, the plan gives the city's inhabitants reason to remain in Christchurch longer than they need to collect their insurance cheques. The next few years will be trying for most and extremely difficult for some, but, if the planners' dreams come to fruition, Christchurch will end up with the world's first 21st-century city.
It is an exciting prospect.
- The Dominion Post