How the west will win
Christchurch is bulging out to the west and a wave of new settlers is heading towards the picturesque rural communities. But are they ready for it? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.
The future is in the southwest. Out past Halswell and Hornby in towns such as Lincoln, Rolleston and Prebbleton.
One of the more unexpected effects of the earthquakes is the way that Christchurch's traditional borders have dissolved, becoming porous.
It used to be easier to know where the country was and where the city was. Where one ended and one started. But the quakes seem to have accelerated a process that was already under way: the rapid growth in Selwyn.
There is no shortage of statistics. This month, we learned that half of the new homes going up in Greater Christchurch are within the Selwyn and Waimakariri districts - the future is also in the northwest. Christchurch City Council and those two rural councils issue about 300 consents a month for new houses and multi-unit buildings. That number has doubled from a year ago and is the highest since the property boom of 2007.
Selwyn District Council boasts that, of the 616 building consents for new dwellings that it processed in the year to June, 94.64 per cent were turned around within 20 days.
You can see the gleaming new homes taking shape on the outskirts of Lincoln, Rolleston, Prebbleton and in West Melton, where farmland gives way to suburbia.
Selwyn is officially New Zealand's fastest-growing district. Head just south of the centre of Lincoln, past where the West Belt and the South Belt once defined the town, and you see suburbia rising. In Ngai Tahu's Te Whariki subdivision, there is a handful of occupied houses, some empty ones for sale and many under construction, while empty land awaits its turn.
In Lincoln, the 2006 census recorded a population of 2727 people. That was up by 585 people from the 2001 census - an increase of 27.3 per cent. Had the 2011 census not been cancelled, you might have expected a much greater jump.
Growth predictions have become a kind of fiction. Selwyn District Council's recently released 10-year plan noted that population growth has usually been linked to the rate of economic growth in the wider Canterbury region.
The economy slowed, so growth forecasts were reduced accordingly, but the impact of the earthquakes on population shifts is a wildcard.
"Our plans need to be flexible and we must be capable of responding to demand if growth is faster than forecast," the authors of the report wrote.
"We have growth projections but I think they are going to be exceeded," Selwyn Mayor Kelvin Coe says. "It's anybody's guess. There are so many developments, all with sold signs on them. It could be quite rapid. People are buying off the plans."
Asked to explain the appeal of Lincoln, Coe had jotted down a few bullet points.
"One thing. Village feel, cute, quaint."
Got that. Next.
"Then I've got a lot of attractive subdivisions going in there. You've got the Ngai Tahu one. You've got the Fulton Hogan one. You've got the Grange, which is another more mature one. There is Liffey Springs. A range of new subdivisions, all of which are very attractive."
The Ngai Tahu development alone will add 2700 people to the town when completed. The Fulton Hogan development, Rosemerryn, will have 900 sections in total.
Can Lincoln take this many extra people without altering the village feel that Coe talks about? "You are absolutely right. Good question. I don't want to answer that."
But then he does. "The bigger it grows, the less you have a village feel about it, but there is no reason why it can't maintain that sort of thing around it. It may change but hand in hand with that go improved facilities.
"The next thing I had down here are the recreational facilities," Coe says. "You've got the rail trail, the Lincoln Event Centre, good sports grounds, a new library coming in the next 12 months.
"That's all good infrastructure to support the growth. It's got good shopping centres, and there are more and more shops appearing out there. You have the New World supermarket."
Might Lincoln ultimately become a suburb of Christchurch? "No, it won't. But Christchurch might become part of Selwyn."
All joking aside, could Coe imagine a future in which nearly all of Springs Rd is suburban, from Hornby to Lincoln? "Anything's possible. You're right. Prebbleton's growing at a rapid pace as well."
The next bullet point is that Lincoln University and the Crown Research Institutes are out there, adding to "the village/university town feel".
There are no infrastructure constraints on growth. "We have put the infrastructure in place, which is basically the wastewater system/ sewage plant. We're in the process of upgrading that and we started that a little while ago."
Finally, there is the bus connection to Christchurch.
Of course, there are growing pains too. While there are controversial proposals to reorganise primary and secondary schools in Christchurch - proposals that were, ironically, announced at the Lincoln Event Centre - schools in the rural southwest are facing a different problem. How to expand?
At the start of the year, Coe said a high school in Rolleston was increasingly urgent. Hundreds of college-age kids are bussed over to Lincoln High School, whose roll has grown from 1425 in 2007 to 1560 this year.
In February, the area's primary schools reported surges in school rolls. Clearview Primary School, Rolleston School and Lincoln Primary School were booming, with Lincoln Primary School's principal Vivienne Butcher saying there were 44 new pupils across the school - the most it had ever had.
In many cases, these were migrants from the Christchurch residential red zone, or at least those that can afford to shift.
This week, within the fallout from the Education Ministry's plans for Christchurch schools, the ministry indicated that Lincoln High School might expand, opening a satellite campus in Rolleston. Lincoln High School principal Linda Tame says the idea has been on the table for years, and could be established more quickly than a new high school.
Coe sees that as merely a short- term solution, saying "the people of Rolleston want to see a high school that they can identify as Rolleston".
Within the greater picture of communities fighting to retain small schools, you can see his point. Twenty kilometres south of Rolleston, at Greenpark School, staff are preparing to take on the ministry over a "ridiculous" proposal to close the school.
Greenpark has a roll of just 35, but that is set to grow, teacher- principal Andrea Klassen says. She adds it is "beyond belief" that the ministry would close her school and expand others in Rolleston.
There are other pressures, such as traffic. It has been estimated that traffic volume on roads to the south of Christchurch will increase by more than 50 per cent in the next 10 years.
Every year since 2005, an average of 6km of new roads, 8km of footpaths and 160 streetlights have been added to Selwyn District Council's asset base, according to the council's recently published 10-year plan.
Between 2017 and 2021, the council expects to spend $3.2 million upgrading the Ellesmere Rd arterial route "to improve the route between Lincoln and Christchurch".
Commuter routes into Christchurch are getting busier. Around 60 per cent of Selwyn's population lives within 25km of the boundary with Christchurch City. The 10-year plan said that "while this proximity creates excellent opportunities, it can also create issues in meeting the needs of residents having to regularly travel to and from Christchurch. Equally, new residents have high expectations of the standard of their townships and services, when viewed in comparison to our large and well-resourced metropolitan neighbour."
In short, people shifting out from the city want the resources of the city in the country.
New development brings other problems, according to the 10-year plan. The "rapid urban growth in the townships within the Christchurch commuter belt, such as Prebbleton, Lincoln and Rolleston" does not just lead to an increase in traffic on existing roads - it also increases the new transport and township infrastructure that comes into community ownership from the new subdivisions.
While developers provide most of the new infrastructure, the district council and its ratepayers must maintain the assets in perpetuity, once they have been handed over. "Also, some of this new infrastructure is of a higher standard than in the older parts of the district's townships and the council has to consider to what extent and to what standard this will be replaced in the future and the provision of funding enabling this."
As you would expect, some in Lincoln worry about the town's rapid growth. In April, community paper Central Canterbury News interviewed locals, including video shop owner Carol LeLievre, who shifted to Lincoln from Akaroa in the 1980s, looking for a similar pace of life.
LeLievre said it was once a town where people stopped their cars in the middle of the street to talk. A town where everyone knew your name.
Others saw positives. More shoppers if you are in retail, more places to shop if you're a consumer. Less need to drive to Christchurch.
On balance, it still sits on the positive side of the ledger, at least on a quiet, sunny spring morning. It is a Canterbury town with an old centre, intact churches, and new infrastructure.
Earthquake damage seems minimal. The Lincoln University campus is pretty and largely deserted.
The Lincoln Event Centre opened in April 2011. The town's first art gallery followed in October 2011, when Down by the Liffey Gallery opened in the old Coronation Library on the banks of the Liffey Stream. A $4.5m library designed by Warren and Mahoney is expected to open next year on the site of the Lincoln Community Centre. A popular farmers' market is held on the first Saturday of each month. Hillyers of Lincoln bakery started in 1967 and still has a base there.
Perhaps one of the best ways to assess the feel of a town is to track through a few months' coverage in the community paper.
According to the Central Canterbury News, some 300 people "packed" the Lincoln Baptist Church recently to hear "bug man" Ruud Kleinpaste. A build-a- scarecrow competition at the farmers' market was hotly contested. Former prime minister Helen Clark was scheduled to deliver an environmental speech at the university.
Connected with the university is Lincoln's role as an "Envirotown". One of the university's students, Kess Aleksandrova, won a British Council-sponsored landscape design scholarship for her plan to regenerate public green spaces along Christchurch's Avon River.
In other news, Down by the Liffey Gallery was a finalist in the arts and culture section of the Sensational Selwyn Awards. Gold medal- winning Paralympian Sophie Pascoe is a Lincoln High School old girl. A rock band called Ego Valve, featuring Lincoln students, was competing in the Smokefreerockquest regional finals.
The historic Famous Grouse Hotel was rebuilt quickly after earthquake damage. Other events seemed typical of a small New Zealand town. The paper reported that Lincoln High student Lily Cross was speechless after her Ford Festiva was found with the engine still running in a "totally munted" condition at the Lincoln rugby grounds on a Sunday morning in May. Rugby club president Alan King said it was good luck that frost had hardened the grounds. If the ground had been wet, the damage would have been much worse.
On this spring morning, it still feels like the kind of pleasant rural town where that sort of thing happens. Japanese backpackers wander the banks of the Liffey and gaze into the windows of real estate agents. Cafes are full. Traffic is slow.
The Famous Grouse advertises a "Miss Famous Grouse" beauty contest. A video store urges customers to "please remove muddy and dirty footwear". Yes, we're still in the country.