Opinion: Eden NZ would make a false environment when the real one's just outside
When the plans for Eden New Zealand, in the Avon River red zone, were announced last year, I was an instant convert.
"If people want an attraction with international rock-star WOW! factor, that draws tourists, creates jobs, fits in with an ecologically aware and sustainable city, aids science, and is just, fundamentally, wonderful, this is the one!" I posted on the Avon River Park (now Greening the Red Zone), Facebook page.
I was surprised some people weren't as keen, but their reasons seemed, well, reasonable. So I started doing my own research. Before long, I wasn't as keen either.
Last Friday I went to the Eden NZ presentation, wondering if it would change my mind. I came away more opposed than when I went in.
I know this is not a popular stance. I know that some will accuse me of being a naysayer. But hear me out as I outline my misgivings – a lot of people share them.
It's not really eco, is it?
"Why," several people asked me, "do we need a false environment within a bubble, when we can have the real thing outside?" They have a point.
Eden UK was built in a disused quarry that wasn't much good for anything else. But the red zone is already showing huge potential. It is an exciting, dynamic place, where kowhai, cabbage trees, lancewoods, pittosporums, ribbonwood, hoheria and many other natives are self-seeding.
Rare native birds are returning. Falcons and bittern – two of New Zealand's most endangered birds – have been seen, and that's happened without any expensive engineering, artificial environments or drawing on international brands. It's Christchurch doing its own thing.
We don't need to build bubbles to create an eco-attraction. The actual ecological regeneration that will happen within this city over many years, supported by its people, is the real eco-attraction. Let's celebrate and publicise that.
You said how much?
Rebuilding Christchurch is expensive. There is not enough money to do everything. Whatever we do has to be efficient, sustainable and have the most benefits for the most people.
Building Eden New Zealand will be extremely expensive (ballpark $90m to $120m) and its backers think public funding is an option. But there is only so much money for eco-projects – and that money needs to go to sustainable, authentic, indigenous projects that benefit everyone.
Creating a city-to-sea forest and wetland park will be much cheaper, based on a ballpark figure of $100,000 per hectare (if we plant only five-year-old trees, at commercial rates). It will also bring more of our birdlife back, ease flooding, improve air quality, improve the physical and mental health of the people of Christchurch, and offer an authentic, natural environment for school children, students and scientists to study our plants and animals in.
An eco-sanctuary would bring even more of our rare, vulnerable wildlife back, and provide a base from which birds such as kaka might repopulate our city. Then we can offer visitors a genuine Kiwi experience.
Running Eden NZ will also be expensive and it probably won't be profitable. In the year ending March 2013, Eden UK lost £6.3 million (having received £1.3 million from the Cornwall Council in the previous three years). Last year it lost more than £750,000. It's axed jobs and sold £2m of land to turn its finances around.
Eden UK is based at the warm end of a country with a population of 63 million. Just over the channel are 700-odd million people. Yet its visitor numbers are falling.
If it has financial difficulties and falling attendances despite having a potential market of hundreds of millions of people, how can a project in a country with a population of 4.5 million, miles from anywhere, be financially viable?
Where and who are we?
It's claimed that Eden NZ will draw tourists to Christchurch, create jobs, and be The Big Idea that Saves Us.
I'm a tourist and I don't go anywhere just to see a famous tourist attraction. I go to experience the place. You don't go to Paris just to see the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe – you go because it's Paris.
If we want a vibrant, lucrative tourism sector, we need authenticity. We need things that are uniquely Christchurch, things you can't see or do anywhere else. We need to grow (quite literally) our own attractions – and we need to grow them because they are good for us, not just because we think they'll attract tourists.
Then our city will be vibrant and exciting, and people will choose to visit us because of it.
But even if Eden NZ does attract tourists, who will it actually benefit? Not the part of town that needs it for most.
Eden NZ is touted as a day-long attraction – so it will draw tourists in, hold them there to spend all their money, then send them back to their hotels or cruise ships.
An experience that draws tourists through a genuinely regenerating landscape, learning about the history and ecology of the place, stopping at cafes, visiting an eco-sanctuary, exploring art and ending in New Brighton to spend more money will spread the benefits.
The real question behind all this is: What sort of city do we want for ourselves? Of all the ideas for the red zone, which ones benefit us the most, at the least cost? Which ones will, in 100 years, be iconic?
I want an authentic city. I want a city that, when it says it prioritises the environment, actually does prioritise the environment, not whizz-bang pastiches.
I have no doubt the people promoting Eden NZ have the best intentions and want the best for Christchurch.
But we can grow our own, genuine Eden. It will cost much less and provide many more benefits. And that is what's best for our environment, our economy and our people.