Red zone gift would be a wise investment

Imagine of the benefits if this type of experience, walking through native bush at Hinewai Reserve, Banks Peninsula, was ...
Ashley Campbell

Imagine of the benefits if this type of experience, walking through native bush at Hinewai Reserve, Banks Peninsula, was possible in central Christchurch.

OPINION: As we count down to the fifth anniversary of the February 22 earthquake, Christchurch people want some answers.

And one question that's playing heavily on our collective minds this year is: what's going to happen to the Avon River Red Zone?

People have their own theories about what will happen, involving assorted mixes of remediation, eco-parks, and other ideas.

Some even have what seem quite radical suggestions. But are they really that radical? What if they make not just environmental and social sense, but also stack up financially?

In its submission to the Greater Christchurch Regeneration Bill, the Avon-Otakaro Network suggested the Government should sell the red zone to a community-owned trust, for $1. Write it off, they said. Consider it a gift.

That immediately brought responses of "nice idea, but it won't happen", not least from Christchurch East MP Poto Williams, who said the Crown would want a return on the land.

At Greening the Red Zone, we've done some research into the benefits of returning the red zone to nature, and it stacks up well financially. Selling it for $1 wouldn't be a gift from the Government – it would be a very wise investment.

The return would show in health spending and outcomes, in lower infrastructure spending for flood protection and water cleaning, in lower costs of cleaning up air pollution, and in many other areas of national and local government spending.

Research done in 2013 by Drs Suzanne Vallance and Peter Tait of Lincoln University, estimate an eco-park in the red zone would save $50.3 million a year in physical health costs. And that's not from any expensive, highly engineered infrastructure (needing continual, expensive maintenance, or high entry fees to justify its costs). It's simply from the increased walking, jogging, and cycling that would happen through the park.

Then there's mental health, which is a huge issue in post-quake Christchurch. Among all the necessary treatments and interventions to help those who are struggling, let's not forget that simple access to nature has a profound effect on mental health – and lowers treatment costs.

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The evidence is overwhelming. One Auckland study, from 2013, shows that people living within 3 kilometres of green space need less treatment for anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. Indeed, for every 1 per cent increase in green space, there's a 4 per cent decrease in treatment costs.

Another study from the US state of Wisconsin shows that green space, especially tree canopy cover, decreases depression – even when taking into account people's income and employment status. It also decreases stress and anxiety.

Flood protection and mitigation is another cost looming large for Christchurch. In Christchurch/West Melton, only 2 per cent of our natural wetlands remain. Yet wetlands and trees play a significant role in storing floodwater – and that can be quantified.

Waikato's Whangamarino Wetland is estimated to have saved $5.2 million in flood control costs during just one flood event.

The ecosystem services (flood control, water cleansing, recreational opportunities) that wetlands provide are estimated at $43,320 a year. If one third of the 450ha became wetland, that's another $6.5 million a year.

But wait, there's more! We haven't even mentioned the way a large native forest could help to clean up our winter air pollution.

Or the research showing that just 11 extra trees in a city block provides health benefits similar to those from residents earning an extra $20,000 a year.

Or the role that forests and wetlands can both play in storing carbon and slowing down climate change. Indeed recent recent research by the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Deakin University, Australia suggests that wetlands could be up to 50 times more effective than forests at storing carbon.

Of course, some benefits of returning the red zone to nature are priceless – such as the widespread return to Christchurch of native birds such as tui, kereru, and morepork, and the increased opportunity for our children to experience the natural world within their city.

But this year, as the consultation over the Avon River Red Zone will inevitably begin, don't let anyone tell you that returning it to nature would be just too expensive. They're wrong. Failing to do so is the real risk.

Future generations will pay the cost if we don't take this opportunity to bequeath them a healthier, happier, and more prosperous life in a city that is truly at home in its environment. The value of that is beyond measure.

Ashley Campbell is founder of Greening the Red Zone, a community group campaigning for the Avon River Red Zone to become a forest and wetland park. You can read more at greeningtheredzone.nz.

 - Stuff

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