Let the people in

Adding to the post-earthquake frustration of many city residents is their feeling that they have been unnecessarily prevented from having even the most cursory visit to cordoned-off parts of the central city.

An organised walk there had been proposed by Mayor Bob Parker to coincide with the March 18 memorial service, but this was vetoed by Civil Defence authorities. Now, however, it is time to revisit the idea.

Allowing controlled access to the central city for specified periods would serve several purposes. Residents would gain a greater firsthand understanding of the devastation than they could by peering down ruined streets from the edge of the cordon.

This might benefit the Christchurch City Council and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority as residents would more fully appreciate the rebuilding challenge and allow them to offer more informed contributions during consultation over the central city's future.

A controlled walk ahead of the bulk of the demolitions would also allow residents to say farewell to buildings in which they had worked, shopped, been entertained or had just regularly strolled past.

It is clear there would be a considerable appetite for allowing limited access. This was shown by the 10,000 city dwellers who showed their deep interest in the central city by attending the recent Share an Idea Expo.

Residents will readily accept city councillors being escorted into central Christchurch, as the council is devising the inner-city strategy. So, too, the news media has had an important role in conveying images of the damage, although this can not totally replace firsthand observation.

And businesspeople are rightly being allowed into the central city at prescribed times and with escorts to retrieve data and equipment where it is practicable to do so.

But what residents find hard to accept is that while they are locked out of the central city, visiting celebrities such as former supermodel Rachel Hunter, although here for a good fundraising cause, and actor Russell Crowe are given red-zone tours.

The proposed March 18 walk-through was cancelled because of safety concerns and the fear it might impede recovery work. More than two months later there should be greater knowledge of what parts of the inner city would be suitable for controlled access.

Entry was allowed in the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, where those going into the damaged zones signed a waiver of release. ACC rules could make this course difficult in New Zealand, although the powers given to Cera might mean the rules could be changed.

If walking is still deemed dangerous then buses could be used at specified times, with a pre-booked ticketing system.

Some of those who lost relatives and friends in the earthquake believed that the March 18 proposed walk was grotesque. Their sensitivity will be understood and respected.

But central-city access would be in a different category to ghoulish rubbernecking in hard-hit Avonside and Bexley by those who have no actual connection with these suburbs.

All residents do feel that they have an affinity with central Christchurch, especially Cathedral Square. Allowing access would attract some voyeurs, but the majority who entered would do so with a sense of reverence for an older inner city which will soon be just a memory.

The Press