Oh I do like to be beside the seaside - on a good day

Last updated 05:00 20/10/2012

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That salty tang in the air, those angry, squawking gulls, the emptied-out shops, fish flapping on the pier, tagged walls and that down-at-heel feeling. Where else could you be but in New Brighton, Christchurch's fading seaside suburb done no favours by the last two years of earthquakes?

Living next to the sea is something that many in most parts of New Zealand can only dream about. Those in the market for a home with an ocean view in Auckland and Wellington, and in some parts of Christchurch such as Sumner and Redcliffs, pay through the nose for the privilege of seaside living. New Brighton, for some years the only place in the country where Saturday shopping was allowed, has largely bucked that trend throughout its history, leaving out-of-towners scratching their heads at why it is apparently more desirable to live near the railway lines in Fendalton than beside the breathtaking sweep of the sandy dunes facing the sparkling Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, the physical characteristics that give New Brighton its character as a seaside town also act against it. Bracing sea breezes are to be expected, even wished for by some for their apparent health-boosting properties. But a sea breeze is one thing - a howling easterly blast is another altogether.

While a buffeting wind may be acceptable on the beach itself, it is not so welcome where it means shoppers are forced to scurry from store to store taking shelter. Until the new library was built and began acting as a windbreak, there used to be few colder places in the city than the New Brighton Mall in a strong easterly, the wind whipping between the palm trees.

The quakes have also exposed the vulnerability of the area to seismic activity in terms of liquefaction, its proximity to the seafloor faults that lie beyond the pier and are still making their presence felt, and to the threat of tsunami.

The loss of the population of Bexley and of residents from other red-zoned land around New Brighton has only made things more difficult for the suburb's retailers and those trying to keep their heads above water and even stage a comeback.

There will be some who are keenly anticipating the master plan the Christchurch City Council is now developing for New Brighton, and which will go before councillors in December, but for many it will be accompanied by a sense of weariness and doubt over whether it will really achieve a great deal.

New Brighton began life as a separate village, a tram ride away from Christchurch, and should now seize the opportunity to return to that. It has always been a settlement which has attracted the offbeat and the alternative. The old saying, "Are you married or do you live in New Brighton?", gives some idea of that.

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The future New Brighton needs to look more to what lies behind it, in a physical sense, than simply to what is in front of it. It will always be a seaside place, popular with swimmers, surfies and those who like to walk on the beach or do battle for space with those fishing from the pier. But there has been a post-quakes resurgence of interest in the Avon River, whose winding, swampy lower reaches separate New Brighton from the rest of the city.

Revitalisation of the Avon through central Christchurch has been ranked top priority by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority in its city blueprint. More than 18,000 Christchurch residents have supported the idea of a cycleway-walkway along its banks that could extend from the city right through to the Avon-Heathcote Estuary.

There have also been suggestions about creating a recreational or heritage water park in the river's lower reaches, although details of that remain sparse.

Some bold thinking is needed. We believe there could be no better future for New Brighton than to be the destination at the far end of a regional water park, the perhaps unconventional village offering icecreams on a hot summer's day, and as the city's redeveloped gateway to the Pacific Ocean.

- Canterbury

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