Red-zone talk must start now

Last updated 12:14 20/01/2014

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OPINION: In a little over four months time, few if any people will remain in the residential red zone in eastern Christchurch. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has set January 31 as its deadline for people to leave the area. After they have gone, consideration will have to be given to what to do with the large tracts of land left vacant.

Already ideas are beginning to emerge, not all of them entirely compatible with one another. Until now discussion about the future of the area has been muted out of respect for those residents who had still not completed their move away.

But with almost all gone, that constraint no longer applies. A conversation needs to begin now if Christchurch is to arrive at an outcome that it is best for the city and socially and financially sustainable.

One proposal being strongly pushed by a coalition of environmental groups is for the establishment of a multimillion- dollar predator proof eco- sanctuary based on Travis Wetlands and extending into a chunk of the red zone. The aim would be for the 150-hectare site to provide a haven for kiwi, takahe, tuatara and other such species not seen in the city outside zoos and museums. Its promoters see it as becoming a resource to raise awareness of New Zealand's natural heritage and potentially as an eco- tourism attraction.

Another idea for the east tentatively put forward by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee at the end of last year is for the creation of a water course "unique in the southern hemisphere". In Brownlee's view, admittedly only sketchy at this point, the facility could service such sports as rowing, which has long craved a decent facility in the city, triathlon and open-water swimming.

Both ideas have their attractions. But equally they have large obstacles to overcome, not least their financial sustainability. Brownlee's idea is centred on the notion of making Christchurch a sporting centre with the water course one of several sports facilities directed at promoting that aim. That is fine, but most public sports facilities anywhere in the world are a drain on a city's finances and touted extra benefits are often illusory. Christchurch's finances are delicately balanced enough as it is without unnecessary burdens being created for ratepayers to bear.

Similarly, the eco-sanctuary is an alluring idea. The tiny pocket-handkerchief patch of protected bush that survives in Riccarton is lovely to visit. But an eco-sanctuary in the east is not universally welcomed, even by environmentalists, and the unhappy experience of like- minded ventures in Wellington and the Waikato suggest it should be approached with caution.

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In addition, those ideas or any others that may be arrived at will have to match the Government's own ideas, which may include the desire to recover some of the tens of millions it has paid to buy out to property owners in the red zone.

The fate of the residential red zone will have a huge bearing on what Christchurch will be like in the future. It is imperative therefore that the discussion on it begins sooner rather than later.

- The Press

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