City must be lively and attractive

OPEN: The Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre (Epic).
OPEN: The Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre (Epic).

Attracting, harnessing and retaining new skills is the challenge for Christchurch as it seeks to create a sustainable future.

Halting the seemingly inexorable drift to Auckland and Australia is key. Let's encourage innovation and make Christchurch a place people feel excited about and want to live in.

Affordable housing, better transportation and places for people are essential.

It makes no sense in the internet era that so many of New Zealand's jobs or head offices should be located in Auckland. New Zealand's largest and most expensive city faces continued growing pains, which place a massive burden on infrastructure and funding.

It would be in Auckland's own best interests to resist unfettered growth and for businesses to share the jobs around the country. We need to decentralise and let local communities flourish.

Harvard economics professor and author of Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser, who visited Christchurch at the invitation of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, says a city is more than just a collection of buildings.

"Great buildings transform cities, they make them liveable and magical, but the heart of a city is people, not structures."

Economics, Glaeser says, have a lot to contribute. For example, while today we celebrate Florence for its beautiful Renaissance art and architecture - what he calls "chains of genius" - trade was the reason the city grew.

American skyscrapers were built for business, not purely for show.

Cities must become "exciting urban places where smart entrepreneurial people want to stay".

That, he says, can be "incredibly challenging".

On arriving in Christchurch, he thought the city felt like an American agricultural metropolis, such as Des Moines in Iowa.

Indeed, farming still plays a pivotal role in the Canterbury economy. Dairying is an amazing growth industry.

However, assuming dairying remains resilient to drought and climate change, it cannot be the only key to the region's future.

Christchurch is more than just an agricultural service town. What else can we do? Where are the jobs? How can the city generate wealth?

Thousands of workers are expected to keep on arriving in Christchurch as the rebuild gains momentum.

They will be good for the economy, we keep hearing. Well, they will spend money, but already they are placing strain on the city's pressured accommodation market.

Where will they go after the rebuild? Why would they need to stay? Let's think long term.

Retailing provides jobs, but how many shops does Christchurch need?

Economies depend on more than just importing and selling stuff. They also need to produce stuff in the first place and export it to a wider market.

Leaving aside the unlikely proposition that someone strikes oil in their backyard, Christchurch will have to get creative.

There is cause for optimism. A new Innovation Precinct, Te Puna Rereketanga, is part of the Christchurch rebuild plan. It is promoted as "a catalyst for creativity, increased exports and productivity".

Located next to the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology near the South Frame, it includes the new Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus Sanctuary building in Manchester St, a community of technology entrepreneurs.

In Tokyo, I visited a whole precinct dedicated to enterprising startups. California's Silicon Valley started that way, too.

"Seize the opportunity to invest in New Zealand's second-largest city," urge the Christchurch Central Development Unit and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority in a colourful, glossy online document.

We need to attract domestic and international investment funds.

In a small economy, innovation makes a difference. Kiwis have proven themselves adept at developing world-beating products, often on shoestring budgets, from software to medical technology, electronics, robotics, nanotechnology and the Martin Jetpack.

Quality counts. I am a believer in buying something well made that lasts. Despite all the odds and in the face of cheaper imports, some Christchurch furniture-makers have survived and succeeded on the world stage.

Untouched World knitwear, as worn by former US president Bill Clinton, is another success story.

Education has a role. It is sad that the University of Canterbury faces cuts.

However, the university's Engineering School has developed interesting new products, using laminated timber. The university's new Quake Centre has real potential. A Christchurch earthquake research laboratory can foster talent, achieve practical results, and garner worldwide acclaim.

Other small firms have also come up with innovative building products.

Here's an idea for the new mayor: Launch an innovation fund. Perhaps Christchurch could host its own innovation and design awards.

Another growth idea could be an urban-design laboratory, creating designs and watching them develop in real time.

To encourage entrepreneurs and new businesses to set up or relocate in Christchurch, the city itself must offer incentives in the form of a lively and attractive place in which to live.

The Press