Fed up with Christchurch but where to go?

NELSON: A compact city centre but not immune from development pressures.
NELSON: A compact city centre but not immune from development pressures.

Fed up with Christchurch? Where would you go?

Would you prefer to live in the town or country? Would you prefer to soak up the peace and quiet of the natural landscape, or revel in the buzz of urban life?

Getting out of Christchurch for the past few weeks while our house was being repaired gave us the chance to ponder that question: From the urban concentration of Singapore, with its ultra-modern architecture, hyper-malls, and bustling street life, we shifted gears to the calm and tranquility of Golden Bay.

Long, empty beaches, lush native bush and waterfalls, and warm weather - it is hard to imagine a more relaxing break and a chance to recharge batteries.

A break and relaxation is what many Christchurch people still desperately need. More than three years after the first big quake, people are still stressed by battling EQC and insurance companies, rows over development, housing affordability, the shambolic state of the city centre, traffic congestion, and bumpy, potholed roads.

Both town and country can have their charms. Both can also have their annoyances. Enhancing the first and alleviating the second can be a matter of design. Christchurch has an unparalleled chance to get it right: to adapt the best from other places, while avoiding their mistakes.

Cities can be noisy, crowded, dirty, and expensive. They can also be lively, imaginative, and captivating. What characterises a city is that it is an entirely artificial construct; nature is subservient. However, nature has therapeutic qualities that we need to harness. Nature nourishes the soul. We need to have green spaces, trees, and waterways close to our urban heart.

By and large, I believe the plan for Christchurch's CBD is on the right track, with its urban frame, landscaping, emphasis on pedestrians and cyclists, and public transportation. (What is lacking is planning for suburban and regional growth.) Well-designed city apartments can offer a blend of privacy and community. It is a style of living to which Kiwis are unaccustomed, but of which we may see more in the future.

However, just because cities are packed with people does not necessarily mean you are surrounded by friends. "Allein in einer grossen Stadt" ("alone in a big city") sang Marlene Dietrich. Lonely in New York, by Sophie Milman, sets the same theme: "Rush hour traffic not a soul around . . . Broadway is a dead end street . . . when you're lonely in New York."

In Christchurch, not a soul around could apply literally to parts of the city centre nowadays.

Country living might seem lonely, too. Some people fear feeling remote and isolated. But, the reality, at least from talking to those who live there, is that rural communities are welcoming. People are friendly and care about their neighbours.

While restaurants, pubs, and cinemas may be fewer, other attractions come into play, such as space, the garden and being closer to nature. Country towns usually have thriving centres. Takaka, for instance, is packed with cafes and arts and craft shops. Some small towns make an effort to look attractive; others are dominated by ugly utilitarian sheds. New Zealand has few pretty country villages.

Living in the country has its challenges. Business opportunities are fewer. In one way this is understandable, but with technology and the internet many jobs that once had to be done in town can now be performed anywhere. It makes no sense that you should have to move to Auckland or Wellington to find work. New Zealand's slow and expensive internet is a deterrent.

Transport is a drawback. You must have a reliable car and drive everywhere. You don't have traffic jams and parking meters. Still, most most rural towns are bisected by a busy main road. In some towns, locals would welcome a bypass to get rid of the big trucks that roar through.

Bringing back rail would encourage more people to live in country towns by making commuting to larger centres easier.

The cost of running a vehicle may be offset through the cheaper price of buying a house in the country. The through-the-roof cost of property in Christchurch - an increase of about 10 per cent over the last year compared with, in some cases, zero rise in wage or salary - makes buying a house an impossible dream for many.

New Zealand's regional towns, like Nelson, appeal. They are compact, easy to get around, yet offer plenty of attractions. However, many of the same issues facing Christchurch now will undoubtedly apply to smaller towns in the future: Where do they expand? How do people get around?

Development, and its impact on quality of life, as well as a caring community and an attractive environment remain paramount no matter where you live.

The Press