Future Christchurch is a polycentric city

Come join me. I am sipping a glass of chilled Riesling and tucking in to a delicious lunch while live jazz music wafts melodiously around the tables. No, I am not in a city restaurant but visiting a country vineyard.

It's a relaxing, peaceful atmosphere that both calms and re-energises. It is a world away from the woes besetting Christchurch. Angry talk of EQC, insurance companies, and building contractors melts away.

For people wanting to build a positive future, country living may not be a bad idea.

The future of Christchurch may not be just one city, but a polycentric city - an urban hub connected to other hubs, villages, or centres, each of them semi-autonomous.

It's how some cities evolved. London, for example, is a collection of villages that have knitted together.

Polycentric growth is an alternative to urban sprawl and building subdivisions devoid of any heart. The city is more than one CBD - suburbs and villages are important, too.

Such a growth pattern offers tantalising potential for Canterbury and other parts of New Zealand. For some, the benefits are clear.

Are you fed up with soaring house prices in Christchurch? Have you had enough of the depressing state of the city centre with its abandoned buildings, empty sites, and piles of rubble?

Then head west. Or east, north, or south. Property prices can be a lot cheaper.

If you head far enough west you come to Westport. The Buller Guide to Living Well lists "10 reasons why people move here." As well as world- renowned scenery, top attractions include quality of life, a caring community, and significantly, the ability to "get a great house on an average wage".

The guide says houses in Buller cost just "one third of the price of Auckland properties and half that of the national average."

Property prices in New Zealand cities, including Christchurch, are on average about seven times average income, making these cities "severely unaffordable", according to the annual Demographia survey.

Much of the reason is land prices.

You don't have to go as far as Westport to find better value for money. After the quakes, many Christchurch people chose to move elsewhere in Canterbury, especially to the Waimakariri and Selwyn districts. Prices may still be cheaper.

Among real estate agents' enticements: "Modern home, small price tag" (Oxford); "More for your money" (Rangiora); "Country charm, city convenience" (Kaiapoi); "Modern lifestyle" (Kirwee); and "Lots of land, little price" (Rakaia).

However, people don't just want a featureless subdivision or an isolated house far from friends and neighbours. They also want shops, cafes, businesses, schools, and sports and medical facilities: in other words, a community.

Professor Luis Bettancourt, of the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, believes all cities around the world, ancient and modern, have been built to fulfill a common goal: humans' need for socialisation.

"The key is not to think of cities just as a collection of buildings or people," he writes in New Scientist, "but as a web of social interactions embedded in space."

People in rural centres and suburbs still want to feel connected. Technology is having a profound effect. People no longer need to commute for some jobs; they could, in theory, work from anywhere.

New destinations have emerged. Pegasus seeks to attract newcomers with the slogan "Love the lifestyle, love the location". It aims to be more than just houses, but a place with a centre, amenities, and attractions.

Rolleston was always "the town of the future" since plans were launched in the early 1970s. Early ideas got watered down and at first it seemed like just a collection of houses; now it is evolving. One resident finds it a great place to raise a family, and is delighted with the facilities and community spirit.

You may still have to commute or want to visit the city. Transportation is vital.

The cost of running a car may be offset by cheaper property prices. You need good roads. The new southern motorway seems smooth and fast, while the route north often gets clogged.

Commuter trains utilising the existing mainline rail lines would be an ideal solution.

Green-lined transportation corridors would link towns all over Canterbury. The New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) designed a potential rail network, and when I wrote about it last year it attracted a huge positive response.

Even connecting Rolleston and Rangiora to Christchurch would be a start.

Compared with some countries, such as England, where idyllic villages can often be extremely pricey, New Zealand rural living still offers real potential.

People will choose for themselves where to go, but planning by local authorities makes a difference: by encouraging and stimulating the growth of attractive and sustainable communities for the future.

The Press