OPINION: Stop worrying about Christchurch's CBD. Instead, embrace what the whole of Christchurch already has - space - and improve how we use it. Then export that knowledge to Asia.
If we can do that, we will have one of the hottest products on the international market.
So says Dushko Bogunovich, associate professor of urban planning at Unitec in Auckland. Professor Bogunovich, who has been taking part in a summer school at CPIT in Christchurch, believes the city's future lies in a knowledge economy based on what he calls, "greenovation: green, clean, smart, and cool".
It sounds a great idea, but it may also be inevitable. The uncertain future of Christchurch's CBD makes it imperative we think differently.
More people are concerned that the CBD rebuild is stalling. Developers say it is hard to find tenants. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee rejects the concerns, and says some contractors are going "gangbusters".
Drive the bumpy slalom course through the city centre, past abandoned buildings and empty sites, and it is clear that progress is patchy at best. Much of it is still wasteland.
Bogunovich is not surprised. His outlook for the CBD is bleak. "My forecast is it will have a very slow recovery, a lot slower than people think. The horse has bolted and a lot of businesses have moved out to the airport and outer suburbs, into brand new cheaper accommodation and they are happy there. It's hard to get them back into expensive buildings."
Banks say they will move back, and the justice and emergency services precinct and other anchor projects will make a difference, but will they be enough?
Even with a few new retail developments and cafes, many sites are likely to remain empty.
"The global trends are not favouring downtowns and city centres. All city centres are struggling," says Bogunovich.
In Christchurch, another factor is the nature of the land in the central city, which makes building tougher, and of course, more expensive. Pricey rents deter tenants.
The CBD has to offer something that the suburbs don't have, says Bogunovich, whose hometown of Sarajevo is still recovering after being destroyed in the wars of the 1990s.
That something special could be history, but it is hard or impossible to rebuild once character is lost. A spectacular cathedral and an international architecture competition could help revive the centre.
If it doesn't take off straightaway? Then develop other parts of the city and region as well. In Christchurch: The Way Forward, commentator Hugh Pavletich talks of a "one city - many communities model".
Such growth requires councils working together and a co- ordinated regional plan.
Christchurch, a city of more than 300,000 people, is a lot more than just a small historical grid of about five by 10 blocks. It is already a polycentric city, with suburban hubs and shopping centres: Riccarton, Northlands, The Palms, Linwood, Barrington, and Hornby.
Other suburbs, like Addington, are humming. Authorities should be promoting and encouraging more attractive and successful community hubs.
Visit The Colombo and the new Academy cinema in Sydenham. There is no need for them to be in the CBD; they are assets to their neighbourhood.
Or head along to The Tannery, Alasdair Cassels' Victorian-style shopping centre in Woolston, a neglected part of the city. Cassels struggled for years to get planning permission; the earthquakes speeded up the process.
New commercial zones and warehouses are springing up on the fringe, for example in Hornby. A massive new development, the Izone Southern Business Hub, is under construction in the Selwyn District.
Suburbs, whether old or new, need centres.
Featureless subdivisions on the fringe, with no shops, no schools, and no entertainment facilities within easy reach, are yesterday's designs: bland and boring with limited opportunities.
Some developers are realising this. As well as housing, Silverstream, a big new residential development west of Kaiapoi, will include a commercial centre with space for offices, restaurants, a medical centre, and shops.
As Bugonovich says, communities could be self-sufficient, harnessing solar energy, and managing their own water and waste.
People could grow their own fruit and vegetables, and high-speed internet would mean that not everybody has to commute.
Mobility matters, and new solutions may include electric and hybrid vehicles, cycleways, and better public transportation.
A decentralised city is more resilient to disaster - something the earthquakes have already proved.
Buildings in new centres should be aesthetically pleasing and innovative, more than utilitarian architecture.
Urban sprawl is one of the biggest problems facing the planet, says Bugonovich.
If New Zealand finds out how to build a sustainable low-density city, design and building technologies could be a highly successful export.
There is huge demand in China, for example.
We will come up with our own unique solutions, but we cannot avoid global commercial reality.
- © Fairfax NZ News