Christchurch losing its magnetism

Christchurch losing its magnetism

Christchurch was named as one of the world’s ‘Magnet Cities’ in a global study by KPMG but could now be losing some of its pulling power.



Christchurch, one of the world's nine 'Magnet Cities', should be forming itself into a technology testbed and building attractive infrastructure - like canals in the Red Zone and a world-class sports stadium.

That's the opinion of Caroline Haynes, author of KPMG's global study of Magnet Cities - those that re-invent themselves and attract young wealth creators to boost growth - which named Christchurch among the nine. The others were Bilbao, Changwon, Denver, Incheon, Malmo, Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh and Tel Aviv.

She says Christchurch risks losing some of its magnetism as a city of the future because of a leadership vacuum and a misplaced focus on 'old economy' development. Simon Hunter, KPMG partner and champion for cities, says there are now 400 cities of one million people competing for the best "extremely mobile" talent and growth companies to drive national economies. He believes New Zealand's three major cities have a lot to learn from the magnet city study; Christchurch, in particular, may be ignoring the lessons.

Haynes, an economist and government advisor who also consults to Oxford University on its MSc in Sustainable Urban Development, was in New Zealand in June and this month - latterly to run a series of workshops with city officials and other stakeholders in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to help recognise ways to approach beneficial change. 

The Magnet Cities study focuses on cities in a spiral of decline but switched their "magnetic pull", turning their economy around with revolutionary thinking.

It admired Christchurch's post-quake growth and leadership shown by former mayor Bob Parker. The city needed to re-invent itself even before the earthquakes as the city centre was losing relevance and financial difficulties loomed.

After the earthquakes, Parker and the council planned a new city centre as "green, safe, compact, accessible and fun to live in." It was to be condensed to 40 hectares in a design focused on attracting residents and businesses.

New anchor projects (17 of them, from performing arts and retail to innovation, health and justice precincts) were to enhance residents' quality of life, draw people back into the city centre and encourage private development.

Christchurch opened its urban planning doors to young people - a key target group - and aimed to grow new industries like biomedical research, using the new innovation precinct to attract start-ups, SMEs and established companies.

But Haynes, after running her workshop in Christchurch this month, says progress has stalled: "I think there is some outstanding work being done to encourage change and growth, particularly by young people - the Ministry Of Awesome people are indeed awesome," she said.

The re-build and re-focus seemed to have lost impetus and direction, while leadership and the drive to develop new economy business growth in Christchurch also seemed to have stalled.

"There seems to be a tendency to go for old-economy interests, almost as if people want to build just what they had before instead of building on the opportunity to go new economy and bring in young risk-takers."

Hunter says: "These days global competition among cities is not about location or access to trade routes or raw materials - it's about access to the best people and the best knowledge. That's why Christchurch has been so frustrating; it had a unique opportunity after the devastating earthquakes to put in place a city centre, infrastructure and an identity to attract them.

"Haynes says: "I found this time people there were very tired. There are thousands still living in damaged homes, insurance still has to be paid out to some; there is a sense of frustration and exhaustion.

"People were previously much more optimistic and had a greater sense of urgency in risk-taking but now there seems to be weariness; people are just not seeing things happening in front of them or coming out of the ground.

"It's a matter of priority spending too. One of the anchor projects was to get the major sports stadium re-built in a sports-made region, as Pittsburgh did in its transformation. That hasn't happened - and it's all part of bringing about opportunities a Magnet City can take advantage of.

"People have to have something to do - but it still all closes at night and there's nothing to do but go home and watch TV.

"Haynes suggested:

Canals in the red zone - "There is just this dead space in the middle of the city; there's a need to stimulate that kind of change to show progress."

Christchurch as a technology testbed city, using 'smart city' infrastructure being laid down; Malmo had, for example, made itself a testbed for new technologies supporting sustainable living.

Mixed-use housing - "Build mixed-use apartments in the city centre. A 28-year-old new thinker from San Francisco doesn't want to live in a villa outside Christchurch but in the middle of things with other people close by."

This is the first in a four part series on Magnet Cities brought to you by KPMG NZ and Brand Insight.

Orginally published in the NZ Herald

© 2022 KPMG, a New Zealand Partnership and a member firm of the KPMG global organisation of independent member firms affiliated with KPMG International Limited, a private English company limited by guarantee. All rights reserved.

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