Monday, 3 September 2012

'Are we there yet?' Finding a path to community prosperity after earthquakes


On 4 September 2010 the first of a devastating series of earthquakes ripped through my city of Christchurch.
So now, two years later are we on the path to community recovery for our children?
Quite frankly, to quote a very thoughtful colleague and social planner, 'no, we started off well but now  we’ve 'stepped off the path to recovery'.
Our central and local governments appear out of their depth, their  philosophy of command and control market models of decision making no match for a deregulated insurance industry and a national disaster  on a scale never experienced in this country before.

Of most concern however, in the face of widespread community struggle, the government has not focused its major priority on meeting immediate social needs but rather on trying to attract international investment, and protect central city investments-in a strategy plan described by one strong critic as 'pure neoliberalism'.

To be fair central and local government has certainly been busy. Central government has taken action- its critics argue too much action as it swept aside concern for constitutional restraint in an effort to marshall much needed resource support. By comparison, after a slow start,  local council unleashed the power of community energy for sharing ideas about a common future for a new city.
The local hopeful visions that emerged from Share an idea however were largely sidelined by the powerful new  central government agency CERA.  CERA is symbolically located in a nameless building from where it formed a taskforce to develop a new central city plan in 100 days -a plan that barely consulted with the community and developed in a way that was oddly divorced from plans for transport for example let alone wider community development.
 The resulting 100 day plan is brief on detail but big on authority, backed by wide ranging new legislative abilities to take land under compulsion.

So how does the new plan stack up? Well- despite the best of intensions, in reality the new plan is pretty much an old style central city model only smaller in land area with more trees, a temporary green 'frame' to create a border around the central city to help maintain land values (given so much vacant space), and a number of new large buildings in different places. It is a plan for a central business district, anchored by construction projects, with no provision for mixed housing (despite a housing crisis) and little opportunity to acknowledge the way cities develop best -by reflecting where and how people in those communities want to live. Great cities take time to evolve.

In Christchurch's case the city's central district, like our wider regional economy,  was struggling long before the earthquake, yet the objectives of the 100 day plan were short term and tightly focused, so did not enable many of the creative planning team tasked with the job, an opportunity to develop a new city vision which intergrates the more complex, urgent  goals and priorities identified prior to the quake of containing sprawl while developing a new local prosperity in networked pockets such as Addington or Riccarton). 

However the plan is not without charm and creativity. By a miracle of luck, vision and negotiation, a library now lies at its heart along with the potential for a river waterway to link communities (both concepts I confess I love).
The real problem is not that a rebuilt central city may be located on the 'wrong side' of Hagley park with a misguided central hub model and too many large expensive projects.

The real problem is  that the energy and focus of local and central government has been diverted toward rebuilding a convention centre and a stadium and other large projects while the most urgent social needs of our community have been given much less priority.
And the needs  of our community, especially our children are very urgent and need priority. Constructing large buildings is not a sustainable pathway to recovery in a small struggling community.
The urgent problems we face include problems of: a lack of affordable social housing, domestic stress, the need to stablise education where rolls are fluctuating. We also need to offer child support and a wider community recovery, addressing rapidly rising income inequality, child poverty and youth unemployment 
Christchurch's struggle reflects the underlying social and economic challenges  experienced nationally. For me, most troubling perhaps, is the way we appear to have lost sight of the problems that confront our younger citizens. At times of unprecedented youth unemployment, and a complex changing world, we need to focus on the needs of our vulnerable citizens, young people and the elderly. At a local level mental health services, teachers and community workers  have worked incredibly hard and offer some great support. But they face a daunting challenge. Youth suicide nationally has reached near record levels and turning these terrible statistics around is a complex task that amongst other things, requires rethinking our economy and society in ways that  enable all young people to flourish. Yet central government disingenuously suggests the latest figures may be the result of a ‘cluster’ effect, ignoring the fact that 'cluster effects' originate in very complex social and economic situations -many aspects of which lie within government and community control, emerging from unemployment, poverty, colonization, and  social isolation.

So what can I say when people ask, “How is your city, is it getting better now?’ 
Sadly the short answer is probably no, things are not getting better. In fact right now they are probably much worse than they were a year ago.
But hopefully, the long answer is more positive- there is much much more we could do. Here are three steps we could take to get back on the path to recovery:
First,  raise the previously dramatically reduced top tax rate -can we make paying a tax a source of national pride and a demonstration of loyal investment in the long term needs of our children and their future? The costs of rebuilding Christchurch can not be left to local rates, asset sales and a government bail out- we need to rethink a long term redistribution of wealth to support our communities in Christchurch and elsewhere. 
Second, invest this reclaimed tax in our children and young adults- they cannot all be builders or  construction workers –so why not 'invest' as a community in our students, taking lessons from the youthful student army which sprang up in the wake of the quake ? Why not create a form of civic scholarship to pay the education fees of young people studying in Christchurch, in exchange for  civic volunteering? And for younger children, stabilise their struggling communities by investing in and supporting local primary and secondary schools- guaranteeing their staffing for the next 3 years at pre-quake levels to recognise the heroic role state schools are doing holding the community together under enormous stress?

Third, in Christchurch we can dare to dream smaller, the new plan offers us a smaller central city but we really need smaller decentralised facilities, designed thoughtfully, and sustainably, to celebrate the shared passions of our community which have been revealed in bright ideas of local  recovery- reading groups, performance art, outdoor play, community events and local sports, local swimming pools, and greenspace. We can support these emerging creative neighbourhoods with more, smaller, networked public spaces that also create great environments for mixed social housing

Christchurch can be renewed as a city where children can flourish-together we can get our community back on the path to recovery and a new community prosperity.

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