Opinion | From drab to debonair: Christchurch’s renaissance era

Property Council’s South Island Regional Committee member, Tom Barclay of PwC shares his view on the changing perceptions of the city of Christchurch that people have had in recent years. 

Christchurch enjoyed 297 hours of sunshine in January, the most since records began in 1930 and well above the usual January average of 228 hours.  

…and the sun is shining on the city in more ways than one.  

Occupancy for accommodation in Christchurch was forecast to exceed 90% in February, and March is expected to be even higher.  

It’s not hard to see why.  

In the space of around six weeks the city is hosting two Warriors games (‘up the Wahs’), the kickoff of the Crusaders season, the Urban Polo, Electric Avenue (New Zealand’s largest music festival with 35,000 attendees), a rare Black Caps vs Australia Test Match at Hagley Oval and the much anticipated return of Sail GP in Lyttelton.  

The cruise ships are back, as are direct flights from the US, Hong Kong and China. Cashel Street and Oxford Terrace are as busy as I’ve ever seen them.  

After more than 10 tough years following the earthquakes, it really does feel like Christchurch is entering its Renaissance era.

What do cruise ship passengers and university students have in common?

When I moved to Christchurch two years ago, after a five year stint in Auckland, I had some reservations about leaving the big smoke and returning to my hometown.  

Christchurch has undoubtedly faced stigma in the post-earthquake era, due initially to fear of aftershocks, the hollowing out of the city centre, slow pace of recovery and then the disruption caused by the redevelopment period (who can forget the reign of the orange road cones). Unless you were in construction, Christchurch was not a place that a lot of people in their 20’s or 30’s really wanted to be during the 2010’s.  

A common response during my time in Auckland was some combination of “I went there and it was a mess, there was no one there, there was nothing to do”. There was also the well known phenomenon of international tourists arriving at Christchurch Airport, picking up a campervan and driving directly to Tekapo and onto Queenstown, without even stopping in the city.  

But it’s interesting how people’s perceptions in relation to the city have begun to change in recent years. 

My desk at work looks across to the bus stop where the cruise ship passengers from Lyttelton get dropped off in the mornings over summer. International tourism is clearly back post-COVID with 83 cruise ships with berths for over 150,000 passengers expected to visit the city by the end of the season in April.  

The attitude around the rest of the country towards Christchurch is also changing. Delivery of the Christchurch Blueprint and (most of) the Anchor Projects, while slower than many would have liked, has certainly created a modern and attractive city centre.   

A common question I now get from visitors is “so, if you were moving to Christchurch, where would you buy?” It seems that Christchurch is, perhaps for the first time in its history, the “cool” place to be.  

But don’t take my word for it.  

If Gen Z (the “Zoomers”) are a barometer of what is “in”, then enrolments at Canterbury University paint a clear picture In 2023 the University had another record year of enrollments at over 23,900 students, with the halls of residence over subscribed (no doubt students and their parents are also considering the relative affordability of flatting in the second year and beyond in Christchurch, compared to Auckland and Wellington). Enrolments for 2024 are still to be confirmed, but another bumper year is expected.  

Ali Adams, Chief Executive at ChristchurchNZ, our Economic Development Agency, coined the phrase the “Great Southern Migration” last year. In the year to June 2023, 15,000 people moved to Canterbury from overseas and 3,000 people moved from other parts of New Zealand (the strongest regional gain in the country).  

The population of Greater Christchurch (Christchurch City and the Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts) is expected to double from around 500,000 to 1 million people over the next 60 years 

This begs the question, how does our city (and Greater Christchurch) retain its attractive lifestyle in a scenario where the regional population exceeds 1 million?  

“There are no solutions, there are only trade offs” (Thomas Sowell)

In my view, there are three key areas Greater Christchurch needs to focus on in order to maintain the attractiveness of the southern lifestyle and avoid some of the growth problems that have beset our northern counterparts:   

  1. Retaining housing affordability,  
  2. Creating new employment opportunities, 
  3. Developing resilient transport networks and infrastructure. 

Housing, infrastructure and employment are complex ecosystems and the challenges in these areas are not unique to Christchurch.  

What is unique is the position our city finds itself in.   

We are doing pretty well (comparatively) in all of these areas. We have a growing population, a brand new city centre, an international airport and a port, developable land, relatively affordable housing, virtually no traffic congestion and some of the best natural attractions in the world.   

That said, as we grow, there will be trade offs. For example whether we continue to pursue satellite greenfield development or focus on urban intensification. More on that below.

1. Housing affordability

While Christchurch has a lot to offer, one cannot deny that a primary reason people want to move here is simply because the housing (to rent or buy) is more affordable than the other main centres. The following table provides a comparison of housing affordability between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for 2023. 

 

Canterbury Region 

Auckland Region 

Wellington Region 

Median sale price  
(REINZ, December 2023) 

$670,000 

$1,180,000 

$930,000 

Geometric mean rent year to December 2023 (MBIE) 

$486 per week 

$614 per week  

$576 

Median household income  
(MBIE 2023) 

$109,300 

$130,000 

$141,300 

Value to income ratio 

6.1x 

9.1x 

6.6x 

MBIE – Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment 
REINZ – Real Estate Institute of New Zealand

Retaining this relative affordability, over the likes of Auckland and Wellington, is key to ensuring Christchurch remains an attractive place to live.  

The supply of infrastructure-enabled land that allows for the ‘right ’ development density is key to maintaining housing affordability. The period after the earthquakes saw Christchurch house prices flatline while the rest of the country experienced significant increases. In fact, Christchurch went from being the third most expensive major market after Auckland and Wellington in 2014, to the cheapest in 2021 (albeit it has since overtaken Dunedin).

Chart: Median house prices (annual, 12 monthly figures), main centres, 2014-2024 (REINZ)

In my view this trend can, in large part, be attributed to the significant increase in the supply of greenfield land in peripheral Christchurch suburbs like Halswell and Marshland, and within the neighbouring Waimakariri and Selwyn Districts (which were two of the fastest growing regions in New Zealand over this period). Although a proliferation of smaller housing typologies in the city (“two bed terraces” and apartments) is also likely to have had an impact. 

One of the trade offs we will need to consider as we grow is the balance between greenfield land development and higher density infill housing. This is a philosophical argument this article doesn’t intend to address, but it’s clear that in the Christchurch context, greenfield development, particularly in the Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts, has supported overall regional affordability. This is not without cost though, given the loss of productive land, the increase in urban sprawl, new infrastructure requirements and somewhat disconnected communities of commuters.  

On this note, the draft Greater Christchurch Spatial Plan which sets out how the three Councils forming Greater Christchurch will plan for population and business growth, public transport, housing affordability and sustainability was endorsed in January 2024 and the Councils will now begin considering its adoption and implementation. 

2. Creating new employment opportunities

If affordable housing is the thing that initially attracts people to the region, then employment is the thing that will retain them.  

Christchurch’s roots are as an agricultural service hub and the gateway to the South Island for tourists, while Auckland houses the HQ’s for most of the major corporates, and Wellington accommodates the core public service. Christchurch has the opportunity to attract some of these traditional Auckland and Wellington occupiers, given the significantly lower cost of office accommodation for businesses and the lower cost of housing for employees.  

We also have an opportunity to differentiate ourselves in the agritech, healthtech, food & fibre and aerospace sectors. A good example of this is the new aerospace centre on Kaitorete Spit that will test uncrewed autonomous aircraft, new energy systems and other technologies. The centre is forecast to generate 1,300 high paying jobs and create up to $2.4b in national economic benefits over the next 10 years.  

ChristchurchNZ is doing a lot of great work to attract new businesses in these areas and access to high skilled jobs will be fundamental to Christchurch retaining its competitive advantage.

3. Developing resilient transport networks and infrastructure

If you’ve been to Christchruch recently, you will know you can get to just about anywhere in 20 minutes. It’s one of the best parts about living here.  

It wasn’t always like this though, and some forward thinking investments such as the Southern Motorway, Western Corridor and new lanes on the Waimakariri Bridge have made the city and neighbouring districts easy to access for residents, while significantly increasing productivity for businesses.   

The question is how we plan for and prepare our transport networks and infrastructure for twice as many people in the region.  

A major component of this is how we link public transport between the major satellites (Rolleston and Lincoln in the Selwyn District, and Rangiora, Woodend and Kaiapoi in the Waimakariri District) to Christchurch City and intensify development around these key transport corridors.  

While the initial proposal stages for a “turn up and go” Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) route have been completed, the next phase of design planned for 2024 is subject to the approval of the new Government 

This matter has also been considered through the Greater Christchurch Spatial Plan which has established a hierarchy for the urban centres and townships, and the priority development areas that the transport network will need to support.

Map: Draft Greater Christchurch Spatial Plan (Source: Greater Christchurch Partnership, 2023)

The key challenge local leaders face is making the case for investment in this infrastructure now, when Council funds are constrained and there is no immediate “crisis” to address.  

In my view, it’s not the mode of transport (i.e. bus or light rail) that matters at this point, it is giving the public and developers clarity on the routes that is critical. This is key to building confidence and allowing the private sector to make long term decisions around investment.

The opportunity

Greater Christchurch is uniquely positioned to proactively plan for its future and avoid some of the structural issues that have plagued our other major cities. This will take bold and decisive action from our local government leaders and a vision that the development community can support and deliver on beyond the Christchurch Blueprint.  

Key to this is providing greater long term certainty around land use planning and the prioritisation of public investment in transport and infrastructure across the region, acknowledging that there will have to be trade offs made along the way as we grow.  

Both the development community and our public sector partners have an opportunity to ensure that Christchurch’s renaissance period isn’t just a temporary blip in our city’s history.

Tom Barclay

Director, Real Estate Advisory | PwC

Tom’s work spans financial modelling, development feasibility analysis, due diligence and business cases for PwC’s clients nationally. His recent work has focused on urban regeneration and housing projects. Tom is a born and bred Cantabrian. After five years in Auckland he moved home to Christchurch in 2021 to help establish PwC’s Real Estate Advisory team in the South Island.

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