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Youth key to Christchurch rebuild

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Christchurch’s two most prominent mayoral candidates know attracting youth to the city will be key to a successful rebuild, but is that easier said than done? MAX TOWLE  has been talking to some of those invested in the efforts.

The scene at C1 Espresso is ground for hope. The cafe might be surrounded by broken facades and vacant construction sites, but every afternoon it is humming.

Local graphic designer Josh O’Neill, 23, is a regular.

“In all my time in Auckland we never found a café with as good a vibe as C1. These are the flagship venues that carry the place.”

O’Neill wants to eventually raise a family in Christchurch – the city he calls home – but plans to go overseas as soon as he can afford it.

He’s not the only young Cantabrian feeling like he needs a break from the place.

Mayoral candidate Paul Lonsdale’s 18-year-old daughter is heading to Wellington once she graduates high school.

“She’s going up there because of the nightlife and creative scene,” he says.

Lonsdale, the man behind the re:START mall, knows how important bringing the central city back to life is to the rebuild.

“When city life shuts down at 11, it pushes people out to the suburbs. You can get 1000 kids turning up at a party and that’s only going to cause problems.”

Where shall we meet?

Despite some of their urges to flee, it is youth who the rebuild must be aimed at, says mayoral contender Lianne Dalziel.

“I don’t think we’ve got our heads around the fact that we’re not rebuilding this city for my generation,” Dalziel says. “The cost of losing young and interesting people is a high price we can’t afford.”

Christchurch is the only major New Zealand city faced with a shrinking youth population.

Statistics New Zealand projects the city will lose almost 2000 people aged 15-39 between 2011 and 2016, while Auckland and Wellington will gain 38,000 and 3000 respectively.

Rachel Robilliard, a 20-year-old law student, says the sheer lack of “things to do” is alienating young people.

“I’ve just come back from a trip to Wellington and Auckland and we went out almost every night,” she says. “You can go to different places in the same night and walk everywhere; not like Christchurch.”

Psychology student Caitlyn McCurrie, 21, is leaving for Auckland in December when she graduates, because she is “not really interested in living in a sprawled town”.

“The possibilities are endless”

Not everyone shares this pessimistic outlook.

“There’s no city that’s really been through what we have,” says property developer Antony Gough. “We have a fantastic opportunity to start from scratch – why wouldn’t you want to be a part of it?”

Johnny Moore, owner of central city bar Smash Palace, is also excited about the rebuild.

“There’s a bit of a license to do what you want here – the possibilities are endless.”

Former mayor and city council candidate Vicki Buck stresses the importance of luring young innovators to the garden city.

“I think you have to actively go and seek them. You almost have to go out tell these people you want the food markets and laneways where unusual things happen.”

“There’s no simple recipe, you just have to bang your head on the wall until someone pays attention,” Buck says.

Dalziel says: “These are the interesting, quirky types that you want to see flourish because they are that spark of creative spirit.”

She cites the rejuvenation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as inspiration for what a devastated city can achieve in a short amount of time.

How to create a culture of cool

UCSA president and council candidate Erin Jackson is worried the impending local alcohol policy (LAP) might deter business owners.

“We need to make sure we don’t discourage progress. Telling people they can’t stay out past a certain time is not the answer,” she says.

Gough, who dressed as an undertaker and wheeled a coffin into council chambers in protest against the LAP, believes a “nanny state” is turning entrepreneurs away.

“Some people don’t understand how to create a cool place.”

O’Neill thinks concerns for Christchurch’s culture are overstated: “it’s vibrant but not oversaturated with stuff – the quality is good”.

“We were never the most diverse city before,” he says. “We’re as we were, just scaled down.”

Pulling power

There are concerns that in its eagerness to rebuild the city, the CCDU is being too hands on. Buck criticised the unit’s “precinct” approach.

“You can’t tell people they can only be innovative here, or you can only be artistic in the arts precinct or musical in the music corner,” she says.

“No-one sat down and planned Melbourne,” says city councilor Aaron Keown, who thinks people with “balls” need to be given the leeway to be creative.

“You can’t dictate where these precincts are going, it’s got to happen naturally.”

Lonsdale, who favours the precinct approach, says creativity needs a helping hand.

“You co-ordinate this creativity in a condensed area, then it expands outwards organically.”

Christchurch architect Roger Dennis points to Singapore as an example of how not to build a city from the ground up.

“Singapore tried to fabricate culture and it didn’t work.”

But he admits he isn’t sure whether culture can grow organically.

“There’s no clear answer to that question. The process of filling a vacant city isn’t yet understood,” he says. “But C1 gives me hope. If you can replicate C1 20 times around the city that would be a great start.”