4th WEEK SEPTEMBER 2014
Every few years, public discussion turns to the state of our CBD and of the number of empty premises that exist within it. This discussion is not unique to Whangarei and is played out in urban centres throughout New Zealand and internationally. It reflects the tension that exists between a free market and urban planning. It also reminds us that our urban environment is incredibly complex and dynamic, that it is often a response to the desires of the individual as opposed to wider community and that any remedy to the perceived demise lies in a strong partnership between private and public sector.
If we look at Christchurch as an example where discussion is firmly based around the doughnut effect and the response has been government intervention in the form of an initiative to reoccupy the Christchurch centre with over 1000 government employees in the next two years. While the direct productivity of these workers could be questioned, and whatever it is they do could be done equally efficiently at other locations – even here in Whangarei, what they do do is buy and consume stuff. Bringing this back to Whangarei, it reminds us that the city centre is a three dimensional space and that the empty shop front we see as we walk through it is most likely a response to the several empty floors of office space above.
Despite the GFC, business unit numbers within Whangarei have not reduced significantly, but many particularly within the service sector have taken advantage of market conditions and relocated to locations that better meet the needs of themselves, their workers and their customers. Just think of the impact a medium sized service business vacating office space above the retailers below has on those businesses. When that business goes who is going to replace the consumer demands of those 30 or so workers and that businesses own visiting customers.
Perhaps the question should actually be, is the term Central Business District the appropriate term to describe a modern day urban centre. Does this adequately describe how this space is likely to be used in the future? These places will no longer be solely about business but reflect change in lifestyle and urban settlement patterns, they will be places where not only do people work, consume and entertain but also where they live and learn. Any overly prescriptive approach to the use of these spaces may result is a lost opportunity.