At a time when Cantabrians are mourning the loss of life and the loss of the built fabric of the city that they lived in, worked in, got married in, went to school in, shopped in, partied in, and were born in, Minister Brownlee desecrates Christchurch’s heritage architecture as “old dungas.” In slightly less derogatory language he describes how the “Old stuff, if it’s got any damage at all, needs to be got down and got out.”
The question hidden under this inelegant articulation is really the question that Brownlee should be asking – what value is heritage? This is a complex question – and perhaps that’s why it hasn’t been asked. Heritage is usually accused of being valuable in terms of cultural identity. Heritage is a demonstration of what we value in our environment. Heritage is an expression that we have come from somewhere, that we have pasts, and that we and our antecedents are connected in some way.
Heritage is also valuable in the more narrow financial sense. As Donovan Rypkema demonstrated in his nation-wide seminars last year (hosted by the NZHPT) heritage generates financial wealth for the community. Heritage tourism is the fastest growth sector in the fastest growing industry. Heritage tourists spend more money and more time in the cities they visit. Heritage restoration is a significant contributor to local economies and downtown revitalisation. The economic argument for heritage is so strong that Christchurch needs to carefully include a strategy for the repair and rebuilding of key heritage buildings to safeguard its long term economic recovery, as much as its psychological recovery, and the need to repair the damage to its civic identity.
The case has been made – in fact it was made to the government last year (see Colliers’ press release re: earthquake strengthening) – demonstrating that earthquake strengthening of heritage buildings funded by central government would be repaid within two years. It’s clearly too late for many of Christchurch’s heritage buildings to have preventative earthquake strengthening – but it’s not too late for many of New Zealand’s cities: Wellington comes to mind. Instead for Christchurch, careful analysis needs to be done before rash proposals about widespread demolition are acted on. Stupidity is not the foundation Christchurch needs to be repaired and rebuilt on.