1987, thirty years ago now. The All Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup, the Edgecumbe earthquake struck and NZ became the first nuclear free nation. Rick Astley was “never gonna give us up”, Black Monday hit Wall Street and the previous year’s Census had placed the Canterbury population at around 430,000 people. Over a third of the population here today were just a twinkle in their parents’ eyes.

Back to the present and the region now boasts some 600,000 people and Christchurch is now the second largest NZ city. The last four years have seen a much higher level of net migration than the decades before it, despite the period pre-earthquakes not being too shabby either. Kiwis leaving NZ have reduced and returning Kiwis and new migrants coming to NZ have increased. As well as the obvious growth in the population the underlying changes in the age structure, racial composition and workforce structure make Canterbury a much different place today compared to thirty years ago. Population also continues to urbanise, 80% of the population growth in Canterbury is in Christchurch and the towns immediately surrounding it like Rolleston, Lincoln, Rangiora and Kaiapoi.

Fair to say that the next thirty years will also see substantial change. A third of the population will have shuffled off this mortal coil, despite probably bowing out on average at a higher age than ever before. So how many people will be in the Canterbury of 2050, and more importantly how many would we want, and why?

Statistics NZ look at all this stuff and make projections based on birth rates, death rates and likely levels of migration. Its best estimate for 2048 is that population growth will be similar again, despite things slowing down in later years, and there could be around 800,000 people in Canterbury. The statisticians also look at the bookends, publishing a high and low projection. Turning all the dials up to high and keeping the gas full on for thirty years and the population might breach 900,000. Even taking the projections out fifty years the population is unlikely to get to the million mark. So unless something quite radical happens we won’t see a doubling of our population let alone 1.5 million of us anytime soon.

But radical things do still happen. The basketcase of housing affordability in Auckland, the terror threats overseas, the not so slow creep of climate change. Could these and other national and global factors have people looking through the brochures of ‘emigration weekly’ and eyeing up Canterbury as a place to live? We’ve certainly got a great offer for such Cantabrians-in-waiting, even if some of the current incumbents seem to prefer to focus on the negatives.

But why would we want a significantly larger population anyway? “Clogging up our roads, taking our jobs, burdening our public services”, you can hear the clarion call from those wanting to raise the drawbridge. Economists will point out that to grow the economy you need to grow the workforce and more money circulating through the city means we all benefit, multipliers and trickle-down effects in action they espouse. In the short to medium term this may be a strong argument. Over 70,000 workers in the region are projected to retire over the next fifteen years and while school and tertiary students entering the workforce will likely be sufficient to fill this gap it will not be enough to fill a similar number of new jobs resulting from anticipated economic growth over that period.

But a note of caution is needed too. The rate of technological advance, the increasing speed at which such new technology is taken up, and the changing face of commerce is daunting. It is surreal to comprehend that the largest accommodation provider in the world today does not own any accommodation (AirBnB), the biggest taxi service does not own any taxis (Uber), and the world’s biggest retailer does not have any shops (Amazon). Automation is also spreading, from manufacturing to a much wider range of jobs and services, accountants be warned! And have you seen the You Tube clip showing autonomous ploughing? Wow! Our regional economy and workforce requirements could be fundamentally different over the coming decades so an attentive hand on the skilled worker tiller settings is a must.

A bigger issue perhaps is how people might be drawn to the areas outside of greater Christchurch, to support and grow the wider Canterbury region? After all for many people location depends in large part on where the jobs are. Sure we can see the advances in telecommunications making remote working far easier. But the fun of work is as much in the social interaction as it is the reward of profit, invention or public service. And the fun of cities can be in their 24/7 culture and bustling streets which you can only get with a critical mass of people.

What does this mean then for Canterbury and how should the region attempt to position itself? Nobody really knows for sure, but just doing more of the same, tinkering with the edges and holding on to the past will probably only mean we are at risk of being left behind by those places that purposefully adapt and seize the opportunities that will inevitably emerge.

The Canterbury @ XM initiative asks the question “what would our region look like with a vastly different population?” Presumably scenarios can range from a toxic wasteland which we have progressively drawn the lifeblood from, to some kind of 42 degrees south bastion of kaitiakitanga, people and place working in harmony.

So first we need to ask some big questions and find some common ground to help describe a scenario that we would wish to see and then ask a slightly different question, “how might a vastly different population help or hinder us to get there?”. We seem to be in good company with John Campbell and Nigel Latta recently asking ‘What Next?’, trying to lift kiwi heads out of life’s day-to-day challenges and think about the kind of place we want our kids to inherit. Hopefully we can get stuck in on some tangible advances rather than handover insurmountable problems with a “sorry guys” shrug.

Many great minds have already offered numerous solutions to the global, national and regional challenges we face so we are not starting from scratch. And some things can only be tackled through agreements and changes well beyond the borders from Kaikoura to Waimate, so there needs to be a fair degree of realism and pragmatism thrown into the debate.

But let’s take a ‘glass half full ‘ approach to go back to the question at hand and suggest a doubling of the population with say two-thirds in greater Christchurch and a third across the region. Christchurch City could find itself with sufficient critical mass to financially support a decent mass transit system, with trams or trains providing the backbone for a new fleet of autonomous electric vehicles to operate around. The central city population, booming from the more diverse backgrounds that adopt city living options or apartments or townhouses, can function as a true metropolitan centre to justify the need for all those big ticket anchor projects, including a new multi-purpose arena fit for the Crusaders and Ed Sheeran Jr. It operates on a world stage by offering the work-life balance and ‘city in a garden’ environment that draws in the new breed of global social entrepreneurs work to a business model founded on people and community.

A network of growing towns across the region provide the unique and attractive stop-off points for a burgeoning tourist market coming to see a South Island landscape that weaves sustainable agricultural practices with a web of native bush and some show-stopping national parks. These aren’t sleepy backwaters, they are hubs for local agri-tech companies and remote working off-grid professionals.

The people are quite different too. Not just in skin colour or ethnic background but in their civic engagement. Technology has not just enabled better faceswap apps but has brought people closer to decision-making about where they live, how public money is spent, how they can participate in their local neighbourhood, and the realtime information on how progress is measured. The workforce is healthier, combining the ideas of new entrants with the wisdom of old hands who stay on a little longer and have taken the opportunity make career changes along the way.

It is easy to carry on down this road or to pull out a Tui slogan and rubbish it all. In a way it does not matter as the possible scenarios are endless. The one irrefutable take home though is that a vastly greater population will have more energy to channel into actually creating the future we want to see. A million minds devoted to making Canterbury the place to be could be a powerful thing, we just need to agree which wave it is we want to ride.






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Keith Tallentire

Manager, Greater Christchurch Partnership