From Ugly Car Parks to Loved Buildings

Brendon Harre
5 min readMay 23, 2020

Christchurch’s earthquake damaged city exposes many underlying urbanism lessons. Minimising land wastage on car parking is one lesson.

Up to 70% of Christchurch’s CBD buildings were fully or partly demolished as part of the earthquake rebuild. Many became gravel car parks often then leased out to private car carking firms. Photo Source

Christchurch often has local spats that generate more heat than light. The public argument about whether the Council continues to waiver inner-city development contributions is such a spat.

The policy since 2014 has cost the Council $12.9 million in uncharged fees and it has announced a further $7.1 million in funding.

Some have characterised this as “fat council handouts for property developers but austerity for the rest of us”. The connotation being that it is big corporates who are benefiting and ordinary people who are paying.

As someone who has written in The Press about a NIMBY Stoush changing Canterbury’s ‘can do’ building culture. I think this building fees spat is the wrong war.

A successful Christchurch requires inner-city landowners to build something useful. Useful to themselves, useful to customers, useful to tenants and useful to the community.

Christchurch’s city centre is a fabulous resource for New Zealand. Its planned street layout and its centrality means it is accessible to nearly ½ million residents. Measured from the Cathedral Square only the centre of Auckland has more people living within 5, 10, 15, 30 km distance.

Given the Covid-19 economic recession it is vital we use our resources wisely. This includes the spatial resource that allows us to connect, meet, play, partner, congregate, employ, share, learn and trade with a greater number of people.

Waiving fees to construct an inner-city built environment where people can walk and bike everywhere at a one-off cost of $20 million, is much less costly than other policy proposals, such as free busing, which would cost $20 million per year.

It is understandable that the Council is using the fees rebate to strive toward its goal of an inner-city residential population of 20,000. But the Council needs to take the next step of asking what else would help.

Below is a map depicting off-street parking in Christchurch. It was created by a brilliant young Christchurch cartographer, Andrew Douglas-Clifford who runs the website — The Map Kiwi.

Off-street car parks in Central Christchurch. Red = Wilson Parking. Blue = Council Parking. Pink = other organisations. Green = community organisations. Grey = other/private users. Source

In Central Christchurch 12.6% of the land, excluding Hagley Park, is off-street parking, often just gravel plots. In comparison only 23% of the land is buildings, being 3146 buildings on 4152 separate property parcels.

Unfortunately, the donut — empty in the middle — description of Christchurch is accurate.

Excess car parking space could be used for desirable activities — homes for 20,000 residents, new shopping and hospitality districts, trendy new commercial spaces… Given the lack of international tourists this sort of domestic city-focused economy is vital.

The Council has tried to revive inner-city Christchurch by reducing building fees. Unfortunately, this has not achieved the hoped-for transformation. Something new needs to be tried.

Christchurch’s original built environment was constructed pre-automobile. There was no need for city land to be used for car parking.

Early Christchurch had walking and cycling for shorter distance journeys.

Christchurch back when it was known as ‘cyclopolis’. Photograph: Christchurch City Libraries. Source

Trams for mid-distance journeys.

Source: The Map Kiwi. Note modern bus routes frequently have followed these original tram routes.

And trains for longer journeys.

The second Moorhouse Ave station was designed in 1875 by John Godfrey Warner who was the railway engineer of the Canterbury Provincial Council. The foundation stone for the building was laid by the Provincial Superintendent William Rolleston on 22 November 1876 and the building opened 21 December 1877. Source

Expanding the cycleway network, facilitating the safe introduction of e-scooters and successfully implementing the $2m investigation study for rapid mass transit will allow more people to access the city centre while decreasing the demand for car parking.

The Council changing its inner-city property tax regime (rates) could also be transformational. Taxing land not buildings. Currently Council rates are based on the capital value of both land and building.

Land value taxes have been around for an exceptionally long time. New Zealand’s Governor Grey was an advocate of land value taxes after personally meeting the philosopher John Stewart Mill and the economist Henry George.

Modern economists like Edward Glaeser (author of Triumph of the City), while downplaying the more grandiose claims of land value taxes, promote their use in cities because they reduce the marginal cost of building upwards and increase the holding costs for land banking.

Inner-city landowners who have taken the risk to construct something of value should pay the same rates as landowners who bank land in the form of gravel car parks, i.e. both should be rated on land value only.

In this way the playing field is tilted towards enterprise and egalitarianism and away from speculation and a property-owning aristocracy.

Car parking economist Donald Shoup believes it is wasteful that land for car parking is given away for free. He advocates for removing arbitrary off-street parking requirements and charging a fair price for on-street parking to keep the car parking zone uncongested (an idea that Christchurch transport planner Axel Wilke has also promoted). Donald Shoup has compiled evidence showing not doing this is a hidden subsidy costing cities $billions.

Christchurch taxing gravel car parks at a lower rate than neighbouring built upon land is the same mistake. It is a hidden subsidy benefiting car parking firms but not the wider community.

There is a follow-up post titled Saving Christchurch’s CBD based on a talk the author and Nick Lovett gave to the Tuesday Club in Christchurch and the feedback from that discussion.

Further Information on land value taxes

Land taxes are sometimes referred to as a tax on locational rent because it taxes property owners fortuitous yet un-earnt property value resulting from the land’s location, which are often the result of community action like infrastructure provision, whilst reducing tax on the labour and capital spent on adding improvements to the property. Taxing socially generated locational rents is discussed in the below video about the history of Denmark.



Brendon Harre

When cities make it harder to build houses is that because landowners have lobbied lawmakers so they can earn without toil?