As always, I start with the map.
It's a relaxed city, Christchurch. It stretches out casually on the coastal plain, facing northeast toward the tropics as though sunning itself, toes in the water but head and heart safe on dry ground. Its beach is that gentle, mathematical arc that speaks of flat land and flat water hanging out peacefully together. To the south, source of the nastiest storms, a bank of hills guards the city.
But the hills are just the edge of an explosion of rock,
known as the Banks Peninsula. You can see the violence on the map, a burst of ragged young land hurled out of the Pacific and the plains.
The explosion created hills, but it also created troughs. Head southeast from Christchurch, under those protecting hills, and you're in Lyttelton, one of the first settlements.
Now you're inside the explosion, the outer shockwave of hills behind you, the next shockwave visible in front, and between them, a spectacular natural harbor. Another Sydney could have been built here, among these promontories and sheltered coves, and it would have been one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Instead, we have a string of old towns, some quaintly expensive, some not even all that expensive for being so close to the city ...
(And yes, North Americans, the landscape looks just like coastal hills of California. Even more so from up close ...)
Finally, can we praise what Jane Jacobs called "gradual money" as opposed to "catastrophic money"? Christchurch is no paradise, but it's grown with a steadiness that will make it last. This is a fine young conifer of a city, not a gushing aspen or eucalypt; it's built to function well through many unforseen twists and turns of history. There's no sign of "catastrophic money" -- the out-of-scale public works and land-wasting sprawl that ravage cities closer to the centers of power. The hills are parks. The affluent suburbs in the southeast -- where the hills first meet the sea -- still feel like towns rather than the masses of sprawl that America, or even Auckland, would have built here by now. Even Taylor's Mistake, as the last of these suburbs is called, feels a little, well, accidental, maybe even mistaken, as the most genuine places always do.