What is the future of Christchurch? After the devastation there have been some exciting visions and proposals offered up for the rebuilding of this city.

These embrace new possibilities for urban form and function, the shape and scale of the central business district and what needs to happen to tracts of land in the eastern suburbs, now largely unsuitable for residential living.

Almost everyone is agreed that there is a rare opportunity for the citizens of Christchurch to take their city forward in new ways, concordant with contemporary urban design principles and latest building techniques. Christchurch could, indeed, become New Zealand's most contemporary, liveable and sustainable city in the 21st century.

However, managing the development of New Zealand's largest urban regeneration site is possibly the biggest challenge that the country, let alone Christchurch, has faced for some decades. Reconstruction will take years to achieve.

It will require huge capital investment for construction and new infrastructure. It will demand significant goodwill, patience and commitment, as the challenges of living in the immediacy of a post-quake city grind on relentlessly for the population - some of whom are harder hit than others.

Rebuilding will also demand a high level of professional expertise and capacity that have not previously been tested at such a scale in this country.

And it will demand strong and inclusive leadership from local government, and representatives of business and communities. This is easy to say, much harder to do. So, how best to do it?

As recovery operations transition to rebuilding, we need to give careful thought to the way in which this long-term urban redevelopment should be managed. We do not have an institutional mechanism that is capable of managing a project of this nature or complexity.

The newly created Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Commission, due to expire in 2012, simply cannot contend with a challenge of this magnitude.

The co-ordination needed to manage the various responsibilities of public agencies, and extent and timing of investment by the private sector is beyond the mandate or capacities of any existing institution.

One option is that it could be organised through an agreed set of voluntary arrangements by all the relevant parties. However, the scale, magnitude and timelines of the task require a new model, where powers are vested in a specially created authority to direct and manage the reconstruction.

A development agency, properly resourced with power to acquire land, is one possibility, but there may be other models worthy of consideration.

What will be important in beginning the reconstruction is to reference the strategic planning already undertaken in Christchurch in relation to urban development. The Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy, as an example, sets out a long-term vision and action plan that is shared by several councils and the New Zealand Transport Agency.

Existing plans and policies do not have to be discounted or set aside. Rather they set an important foundation for the reshaping and creation of a built environment that is reflective of the values and aspirations which Cantabrians hold dear.

So, a process needs to be put in place which encompasses those dimensions of the city that work well, and embraces innovation to take the city and its communities forward. It needs strategic guidance from a high-level team of multi-disciplinary professionals.

And it is important to avoid capture by vested interests. There will be some tough challenges and decisions to make. Hence the need for a robust but nimble new process that has buy-in from key stakeholders.

Our society is highly regulated but also consultative. Urban dwellers are now well used to, and expect, consultation.

The policies that guide urban development emerge from a process that provides for wide community input, is legally contested and often resolved by the Environment Court. It can take an inordinate amount of time.

On this occasion, we do not have time to wade our way through the ponderous system of plan-making that operates under the Resource Management Act. We need a much more proactive approach that can build on established policies and design for the future. But most importantly, it should lead to well-co-ordinated and staged implementation that will provide assurances to Christchurch that their built environment is liveable, resilient, and future-proofed.

The application of such a model could easily become influential beyond the immediate challenges of reshaping a major part of the city. It could also show us how we might manage the planning and development of our cities in ways that are much more responsive to change and adoption of new technologies.

Developers are constantly frustrated by how long it takes for projects to be approved. Our current system impedes innovation and results in simply more of the same.

We cannot risk this outcome in Christchurch. We want our cities to be great and affordable places to live and work. New Zealanders have been reluctant to accept the fact that at least 85 per cent of us live in cities and urban areas.

It is only in the past decade that there has been a strong push on urban design and commitment to making cities more liveable and sustainable. Policy responses in the main, however, have been weak and under-resourced across the country.

The adoption of a planning system that is much more cognisant of urban realities would be a major step forward. There is even more at stake here with the rebuilding of Christchurch than we realise.

* Jennifer Dixon is a professor of planning and dean of the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries, Auckland University.