Christchurch: 100 weeks and another plan

Pretty vacant


Almost two years since the first earthquake, the unit charged with planning the rebuild of downtown Christchurch has released its plan for the central city. At this point, I’ve lost count of the number of plans produced and what they’re trying to actually achieve.

If you ignore the events of the last few years, it looks like a nice plan on the whole. It could be a plan for any other small city, anywhere in the world.

But that’s the exactly problem. It’s ignoring what’s happened here, and what it’s enabled. It totally misses what makes our situation here in Christchurch like almost no other in the world.

The state of Christchurch right now is unique:

  • 4 out of 5 buildings downtown are or will shortly be vacant lots
  • Around half of the roads in the city require serious reconstruction
  • A not insignificant proportion of residents need homes to move to
  • A critical mass of residents trapped here and just making do

Now consider some of the challenges which face cities around the world:

  • Congestion and inefficiency / expense in moving people around
  • Crime and vandalism
  • The failure of suburbs to scale economically
  • The failure of suburbs to deliver the promised lifestyle
  • Ageing populations, changing demographics
  • The end of cheap oil
  • Public debt
  • Increasing rich-poor divide

And then you look at what the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) plan addresses:

  • Placement of eight civic assets
  • Bounds of four ‘precincts’ (Innovation, Retail, Health, Avon River)
  • An earthquake memorial
  • An extremely large green ‘frame’ park out of prime private land presumably compulsorily acquired and grassed over

It’s extremely hard for me to see how this could be described as ‘visionary’ by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just nice. It’s less than what a number of great cities already have today, but it’ll be a decade or more before Christchurch has it. I’ll be nearly 40 years old then. It seems like a lifetime away at my age. I could be on a plane and experiencing something better than this plan’s target end goal tomorrow. Why would I stay?

More importantly, why would anyone want to move here? Why would they want to invest here?

And when this plan is all implemented, decades down the track, where will Christchurch be? The same place every other city will be, still grappling with how to retrofit to deal with all the real challenges listed above. Except there’ll be one difference, the knowledge that we had the opportunity to avert it, but those in control lacked the insight and vision to realise that.

Taking a look at page 8 of the plan and you’ll see this (click to enlarge):


Not one of these tackles uniquely 21st century problems in order to create a 21st century city.

In fact, a few short pages later, you’ll see on page 14, the plot of Christchurch dated March 1850 on which you’ll see projects with an uncanny resemblance to this plan. Surely we have progressed in 162 years?

ABOVE: Christchurch, 1850 (click to enlarge). The CCDU's blueprint document says, "The city of Christchurch was founded in 1850 on flat, swampy ground where the Canterbury Plains meet the Port Hills. The uniform street grid was laid out by Edward Jollie over the natural environment and remains an important part of the city’s identity."

None of the genuine challenges cities are facing are front and centre in this plan. They should be. THIS is the visionary stuff. This is the opportunity which Christchurch presents with the massive influx of insurance money, an immediate critical mass of people, and an essentially blank canvas to start from.

In my view, the Government’s role (actually it should be the council, but Government seems intent on destroying CCC), is to set a framework whereby certain fundamental outcomes are made inevitable, not to be dictating what’s built where, and compulsorily acquiring large amounts private land for no genuine reason.

How does this plan allow Christchurch to scale to a million, or 2 million people in the future? We’ve seen the mistakes made in Auckland, and the price of attempting to fix them, if they even can be fixed. How does it address the changes in how people live? Baby boomers who’s kids have left home, and are now going out of their minds in oversized houses in the suburbs? How does it address how people move around the city effortlessly? How does it address crime? How does it address the infrastructure scaling problem? How does it address the rich poor divide which is dragging everyone down?

It’s not puzzling to see why people are praising the plan. It’s been two years of little action, just constant governmental obstruction to recovery. Those in the city who’ve got their buildings and houses repaired and are up and running have only been able to do that through soul destroying and relentless battles with insurance, access, and approval.

People are so wary and tired of the lack of progress, they’re looking for any sign of progress. The CCDU plan feels like they’re finally doing something. Its superficiality is easy to sell. People want Christchurch to be great again, but I’m not sure most people are really thinking about what’s been presented here, nor what actually makes great cities. It’s easier just to repeat the PR key messages of “BOLD” and “VISIONARY”. In reality, it’s bland, and highly superficial: it’s a total failure to capitalise.

The plan reminds me of a quote attributed to Henry Ford (rightly or wrongly)

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Christchurch now has a plan which is a faster horse. A design professional’s job is to listen to what people say they want, and figure out what the fundamental problem to be solved is - to figure out what they actually want. Vary rarely is it what they say they want. The companies and individuals responsible for this plan have totally failed in that job.

Design isn’t how things look, design is how things work. This plan hasn’t been designed.

Layton Duncan runs Epicentre, a central Christchurch “co-work” space that rents desks to start-ups, independents and freelancers by the month, and also houses his own company - iPhone and iPad developer Polar Bear Farm. His family owns a printing business in the city, Rainbow Print.

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Unconvincing without some indication of alternatives.

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Alan, i'll be addressing exactly that in future posts.

My initial intention was to frame the problem. To describe how the failure of the plan isn't in the details, it's actually a high level conceptual failure.

I'm expecting to cop some criticism as a 'moaner' or 'negative' but ultimately, I WANT to stay in Christchurch, i'm young (under 30), operate business here, earning export dollars for New Zealand. I should be exactly the sort of person they want to stay, and attract to the city. If the plan fails me, my peers, and the sorts of people I employ, Christchurch has a huge problem. The goal of this is to make it known there is a problem.

As for what would inspire me to stay, that's exactly what i'll be writing about next.

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For what it's worth, my expressed opinion right at the start was that the proper role of Government here was to:

a) ensure the insurance payouts were made properly and promptly to enable Christchurch property owners to rebuild,

b) remove the bureaucratic mountains that have been placed around development and construction over the last few decades, and

c) repair and replace the infrastructure.

Then Christchurch people would be willing and able to do the work and make their own plans.

Nothing I have seen has changed my opinion. The Government has certainly failed on a), made a little progress on b) and I'm not qualified to judge on c).

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This reads like negative coment from someone who doesn't have the understanding to realise how this plan will provide a much better and faster result than Christchurch City Council could ever have produced.

The City Council is disfunctional, we should all be extremely grateful that government has had the balls to provide an excellent independent plan that will provide a great opportunity for investors, a great city centre for residents and visitors, a great place to live, work, shop, and play.

Try reading this morning's Press for comments about the plan from experts who have been involved in similar reconstructions, read Jane Jacobs' and Edward Glaeser on cities, and look at the best cities in the world and compare the plan.

No it doesn't solve world poverty, peak oil or public debt, it's just a plan for the city centre that will help all those things in a small way, but it is so good that all the serious money is being moved around faster than Monopoly right now.

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So you don't think how people move around the city is fundamental to how a city works? When Auckland is spending up to $1M per metre of road in an attempt to fix it?

You don't think the economics of scaling suburbs is a problem, when we see Auckland can't pay to build infrastructure to enable new suburbs?

You don't think crime and vandalism can be minimised through good urban design?

You don't think the end of cheap oil is anything to plan for? When almost half the roads in Christchurch need serious reconstruction. Or when currently 20% of a households median income ($10,000 year) is spent running a car?

You don't think the problems arising from the rich poor divide affect you?
You don't think that's got anything to do with urban planning?

You don't think changing demographics is worth taking into account?

You don't think with the influx of insurance money, this is the least expensive time for Christchurch to mitigate these problems where other cities are forced to spend horrendous amounts to retrofit?

You don't think any of this should be addressed in a plan for Christchurch?

Seems like you want to live in a nice looking post war city in 10 or 20 years time. I want to live in a 21st century city in 10 or 20 years time.

They could have chosen to capitalise, and create a genuine 21st century city, but they've chosen not to.

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This is a plan for the CENTRE of the city. It's not meant to fix ALL of Christ hurch's problems. You can't fix how people move around from the suburbs through a plan for the city center. You can't fix the economics of the suburbs through a plan for the city centre. If you want to do this come up with another plan. This is not an opportunity to rebuild all of Christchurch, it's an opportunity to build a better centre, and that's what this plan is all about.

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The truly 'dysfunctional' organisations are EQC and CERA. And the plan that the latter has produced is over-engineered, over-regulated, and over-bearing. If that's being 'negative', then so be it; I prefer to think of it as being brutally honest and realistic. The alternative - cap-tugging blind acceptance - is an invitation to serfdom.

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This is a very uninformed comment. It is so easy to criticize- far far harder to be constructive so I look forward to your further thoughts.
The blueprint plan is superb a surprisingly bold and brave move forward into the 21st century done in only 100 days - quite remarkable what they have achieved in this short time I believe.
To expect a plan to solve the worlds problems is of course ridiculous but I agree it should do what it can to alleviate them and be cognizant of them.

The transport strategy is still being finalized. Anyone who has tried to do anything in this space will know how immensely complex and sadly political it is. One fundamental sustainable 'moving around' strategy is to increase density which the plan does with the frame. It is a pity this transport part was not finished and released with the plan but I know it is not from lack of effort and creativity from the ccdu team.

Of course crime and vandalism can be decreased through good urban design. Look at CEPTED principles. A lot of this occurs at the next scale level down of planning and implementation and has certainly been in the minds of the ccdu team I believe but not a fundamental issue at this scale of planning.

Peak oil is an important issue of course. A fundamental response to this is to increase density (in an intelligent way of course) rather than sprawl endlessly. Live work facilities, good public transport, cycleways, encouraging new innovative sustainable energy technologies, etc.,etc. Is all good and I don't see how this plan puts any hurdles in the way of this and in fact it is a good first step - high density, live work, housing close to the centre, innovation precinct...

Rich poor is also important. We don't want ghettos of the rich (or the poor) or gated communities. This plan encourages housing of all sorts very close to the centre including affordable housing and more up market Properties along and in the green frame. This issue is a massive international issue that strikes at the heart of our society and cities. The will is there in the plan to address it but give it a chance - there is lot more detailed work and thought to come.

Changing demographics are important. We have an aging community with many difficult challenges in the future and for the design of our environment. I would suggest this plan is a start with more work required in this area.

I think you need to get real. It is a remarkable first step. It is not going to happen overnight but is an enabling framework to allow people like you to flesh it out and make Christchurch a truly amazing and world leading new city in the 21st century. There is a huge amount of work still to do and to expect a plan done in 100 days to sort everything out is ridiculous.

I say get behind it as a big picture and focus on improving the detail where it is currently deficient or lacking. Negativity is so depressing when what we need now is creativity.

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Well informed comment from #7. This is not an easy space to work in - those who have taken time to look at and understand the detail will quickly realize this plan provides the opportunity for huge innovation - a big step forward. The civic facilities won't fix everything but giving business the chance to get going without years of consenting which is what happens in every other city in NZ (and elsewhere) will make a massive different to ChCh's competitive advantage - competitive cities are well placed to then solve some of the other more challenging problems.....not many poor cities solving poverty, inequality, and resource depletion ...

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Well informed comment from #7. This is not an easy space to work in - those who have taken time to look at and understand the detail will quickly realize this plan provides the opportunity for huge innovation - a big step forward. The civic facilities won't fix everything but giving business the chance to get going without years of consenting which is what happens in every other city in NZ (and elsewhere) will make a massive different to ChCh's competitive advantage - competitive cities are well placed to then solve some of the other more challenging problems.....not many poor cities solving poverty, inequality, and resource depletion ...

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I've just reread Laytons commentary and am taking a less hostile stance than some so far. I commend him for have the gumption to at least make his point of view albeit tainted by his and so many mainlanders need to be always seen as L'oyal. Its this very parochialism I suggest is at the core of so much of the problems that will drag on another decade or more with like an onion each year will expose another layer of incompetence, deceit and injustice by all the players involved starting with the idiot run Eqc and Cera. I have no faith in these plans simply due to them ultimately relying on government or local body (taxpaer) handouts. The insurers who are generally unwilling to part with any money will play the game of delay and procrastinate till the court cases or nervous breakdowns overwhelm the victims. The final nail to all this will be a city that has had is population decimated and its ambitious young folk move elsewhere and business will be lacklustre and survive only by association with said government agencies. You only need to look at some North Island cities to see what the future holds. Palmy, Gisborne even Hamilton. Hard to compete with Newcastle (post earthquake there) or anywhere up the sunshine coast especially when the moneys so good.

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This comment is just nonsense, and shows the writer lacks any research into his or her fact claims

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I don't believe Layton's observations are being negative. The plan lays down the path for a beautiful compact core, but it's not visionary. If you liken the plan to an orchestra then we have established all the sections, but we don't know what song we're playing, or if it's improv, what key, and even right now it's pretty unclear who the conductor is!?

The vision on pg 8 of the recovery plan, isn't a vision at all:
"Central Christchurch will become the thriving heart of an international city. It will draw on its rich natural and cultural heritage, and the skills and passion of its people, to embrace opportunities for innovation and growth. Redevelopment will acknowledge the past and the events that have shaped the city, while reflecting the best of the new."

Yes, of course we need to be an international city, but how are we going to differentiate ourselves from the 100s of international cities around the world? Answer that, and we have a vision.

Our vision needs to inform action and be underpinned by a set of values we all believe in. Otherwise we'll end up with the same CBD, just a bit newer and shinier – we can be so much more than that.

Plan - a universal big tick
Leadership - nope
Vision - needs more work
Values - if it's "get the money in as fast as we can and build this thing before everyone leaves", then no.

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