Christchurch: 100 weeks and another plan

OPINION: A plot of Christchurch dated March 1850 bears an uncanny resemblance to the rebuild plan. Surely we have progressed in 162 years? 


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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