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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ultimate makeover

Ultimate makeover

JOHN McCRONE explores possibilities for the city's rebuild

JOHN MCCRONE
Last updated 13:51 19/03/2011
 
Rebuilding Christchurch. What else is anyone talking about?

Cities change. They are forever developing landscapes with a foot in the past and an eye to the future.

However, two earthquakes have delivered about 20 years worth of change in six months. And we know there is probably only about six months to plan the equally momentous leap into Christchurch's future that a $30 billion rebuilding programme will represent. Hence the urgency in the conversations.

A third of the buildings in the central business district (CBD) have probably been levelled. Whole neighbourhoods are in question because of the risks of liquefaction or unstable hillsides. Without a vision, a city-wide consensus drawn up with lightning speed, there is every likelihood of wrong decisions, ill- considered decisions, being locked in simply by the urge to do something.

So, if we can no longer go back to the old normal, what should the new normal look like?

What a question! Immediately we are into the divisions. Do we want heritage or modernism? A rebuilding in faux gothic frontages and rose bushes, or glass and concrete cubes surrounded by flax and tussock?

Are we talking commercial realities or idealistic dreams? Funky green sustainability or brash civic statements? Motorways or cycle paths? An enforced "densification" of the inner city, or a return to a weed-like sprawl of suburbs?

Or is there a third way? A path that might deliver everything people would want?

First things first. The hazard assessment.

We still need to know whether Christchurch has other buried faultlines that could kill the whole notion of a rebuilding stone-dead.

Some experts are saying Christchurch is now arguably about the safest place in New Zealand because its faults have spent their energy for at least the next few thousand years. But others fear more may lurk. Even if relatively small, further fault-lines right under the city would do damage. And the Alpine Fault is always there ready to deliver a jolt to match the first September earthquake.

Simon Swaffield, Professor of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln University, says it is obvious Christchurch needs rapid seismic mapping to assess the actual risk.

The areas of liquefaction need to be looked at too. The Government at first thought it could fix the land, shoring up river banks with piles, and no-one would need to move. But following the second quake it is already admitting this might be uneconomic.

Homes might be uninsurable. And the city council itself may not be able to insure rebuilt sewers and other infrastructure. Swaffield says old swamplands should never have been built on. So some neighbourhoods might just have to be lifted up and moved to new greenfield sites.

Yet Swaffield says now is also the time to be thinking of other potential future issues that would affect the city's geography. For example, climate change and sea level rises.

"In 150 years, sea levels could be up another metre. That raises all sorts of questions about the low-lying eastern suburbs. Rivers will back up.

Flooding risks will increase."

This could be a further reason for retreating from some areas, turning them back into protective wildlife margins.

Another hazard on many people's minds is rising oil and energy prices. It might not be too long before a city designed around the liberal use of cars and vans becomes a dinosaur concept.

Swaffield says a watchword for the rebuild must be resilience. And Christchurch has the chance to hazard- proof itself in ways beyond the now obvious danger of earthquakes.

Now to the design principles. What should the new normal look like?

Christchurch was already buzzing with this discussion after the first earthquake. The New Zealand Institute of Architects had just got going with its Before/After series of weekly debates, bringing together experts like Swaffield, when the second quake hit.

Other projects, like Gardensity.co.nz and Ideasforchristchurch.org, had been fostering the debate online.

Swaffield says Christchurch also has the advantage of being a city with an existing strong sense of itself. People should not forget Christchurch has good bones because it was a designed settlement from the start.

And it has continually demonstrated international class thinking with projects like its wetlands and waterways restoration plans of the 1990s, the Arts Centre heritage precinct, and most recently with the Urban Development Strategy (UDS) for the greater Christchurch region.

So Christchurch might have just six months to draft a new masterplan, but it can be done, says Swaffield. There is that solid base of existing knowledge and skill.

Summing up, the short answer on the rebuild according to most people is that first the basic logic of Christchurch has not changed.

As community leaders like Hagley- Ferrymead ward councillor Tim Carter and Canterbury University Vice- Chancellor Rod Carr point out, Christchurch is still going to be the capital and principal gateway of the Mainland. It is still going to have the economic driver of a prosperous farming hinterland.

And it is still going to need a strong city centre as its beating heart.

What is also obvious is that people are going to demand that the rebuild be safe. Not just fortified or low-rise, but as Swaffield says, designed for resilience - for the ability to adapt as much as withstand.

And then the big opportunity - Christchurch's equivalent of Napier's art deco themed styling - is building for sustainability. Whatever that actually ends up looking like, an even greener Garden City should be the legacy created for the next generation.

The tension is how to achieve this? The question of urban form. Which is actually greener and safer - to continue to press for inner city densification as has been the general city plan, or to let Christchurch instead now decentralise, to sprawl as far across the Canterbury Plains as it wants to go?

And what people were already realising, what was emerging from forums like Before/After, is the answer is to focus on humanising the scale of Christchurch. All the questions about the city's future can be unified by sticking to this simple thought.

Starting with the central city, the common response is that it needs to be planned as a collection of precincts.

Tim Carter, and others like Paul Lonsdale of the Central City Business Association (CCBA), say a rebuilt office district is bound to end up more compact. A few of the firms which have gone to outlying business parks might never return. The rebuilding is a chance to group people more closely by design.

The same with shopping. Lonsdale says Ballantynes could obviously be the anchor of a new quality shopping precinct, perhaps combined with a central bus station or transport hub and food courts. A more purposeful version of what already existed.

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