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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Welcome to our Christchurch

Welcome to our Christchurch

Last updated 05:00 13/03/2011
Ten prominent New Zealanders share their visions for a new city. Interviews by Adam Dudding.
JUSTIN PATON. Christchurch Art Gallery curator

I'd love to see one of those foreign squillionaires who's been buying up land at the top of the South Island stump up money to bring a really amazing, world-class architect to this town and make the central city their mission. So much has been lost in Christchurch; but we stand to lose so much more if the wrong kind of central city gets rebuilt.

It's important not to forget that the CBD was struggling badly before the earthquake hit, with small and interesting retailers cramped by high rents, and the rampant malling of outer Christchurch. In my nightmare vision what we see in Christchurch is effectively the Riccarton Westfield dumped in the centre of town. Christchurch doesn't want to become one of those cities that is livable only on its edges.

For many people the cathedral is the symbol of Christchurch, so its construction is seen as key to any kind of regrowth. But symbols are not what make cities great. Think about what makes Wellington an exciting place to be, in a way it wasn't two decades ago. It's not the obvious architectural symbols – it's not the Beehive. It's the way some clever planners had the foresight to embrace that weird mishmash of activies and building types along the waterfront. It's crazy and nobody in their right mind could have planned it into being, and yet it's thrilling and it works.

In my dream, inner-city Christchurch would become a more open, less fiercely gridded and maybe slightly more wayward place. Alongside new buildings we need to leave some ruins; we need to leave some rubble and empty lots. Don't fence them, don't mow them, don't bulldoze them flat. Let grass and a few wildflowers grow and let people come by and remember.

If there's an attitude I'd like to see left in the rubble, it's that special brand of aggro that seems to ooze out of the streets in Christchurch beyond 9pm – the kind of aggro that inspires young men in cars to yell at anyone they see walking on the street. Think about it – the person you yelled at for no reason last week might be the one digging you out of silt the next. Perhaps it's a pipe dream, but it would be nice to think the earthquake might prompt a long-lived citywide outbreak of goodwill, good manners and good-heartedness.

My day job is working at the art gallery, so there is the question of art. Symbolic expressions of healing are a long way from the top of your list when the power's off and the walls are cracked. But now more than ever, a bit of colour, pleasure, lightness and frivolity seem tremendously valuable things. What I'd like to see is not art that responds to the earthquake – I'd just like to see art doing its usual, wonderful, trivial and therefore serious thing.

An event like this does make you think of that longer view – how should a city be constructed for our children's children's children?

Brian Eno has a great phrase that sums this up – he talks about "the long now" – this idea of trying to think with the same degree of focus about 100 or 200 or 300 years from now as we do about the present moment. We're possibly the most now-obsessed culture there has ever been. An earthquake – along with all the other looming environmental threats – ought to give us good cause to think about the state of this place, and the state of the landscape, many years from now, and put down some good foundations in every sense.


The big problem will be to the southeast of Christchurch CBD, where most of the pre-1900 buildings – little shops and so on – will all, I think, eventually have to be demolished. There'll be a large blank area. What we should develop is a building type that could restore those streets. The model is the typical European city building – retail or offices on the ground floor, apartments above of two or three storeys, and parking tucked in behind within trees, so you bring apartments into the inner city.

You'll have Colombo and Manchester St made into avenues, setting the buildings back a bit, planting the trees along the face of them, and then having carparking behind, within a planted area.

The apartments could be made of lightweight materials – timber.

The worst thing [that could] happen is single-storey retail, just verandahs trailing on out along High St. That'll look like a hick town. The thought of moving the centre away at this stage is absurd. Good heavens, there's a hell of a lot there which is fine in my view.

The buildings in the damaged retail areas of the south-east inner city – most of them standard 19th-century run-ups – were junk, structurally, simple brick facades with reduced neo-classic detail plastered on them.

The great danger of all those buildings is they were stiff on the dividing walls and the back wall, but the wall to the street was just brick perched on top of a steel beam – no tie at all. They just flopped off. You can see the result. They were a disaster waiting to happen.

If you'd put a map of Christchurch down in front of a group of engineers and architects and asked them which buildings would fall down in an earthquake, that's exactly what's happened.

I suppose successive city councils have to take some responsibility.


The city had lost its way back in the 70s and 80s when it decided to hand the centre over to shops where you can buy sheepskin slippers and daft little tram rides. They'd lost the vision that a city is fundamentally for the people who live there.

The chance is there to remedy all that went wrong. Stop thinking of tourists as the focus of the city and start thinking of the people who actually live here. If you have a tram, make it a tram that goes to Brighton – currently it does a totally pointless circle.

I gather from the paper that there's a huge increase in people reporting "broken heart syndrome" – chest pain but there's nothing wrong with them. That's a metaphor for what's happened to the city. I feel that cities are like a body and they need a heart.

If you spread everything all over the suburbs you create problems for transport, and you leave a kind of hollow. I've lived in North America and I know what happens when cities get hollowed out – they get filled up with squalor. Detroit is just the most depressing place.

It would be a terrible shame if Gerry Brownlee simply hands the design of the city over to, say, some Australian engineering company. It's a chance for the city to do something spectacular and wonderful. It's almost a blank slate.

It would be good to keep a ceremonial centre – that's where Rod Donald's funeral was held; and the administrative centre. And then you need to bring young people into the city. You need the sort of bounce and sparkle you get in Dunedin when the students are home. So bring those educational institutions into the city.

There need to be things that draw people in: entertainment, movie theatres, things that make people happy. That's what the Italians devised centuries ago – they built places where people hang out and chat and gossip and watch one another.

JAMES LUNDAY. Urban designer

In the 1980s and 90s, Britain held five "National Garden Festivals", each intended to kick-start the regeneration of derelict urban land. Urban planner James Lunday, now living in Auckland, was a master planner of the 1988 Glasgow festival, and says a similar event would provide a focal point for the regeneration of Christchurch.

A garden festival is about replanning and reconstructing an area after devastation. The whole of Glasgow's Clydeside had to be rebuilt, because all the old industries had gone, so we tapped into Europe's international garden movement, which had been set up to help cities that had been bombed badly in the war.

We did a masterplan, then the roads were built and trees were planted, then all the building areas were cleared and nations were asked to come and build a garden – like an expo. And during that time you have film festivals, arts festivals and people came from all over to see it.

Instead of asking for aid we were asking them to come and celebrate landscape; and after that we sold sites to the market. Some gardens were dismantled, but some became permanent parks.

How it would work in Christchurch is that you would stretch out internationally to stakeholders – large corporations like Microsoft and the governments of our major trading nations.

Then you do a remediation (in Clydeside it was remediation of toxic waste and in Dresden it was unexploded bombs and mass graveyards). You put your new roading and infrastructure in. You get the cathedral finished and some of the public buildings, and perhaps some commercial buildings.

It's a bit like the America's Cup, which kick-started Auckland's Viaduct Basin. You have a target and you know you have the world arriving on your doorstep. People get behind a thing like that because it's tangible. Look at the work it will create and look at the focus it will give that work.

When we did this in Glasgow, the council committed to building key buildings that were then converted to community assets. Some of the countries involved also donated buildings: the Germans built an exhibition pavilion that later became a gallery of contemporary art.

It's just a mechanism for the recreation of the CBD, an impetus to get things tidied up. One of the things I'm scared about is the kneejerk reaction of "let's have an international conference, or an international competiton to see who can design Christchurch".

That's all paper. Let's work with the people of Christchurch to build the city they want, but let's have a close target for when we tidy up.

Imagine a Christchurch that only had two- to three-storey buildings, and the church spires and domes sitting above the skyline, and the trees sitting above the buildings. When you looked from the Port Hills you would see the spires and you would see sculptures and you would see tree cover, and the houses nestling under it. A very different city.

PERI DRYSDALE. Founder of clothing label Untouched World

First we need to find out from geologists what's going on under our city, then take that knowledge into the building code. We need to feel safe again.

Yes, keep the cathedral, but one of my designers had a good suggestion – that we don't rebuild the spire as it was. We make it the same shape but in glass and metal, to signal that Christchurch acknowledges its history but that it has moved on – and as a monument to those who have died.

You must be able to turn Christchurch into a bike city – it's flat, for God's sake. Build cycleways off the road, away from cars, but lots of them, so you can get anywhere in the city really easily, without the issues of opening car doors in your face. If you do that you'll get children on bikes going to school instead of parents in cars – that reduces congestion, improves health, increases mental wellbeing and performance at school. Likewise people biking to work. Then couple that with a really good transit system that's frequent, efficient, reliable and fast, and you can put bikes on it.

SIR GIL SIMPSON. Software entrepreneur

[Luddites] are out in force. They're called the greens. Our colours are red and black, not green. We must not turn the middle of the city into a cycle park. People must have access to it by car – if anything, access to it by car should be made easier. People decide where the centre is – if they turn it into a big skateboard park, forget it. We mustn't forget – 50,000 people work there.

And this business about moving the CBD is nuts. Christchurch has a natural form that's a radial pattern; any planner's model that tries to do away with that is doomed. Good things happen naturally. You want a framework – but we don't want Stalingrad the second. We don't want Christchurchgrad.

MARK SOLOMON. Kaiwhakahaere (chair) of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu

The Christchurch of the future that I see is low-rise rather than high-rise. The streets need to be wider in case of another earthquake; the CBD should be more open for foot traffic rather than cars. We've got an opportunity to develop a green city – solar power, etc.


Much of the eastern suburbs are built on wetlands and marshlands, which isn't a terribly good idea if we assume there's a continuing seismic risk. There's a strong argument, if you're talking sustainability, that we should perhaps be restoring forestry and wetlands in those areas, returning it to nature.

And does the CBD relocate further west, or does it stay where it is? In sustainability terms, you do very well in terms of high-rise buildings, as you're reducing your ecological footprint per person. But who in Christchurch is going to want to live above the second floor from now on?

ROD CARR. Vice-chancellor, Canterbury University

I have a vision for a city that is knowledge-based, that is advanced in applied technology and science and that has a wide variety of jobs for people with a wide variety of skills. One of the dimensions of that would be a science/engineering/technology/knowledge-based sector that is entrepreneurial and founded on the western liberal arts tradition of curiosity and inquiry, and which leverages Canterbury's wider regional hinterland of agricultural applied science. That didn't leave town with the earthquake.

The important thing for New Zealand is to make sure that [Christchurch's] human capital remains intact. If it is dissipated, it won't just go to Auckland – it will go to Australia and beyond. That's the institution that we need to protect and preserve.

It's not a matter of sympathy or charity for New Zealand to help Christchurch recover from its lost physical insfrastcutre. This is absolutely in the national interest.

GARRY MOORE. Former Christchurch mayor

I've proposed we have a world conference of cities that have been flattened – get them to Christchurch in the next two months; ask what you got right and wrong and what we can learn together.

But we shoudn't have an inferiority complex about doing it ourselves. The architecture of the future is going to be what we come up with ourselves.

I would ban any more malls in Christchurch. In the centre, instead of turning our back on the river, I'd reinforce the river – it would maybe be worthwhile even digging up some of the streams that we've buried. You could make it a very green and a very environmentally interesting city.

A great proportion of our old brick buildings will go; if there are doubts, I'd bowl them – they've had it. There was some beautiful stuff, but there's some crap that's been built. I'd go for wood – wood is our new medium. We shouldn't go over three storeys.

Rebuild the retail around Ballantynes. Make your retail precinct in the middle smaller and much more idiosyncratic. If you go to one mall you go to the lot – we need to be different.


The public has been asked to post online their visions for a new Christchurch at

Each idea can then be voted on.

Here are a few of the ideas winning votes last week: Sustainable city, cycle lanes, community, lots of green space, rain water collection, solar, wind. Trams as major public transport method. Key lines East, West, North and South. Let's carry the garden city idea up to our rooftops with green roofs.

Relegate cars to fourth-class citizens in central city. Central city should be designed for pedestrians first, cyclists second, trams third, cars fourth. High-speed, high-availability wireless internet infrastructure supporting flexible workplaces. All rebuilt CBD buildings should have cycle parking and shower facilities.

Make it easy and appealing for employees to ride their bikes to work. Go West! Add base isolaters to the NZ building code for all three-or-more-storey buildings. Sky Train, light automated rail connecting major city routes.
Additional reporting Tim Hume

- Sunday Star Times

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