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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Focusing the mind on achieving city we want

Focusing the mind on achieving city we want

Last updated 15:33 04/06/2011
I must admit I was a bit sceptical about Christchurch City councillors jetting off to San Francisco to look for ideas on how to rebuild their own ravaged city.

Now I can see it was a very valuable exercise, because I am in a foreign city myself and, as a refugee from a quake zone, feel inspired to absorb new ideas on how to rebuild and redesign the city.

I still wonder, however, if the councillors, who I hasten to add paid for their own trips with a bit of help from an airline, would have been better to choose a different city each and spread their bets.

Never mind. I am in Tokyo, population 40 million, and am quite willing to do my bit for the city.

Collecting ideas for the rebuild of Christchurch is not the purpose of my trip to Japan - it will be revealed in due course - but such an exercise comes naturally to any Christchurch person travelling overseas at present. An earthquake makes town planners of us all.

Of course, Tokyo is not an obvious template for the new Christchurch but it does focus the mind on that over-used and often brutalised word "vision".

I am sure there are parts of Tokyo that live up to the image of concrete jungle but in the area I am ensconced in, Roppongi, a lot seems to be going right, whether by accident or design.

The area, despite its huge population in a small space, has human-scale public places, a vibrant street life, much more greenery than you would expect and feels clean and safe.

Many people live in apartments of three or four storeys and cycling as a mode of transport is popular, although no special allowances seem to be made. Public transport is efficient and clean.

Although the area has all the elements of a modern city anywhere in the world, it is still uniquely Japanese. This is a hard trick to pull off, but nods to tradition and culture everywhere make it possible. A cemetery, a public garden, a bit of traditional architecture tell you what the city's roots are.

It is a lesson in the principle that tall buildings do not have to dehumanise a city. The public spaces around the 54-storey Roppongi Hills tower are so well planned and laid out that you feel quite at home.

While we are thinking a lot about grand visions and new themes for the city, it is easy to forget that people make a city. This part of Tokyo seems to work because people are polite, orderly and obey the rules.

You can create the most brilliant public spaces, public transport and infrastructure in the world and still not achieve much if they are monopolised by undesirables, covered in graffiti and surrounded by boy-racer traffic. If Christchurch is to become the "most beautiful" city in the world, as Mayor Parker hopes, then it is going to have to do something about the civic- mindedness of its population. That does not mean we need another propaganda campaign about litter or such like. It is more about education and training, particularly at the lower ends, to foster respect for others, skills and a work ethic.

A visit to a place like Tokyo also brings up the concept of a city's persona which is wrapped up in the vision thing. Every city is in search of something which makes it different and distinct. Every city talks about friendly public spaces and safety and ease of getting around but being distinctive is a tougher task.

Christchurch has branded itself as the garden city and the city that shines. Already we have problems with what appears to be split priorities. If you decide on a brand you have to get serious about it.

Tokyo, at least in the parts I have visited, seems to have far more greenery and public gardening than Christchurch, which despite its spectacular public gardens, has not made the most of what could be a winning theme. Gardens and greenery were not very prominent in the central city before the earthquake.

We also like to think of ourselves as a family (by this I mean parents and kids)-friendly city but if all planning decisions and facilities had that as their most important consideration we would have a very different city and one that would attract exactly the sort of people we need.

Distinctiveness should not be too difficult in a place like Christchurch, which was never a beautiful city but does have a stunning situation, a strong Maori background and continuing culture and a history of planned colonialism.

If we can't work these elements into the city that emerges from the ruins, then we will have failed to capitalise on the opportunity disaster and tragedy have handed us. Now, however, it's back to some sake and some more bright ideas. Kan- pie.

- The Press

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