Another New City Plan for Christchurch

Between the anti-government reflex to hate everything they produce, and the pro-Christchurch desire to support any sense of progress and vision is a more constructive critique of the announcements of the new city plan. This is an attempt to make such a critique, quickly.

 The CCDU documents can be downloaded from here.

In short, it doesn’t seem like enough information to justify 100 days of hard work by a large team of international and national designers and planners. If we accept that everyone was working really hard to achieve this vision, then we have two options, either I’m underestimating what it takes to get to this level of details, or there is a lot of decision making that has taken place that is not in this plan. I’ve seen small teams of architecture or design students produce as much as this in 100 days before, so I’m led to believe the gritty detail in this has been left out on purpose. I’m also inclined to belief that some big and controversial decisions have been made and not announced today to protect the good news of the delivery. The absence of any announcement on the town hall is characteristic of this. It doesn’t appear in the plan, and rumour suggests that a decision has been made for it to be demolished, yet it makes only some vague comment about it, with no information about land quality, cost, or decision making criteria.

The announcement today was always as much about how well it was delivered as it was about the content. I don’t mean this to dismiss the huge importance of the contents of the plan for shaping the future of Christchurch, but the dominant processes that constitute the rebuild are controlled by CERA via Gerry Brownlee and cabinet and must always be read first and foremost as political decisions. As such, today was the governments bold attempt to regain control of the rebuild narrative in Christchurch and shatter the unsettling sense of crisis establishing itself here. A good delivery would create a sense of vision and progress that would both appease the increasingly restless population, and bring certainty to investors and businesses. A bad delivery would see the crisis evolve and spread, something this government can’t afford on a national level. How funny as it that the Waitangi tribunal decision on water rights came out at the perfect moment to disturb the attempt at relentless good news of the the New Christchurch Plan. The government knew the delivery of this plan is everything which is why we saw the three salesmen, Gerry Brownlee, John Key, and Bob Parker out in force today.

For me the plan largely produces a sense of relieve in that it broadly follows the logic of the council plan released late last year, but with a a more aggressive approach to key sites. It announces nine key precincts where government or council money will lead building. Look at the plan here for details of these but they include large areas for sports, cultural, arts, justice precincts.

Like much of the todays announcement these seem like a good idea in principle, but don’t give enough information to verify whether they have been thought through thoroughly. There is no population metrics to test the scale of these versus the need. There is no budget or business case to show if the income generated matches the cost. There is also no clear sense of who might design and build the large areas, or how a process might work to decide this. It is the same firms who did the master plan? Will there be international competitions? Will it be split into smaller jobs? Will it be by design build entities? Is it going to be PPPs or more conventional modes of procurement? Jessica Halliday has noticed the frightening news that the previously announced urban design review panel has being reduced and will now have one representative from the Christchurch City Council, CERA, and Ngai Tahu. Which is just plain strange. This is a city blue print designed with out any urban designers, and an urban design panel with no specific architecture or design expertise.

We have some sense of a master plan for the city now. We do not have:

– Any detail at about existing buildings. Which current buildings get to stay? who decides this? through what process?
– Any costings at all. Sure a stadium is a nice idea, but how much does it cost? How much will it earn each year? etc.
– No real timeline. This plan is at best a ten year plan, and probably closer to twenty, and yet there is little or no indication of which project happen first, which ones are financial priorities?
– Any real sense of the architectural values of the buildings. They have thankfully kept the 7 story limit in most of the city, but we have no sense of scale or material with the projects. The precincts are far too huge, and are likely to become large deadzone for much of the time in the city.
– Any mixed use in the planning. The plan cites best precedent but seems to have dismissed the importance of mixed use in the huge precincts.

I don’t mean this to come across entirely negatively as the basic decisions seem sensible. But this is the barest possible amount of information to produce a vision for the city. I wrote a letter few months ago that criticised this government and its approach to Christchurch for a lack of shared vision and a complete lack of transparency. The announcement today goes someway to establishing a shared vision but does almost nothing to address the astoundingly small amount of information about why and how decisions are being made.

I think the plan contains the seed for a great new city, but it needs install a process to assure that these projects and the plan is able to catch the mistakes that are inevitably made, and to enable the people of this city to gain ownership of it again. While it would be nicer not to read this whole process as a series of political acts, the lack of real information forces us to critique what we can. The increasing sense of crisis across the city has probably been just diverted by the announcements today, but at the same time it enables the focusing of a larger number of smaller acute crisis to develop. This is an good step for the city.

There are many varied battles to continue in Christchurch, the most pressing of which is to get the housing crises moving and to take some responsibility to get people out of the terrible housing conditions at the moment. The plan needs to address a number of other things such as:

-The need to establish a heritage policy for what is left of the CBD.

– It needs to reintroduce the mixed use principles that were in the last city plan, and

– Reconsider the huge scale of the precincts.

– Most importantly CERA needs to establish some proper modes of consultation and communication with the city.

Um, I suppose I should conclude with something.

Of course, my favourite Voltiare quote.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Its ok to make mistakes, lets make sure there are processes in place to catch small mistakes before they become huge ones.