Category | Christchurch

The last of the Grandparents: Becoming the middle generation

Last week my Grannie Janet moved from her house of 31 years to a rest home. What’s more, she’s moved cities after 48 years in the same place. From Central Christchurch to suburban Nelson. Not that it really matters what locale she is in these days as she doesn’t travel far by foot anymore. However she does know the Nelson area well, having emigrated there from England with her family at age 19. It is there she was married and had her only child, my Dad Mike, in 1954. She is now 93-year-old, and can get around with her walker over very short distances, only just. She is very blind, so her view hasn’t changed much from city to city. But it would be dismissive, assuming and unkind to say the move isn’t a big one, or that this kind of change in old age doesn’t make much difference to a person and their family. It really does.


Grannie and Granddaugher

Grannie was very involved with, and attached to her home in Christchurch, in the Avon Loop stretch of the river, which she named Sunset corner. She has a thing for naming houses, which I also like the notion of. Naming homes gives them bit of a personality, or character. As if they are beings in themselves, aside from their inhabitants. Grannie lived in the top right flat of four that she had had architecturally designed and built in 1982. They replaced an old villa that had sat on the site for decades. Despite having sold the three flats to other people, Grannie still thought of the surrounding grounds as hers. A botanist by profession, she was very keen to utilise every patch of soil on the section and did so with passion and care. Sometimes to the annoyance of her neighbours when she insisted on being party to the planting they did in their own fenced off plots. But over all, she had great relationships with her neighbours over the years, and participated in her wider community along Oxford Terrace, as an active member of the Avon Loop Planning Association.

Grannie has always had an interest in things botanical, as the daughter of a daffodil grower in Evesham, England. She formalised her knowledge and passion as a young women when studying a Diploma of Horticulture at Massey University in the first intake that allowed women on the course. She went on to work as a plant science demonstrator at Lincoln college in he 60’s and 70’s, and studied again, towards Landscape architecture after that. She was a member of the Botanical Society, Alpine Garden Society and a friend of the Botanic Gardens.

Along with several other community members, Grannie was really passionate about facilitating the reinstatement of native plants along the riverbank in the Avon Loop, and planting larger stabilising trees. She convinced the Christchurch City Council to plant two groups of Scenecio Greyii shrubs, who’s silvery colour shows up in car headlights around corners, to prevent cars running off the road.

My other grandparents, Elsie and Jack Locke, lived six doors down from her, so our whole family has a strong attachment to the Avon Loop area, and at the moment we are all quietly mourning Grannie leaving her home in our own ways, which for many people, and us particularly, spells the end of an era. I have been surprised by how much this change has affected me. She has lived at Sunset Corner our entire lives.  For my siblings and I, Grannie’s home was the last bastion of unchanged childhood normality, or familiarity we had. This is because in post earthquake Christchurch, almost every facet of our childhood stories and remembered landscapes have been changed in some way. The home we were born and raised in will be rebuilt and sold, the entire stretch of river that runs from that house to Grannies is severely damaged. The Avon Loop community has been red-zoned and largely abandoned as I write, which includes my parents home, our current family base. So old age or not, Grannie had to leave her place, which while still live-able sits on a potentially dangerous tilt, and the red-zoning means the entire Avon Loop must move on.

It is timely however, as her ailing health has made it untenable for her to live by herself. She began needing home help in 2004 following a 3rd hip operation and had come increasingly dependent on the home help and my parent’s daily assistance. But it was the earthquakes bought up the conversation that would have otherwise been very hard to broach. Due to the red zoning, the solution was not debatable. She had to leave.

For many months Grannie felt she was being unjustly thrown out of her home, which many elderly think as they are being shifted into a rest home. However Grannie’s resentment was aimed at the government’s post quake re-zoning plans, until she accepted that her health also necessitated the move. She is at peace with the shift now, but sad all the same. She has said to me a number of times that she is devastated to leave the home she had hoped to live out her days in, to leave my parents and move city. And like the rest of the community, heartbroken that it has all come to an end in such an abrupt and unexpected manor.

She has had remarkable innings however, a widower since 1954, Grannie has remained in her home far longer than most would at her age with her abilities. Her support has had a lot to do with it, but Grannie is also very stoic, fiercely independence and stubborn, which all help to keep one in their own home. I am very thankful that she remained there for the first 3 years of my daughter’s life, and I hope that she will have some memories of Great-Grannie at Sunset Corner.

Never again will we buzz the buzzer at Grannies and walk up the stairs to her living area to find her dozing in her chair, looking out over the cherry tree to the river. Grannie was a woman of habit and routine, and we will miss seeing her move slowly around her home, finding her way about, and gathering things to entertain her great-grandaughter during visits, or to make herself her daily cup-of-soup lunch. We will endeavor to keep the lemon drink cordial recipe alive, and in supply in her rest home. I have made it myself several times, but it is never quite the same as hers. Perhaps I need more habit and routine to get it just right.

Now that all her daily business is taken care of from morning to night in the home, I look forward to visiting Grannie in her new room and spending more time talking about family and listening to her old stories, than fussing about in her kitchen getting everything wrong and disrupting her routine.  She is a social woman, and will really enjoy the company there, and will no doubt have some more calories with each mouthful as well, cup-a-soups haven’t really cut the mustard all these years.

All this change has got me thinking about becoming the middle generation, as my parents have become the Grandparents, and Grannie travels towards the end of her road. This change is a major milestone in her life, and ours. She has left her home, which has prompted lots of reflection and discussion in our family. For me it has provided an opportunity to really think about her life. Of everything she has done and achieved. And most of all, her place in our family and the importance she holds as our oldest, most fragile and senior member. It is a nice time to think and talk together, while she is still around, because now one knows how much time is left.

Go well Grannie. See you in Nelson.

Grannie and Granddaugher

 

 

 

 

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On Building Stories and Creating Cities

I’m a planning professional by degree and career, but when I talk about urban planning I’m not talking solely about the work that goes on in a professional office.  What I’m actually referring to is every action of every inhabitant of a city, because whether or not it is our direct intent, it is our collective actions that shape our communities.  Planning is not just a resource consent or a district plan, it’s an interactive communicative activity.  Our local and national identities stem from core stories that give meaning to our collective lives.  By telling stories about our past and our present our intention is to shape the future.[i]

Story telling is not a passive experience, stories tell as much about the teller as the teller tells about events. In any situation there is only one set of events that occur, yet everyone who is present will tell the story differently based on their experiences and personal biases.  Stories provide details that can clarify problems and opportunities.  They provide descriptions of character, they invoke values and they raise questions. [ii]  Stories are not merely told, they are created.  When we tell a story about ourselves we are drawing on our past behaviours and on others’ characterizations of ourselves.  In re-telling our stories we are reproducing ourselves and our behaviours. [iii]   In choosing which stories to tell we are defining our personal characteristics and shaping our own lives.

A professor of mine who was involved in the post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans talked to us about how it was those personal characteristics of all the key players that really mattered.  He said that over and over again he saw examples of the right kind of person, or unfortunately the wrong, make an enormous difference because their actions would have ripple effects.  He said that this happened even at the very lowest levels.  And what I understood is that it’s not so much that individuals and their actions can make a difference, it’s that individuals and their actions are what make a difference.  Which is heavy because it applies to all of us and it’s something that we have to be aware of all the time.  But don’t let it scare you, don’t let it weigh you down – let it excite you!

I have a story that I like about Christchurch because it’s about the All Blacks and I’ve loved them ever since I was a student in Dunedin.  I’ve been following them for about ten years now so I know that nobody deserved that cup more than they did.  But what interested me the most about the All Blacks winning was an interview with Richie McCaw where he said that after the earthquakes normal wasn’t normal anymore.   He said that in every aspect of his daily life he was forced to look at things a bit differently.  He explained that instead of it being an obstacle it became a strength because he also started looking at his game and his team a bit differently.  And when he applied this new mindset to his captaincy he was able to take his team to higher levels than ever before.  So this is just one example of how the story of the city affected one of its inhabitants, whose personal story then affected the city. Because whether or not you are a big rugby fan I can tell you that the atmosphere in Hagley Park was pure magic when they won, and that is now a part of the story of this city.

So now that we know that our cities and even our lives are built on stories, let’s look at how stories are created.  Author Margot Livesy tells us to look for what she calls ‘the hidden machinery.’  She advises aspiring writers to read all that is good for the good of your soul, and then learn to read as a writer and search out the ‘hidden machinery,’ which is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend.[iv]  To find these building blocks you have to read the work that’s not so good, and read work that’s in progress.  You have to read your own work as if it were someone else’s.  She tells us to admit our judgments, because few writers get steadily better but many get unsteadily so.

I find myself experiencing cities in the same way.  I enjoy what’s good about them for the good of my soul, and there’s so much to enjoy in cities!  I love pedestrian precincts with quirky little bars, cafes and boutiques; I love architecture and art galleries.  I love street fashion and fine dining, street food and high fashion.  Public transportation, I love taking the metro in Paris or the El train in Chicago.  People watching, public parks, talking to strangers, public libraries.  Live music, live comedy, nightlong dance parties in industrial districts; all of the wild and unpredictable things that happen in cities, I love it!  But then I can’t help but experience the city as a planner.  I take note of the urban design, I educate myself on the policies, I listen to and watch for the stories being told.  I try to piece together exactly what it is that makes that city work.  What is it exactly that makes it such an exciting and dynamic place to be?  Or maybe I’m in a city that’s not so nice and in that case I try to figure out what specifically it is about that city that doesn’t work.  And as I explore and experience my new home, Christchurch, I remind myself that few cities get steadily better, but many get unsteadily so.

So where does this ‘hidden machinery’ come from?  Where do we get the inspiration for the building blocks that we use to build our stories and create our cities?  Author Susan Power tells us that instead of writing what we know, we should write what we need to know.  She says that if she relied solely on firsthand experience then she would stick to her journal and never imagine herself in another’s shoes.  But in fiction anything is possible, there are no boundaries, there are no rules, except to make it work.[v]  In planning as well, there are no boundaries that will hold us back.  There are some rules of course, but they are flexible, they are only there to ‘make it work’.  We don’t have to rely solely on what we’ve experienced firsthand, we have a multitude of examples from across the world that we can imagine for ourselves and create in our own way.  And as planners, or even as human beings, I think it does us good to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, to think about what their life might be like and about how our work and our actions might affect them.  And hopefully they’ll do the same for us.

James Alan McPherson is a professor at the Iowa Writers Institute, which is pretty much the creative writing program in the states, and he reminds us that the humanities are untidy.  He says the purpose is not closure along a single line of inquiry as we might find in the sciences, but illuminations that are hard won because they can only be discovered in the midst of life.[vi]  And life is also untidy, there is never a single right answer or single right way of doing things.  But McPherson reminds us that if we remain alert we may begin to see the meaning of events, the character of other human beings, and become more generous, wise, and effective in our actions.  McPherson says that what he enjoys most about teaching writing workshops is the range of backgrounds in his students. He says physics majors discuss theories of causality with religion majors; medical doctors learn mythology from classmates educated in the classics; engineers and music majors learn that technology and music derive from the same idiom.  Film students help lawyers master the essentials of narrative pacing.  He observes that stories encourage abstraction and recombination at a time when our society is becoming increasingly technological and trite.[vii] Despite his many accomplishments McPherson is also quite humble, because he says that best of all is that he as a teacher gains wider knowledge from this diverse body of students.  Cities that are designed with their core stories in mind and that allow space for a multitude of stories to be told will by their very nature provide their inhabitants with a similar space to thrive and to grow.

At the core of any livable city lies the ability to accommodate diverse and locally grounded lifestyles and practices.  The residents are the authority when it comes to understanding a community and policy makers should draw on their expertise.  Institutional processes must make space for stories, creating a ‘sense of place’ that is shaped by the environment, culture, and history.  Policy makers too often ignore this elusive ‘sense of place’ but community is capital, people are willing to pay for it.[viii]  The value of a strong sense of place varies from economic contribution as a tourism draw to the aesthetic value of good design, to the emotional value of a place as part of the regional identity.  Beyond the monetary boost of a tourism visit, there is economic value rooted in the presence of the established local population, whose locational decision is based on their perception of, and ties to their community.

For those who call Christchurch home, as I do, remember that stories are our heritage and our legacy.  Our personal stories are a powerful contribution to building our community because it takes more than infrastructure and policy to create a city.  If you work professionally with the rebuild, your contribution is not relegated to your office.  If you don’t work professionally with the rebuild, you are still accountable for the future of this city.  We are actively building our community every day by indulging in our hobbies and by being a friend, family member, or neighbour.  Share your interests, learn about the interests of others, enjoy the time that you spend with those close to you, speak candidly about what is important to you, and listen when others do the same.  There are no boundaries that will hold us back, all we have to do is imagine the future as we’d like it to be, and create it in our own way.

Dedicated to Andy Isserman, who taught me that stories can be found in even the most mundane facts and figures and who never stopped telling stories of his own.

 



[i] Throgmorton, James. Inventing ‘the Greatest’: Constructing Louisville’s

Future out of Story and Clay.  Planning Theory 6:3 (2007), pp. 237-262.

http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=urban_pubs

[ii] Forester, John. Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes Oxford University Press. 2009.

[iii] Sandercock, Leonie. 2003. Out of the Closet: The Importance of Stories and Storytelling in Planning Practice. Planning Theory & Practice 4:1 (2003), pp. 11-28.

[iv] Livesy, Margot “The Hidden Machinery.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[v] Power, Susan “The Wise Fool.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[vi] McPherson, James Alan “Workshopping Lucius Mummius.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[vii] Ibid.

8 Bolton, Roger. 1992. ‘Place prosperity vs. people prosperity’ revisited: An old issue with a new angle. Urban Studies 29: 185?203.

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Minister Brownlee, that’s not right and you know it…

I am part of a group of people working to convince the Christchurch City Council, and other relevant authorities, that it is essential to keep the Christchurch Town Hall.   This group includes Architectural Historians Ian Lochhead, Jessical Halliday, and Architects Maurice Mahoney, and Sir Miles Warren.

This post does not necessarily represent their views.  But it does represent mine.

The Christchurch Town Hall  is one of a small handful of great buildings that this country has, it has  world-class acoustic qualities, and is widely loved by both the Christchurch public, and expert users.  It was damaged in the 22nd Feb earthquake, however the damage is repairable, and the CCC had voted for the full retention of the Town Hall in their city plan earlier this year, and as owners of the building had taken responsibility to pay for the repair and upgrades.  Since then the large government led CCDU plan has been put into full force of law. This plan had a large empty space on the site where the town hall presently is, with words to the effect that the future of this site and surrounding activities depended on the CCC final decision on the Town Hall.   The Executive Director of the CCDU responded to an email some months ago saying that the final decision for the Town Hall rests with the Council.   The culture and heritage committee voted unanimously 2 weeks ago to recommend to the council for the full retention of the Town Hall.  A small but significant victory.  The full council meeting is on the 22nd of November.

We have up till now being confident that the decision for the Town Hall rests with the CCC, and the CCDU document, and the comments by Warwick Isaacs would support this. It is then dismaying to hear, Minister Brownlee refusing to rule out that he may over-ride the council decision.  A letter we received from him a few day ago had the ominous sentence.  “I await the Council’s final decision with interest.” 

The Minister was interviewed by Mike Yardley on newstalkZB yesterday (the bit about the Town Hall is near the end) and features a number of remarkably misleading comments from the Minister which I will detail here.

Minister: “I get frankly annoyed by some of the characterisation of the damage to the Town Hall, and when I hear people saying ‘it’s got the best acoustics in the world’ I’ve got to say it used to but when you’ve got the floor so badly disrupted, when you’ve got walls that are out of line etc  and other damage to that, they are not the same as they used to be.” 

Mr Brownlee, this is why the council has budgeted to repair the building.  It is called a repair because we understand that things need to happen to the building to make it perform again.  As it turns out the original acoustic engineers have done a preliminary study of the auditorium and stated “The good news is that, on the basis of todays brief visit at least, there is no visible damage to the auditoriums acoustic fabric”.  So Mr Brownlee, you are either being misleading or you are talking about something from a position of authority when you haven’t read the reports about it.

Minister: “So I’d say this to the councillors, why not have an open day? Why not open the doors and say to people that you can come in here have a look around and make an assessment for yourself.”

Um, what?  Is the Minister in charge of  reconstruction really suggesting that public should have open access to a building inside the redzone?  This is the redzone that has been controlled by the army that has shut down the cbd for two years for the purpose of public safety.  Is the Minister really suggesting that the public should be doing structural assessments of large and complex buildings?  The Minister has a lot of faith in the public’s structural knowledge, considering this is the same minister who is overseeing a decade long multi billion dollar city rebuild with no public engagement or consultation processes.   The same question could be asked of the CERA and CCDU’s offices, if there is nothing to hide, why not let the public come in and do an assessment of the work they are doing, let them see the sketch plans, business cases, and a detailed account of all the meetings that are happening with no public knowledge.

Minister: ” It’s not a nice prospect, but it is a very badly damaged building” 

There have been extensive engineering reports done on this building, and all support the idea that it is repairable. The Council has already approved the funding for the full retention of the building earlier this year, and is meeting at the end of this month re-consider this.  If the Minister has information the public or the council doesn’t have he should pass it on, if not then he should stop mis-leading people with amateur hour engineering descriptions.

Interviewer: “Can I come back to my initial question, if the full Council ratifies the committees decision to go ahead with the full repair on November 22 at the next meeting will CERA respect that decision, or will they over-ride it?” 

Minister: “Well, in the end, its not part of the CBD plan, its a site that had a question over the top of it, so then what we would need to do is say that the Council has said they can contribute about $800 million to anchor projects over a period of years. Clearly a massive chunk of that money will go on the Town Hall, so soemthing else goes.”

The current estimates for the Town Hall suggest it will cost around $120 million to repair, and that the insurance money will cover around $80 million of that money.   As the $800 million is over several years, so the Town Hall repair could be staged.   $40 million of $800 million is 5% of that total amount. 5% does not seem like massive chunk of that to me.  Remembering that this in the context of a city that is planning a $450 million dollar stadium, that spent $30 million dollars on a temporary sports facility.  $40 million seems pretty reasonable to me if it means the Town Hall is around for another 100 years.

Minister: “So you are unpicking what I think has been a very well put together plan that 106,000 residents of this city put their ideas on.” 

Can we please stop the false and mis-leading suggestion that the public were involved in the creation of the CCDU plan.  They were not.  The public provided a large, visionary and quite vague set of ideas to the Christchurch City Council  around 15 months ago as part of their Share an Idea campaign.  The council plan that emerged from this quick fire participatory process had one draft with public feedback and then was submitted to the Minister for review.  The  minister rejected most of the council plan and created a new task force that had 100 days to draw a new plan.  This 100 days did not involve any participation with the public, the 100 days since the announcement of the plan did not involve any participation with the public.  At a public meeting I asked Don Miskell, now the head designer of the plan, if there was any intention to have consultation processes in the huge multi-billion dollar scheme and replied no.  I asked the same question about whether there would be any international peer review and the same answer was no.   People within CERA understand that there was no consultation. So please stop condescending the public by saying there has been.   The public consultation by the council about the Town Hall is quite the opposite from your version of the story.  The public submissions around the about the the Town Hall were overwhelmingly in favour of the full retention.  This notion that the CCDU plan has any sort of moral authority over this city is delusional. It has legal authority because it is in place because of an act of parliament, but not moral authority.

This case is just one of a series of examples in Christchurch where the structure of governance has become confused to the point where us as members of the public, and as relevant experts in our fields that are relevant to this building, are unable to participate meaninfully in this discussions around it.  The fact that the Minister in  charge of the reconstruction, who has extraordinary powers, is been either misleading, or is ignorant about important information he publicly discussing, is dismaying.  It illustrates quite clearly why this much power should never be hidden so entirely from the public spotlight.

 

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How do we harness trust?

TRUST:

1. To let someone in your lives.

2. To give information

3. To be vulnerable.

Without trust where will we be?

Living in Christchurch I have observed many businesses operating from home.

I love this!

PhotoMan, Tadakki Kusaka formerly photographing tourists outside the Cathedral in Cathedral Square, Christchurch – Now on 233 Waimairi Road, Ilam, Christchurch Ph: +64274374113 OPEN 7 DAYS

BUSINESS

These people having their flag, their business card hang high. The many signs on the streets of Christchurch: – Haircuts – Architectural Design – Fashion Design – Passport Photos A complete range of signs, some hand painted; really connecting the sign to that person, that business. I’m thinking small business not big business, thinking local business in my neighbourhood and not 30 minutes away in the city centre. I’m also thinking I’ll support thy neighbour and perhaps they will support me – Community!

1) Plants for sale in my neighbourhood Beckenham, Christchurch 2) Architects Stuart Manning’s Studio above a garage beside his house in Somerfield, Christchurch

INTERVIEW

I interviewed a range of businesses earlier in the year; Stuart Manning Architects, the PhotoMan, and Briar Cook from Rethreads Clothing Label. I presented the information at the recent SHAC Conference in May 2012 – www.shac.org.nz . Asking the audience whether we should have a network of skills in our neighbourhood? The overwhelming answer was yes.

I ask Briar Cook from Rethreads, What is it like working from home? Briar Responds, “People are beginning to know I’m here. It’s just easier as time goes on.” facebook.com/rethreadsnz

OVERWHELMED

Since the earthquake I have been overwhelmed by trust. Attending an art exhibition from a home two houses down from me. I went inside.

A displaced Gallery now selling artwork from their home, open to the public. Let’s support art from innovative spaces, let’s support emerging artists. Another link: facebook.com/artexplore I was wowed by the fact ‘High St Galleries’ were in my backyard – a gallery two doors down. And the trust this family had to let strangers through their house to view art. Viewing art amongst the kitchen and lounge – in its true state of place perhaps. This innovative space, people drinking wine and eating cheese like a fine art gallery, though in a home -these elements trans-placed to the home.

How do we harness this trust?

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Dear New Zealand: This is on you too.

Dear Rest of New Zealand, our caring family, friends, school mates, colleagues, and lost loves.  Those of you who experience Christchurch through the newspapers and the TVs.

It is now two years since the strangeness descended on Christchurch.   The first shake that set of the rolling maul of mixed emotions that continues now: senses of luck, despair, abandonment, love, hope, hopelessness, excitement, of people lost and communities gained.

Remember in hours and days after the February earthquake, staring at the television, with tears streaming down your eyes feeling powerless in the face of such violence and randomness.

Remember in the days and weeks after February trying to keep in touch with friends, loved ones, and old acquaintances. Not really knowing how to help, but offering none the less.

Remember in the weeks and months, when your focus returned to your own lives, to your own financial crisis, and your own family tragedies.   The events became something remembered in anniversaries and progressed measured through small items on the news.

The rubble maybe slowly disappearing into deep holes, but believe us when we say the city is still on fire. There are thousands of individual battles occurring across the city, it’s a massive slow moving urban bush fire that’s been raging now for 2 years. It’s hard to see the form of the future when you are fighting for your own house, securing your own city.

Whule your tears may have dried, people here are still crying, and these tears aren’t enough to put out the fires raging in our lives.   People are tired, tired from two years of stress and fighting fires.  Grey is the new colour of Christchurch, and it isn’t the sky and empty building sites.  Those photos you see of elderly people getting angry at insurance companies haven’t even had their mid-life crisis yet.

The urban surgeons and political gamblers can see a new city.  It’s not even an act of imagination for them, it’s so real it’s almost tangible.   They have such confidence in the strength of it’s vision, it’s power, its uniqueness. IT’S INNOVATIVE.  It’s best practice.   It’ll be cutting edge. It’s going to be an ICONIC CITY MOVING FORWARD.   It’s so new and exciting it can’t really be explained in language we understand.   We say “great, but who is paying for it?”  They say “Oh, you are of course, but we can’t tell you how much it will cost.”

It’s the paternal nature of the political approach that is so unsettling, experts telling  us how we want to live in our own city.    We have become so marginalized in our own city that the idea that we might have something constructive to add is considered radical.  Everything is backwards, upside down.  We fear that by the time we work it all out we will be living in someone else’s city.

It’s like ignoring the quiet terror of domestic violence. The victim is too tired to complain, too exhausted to think that there might be another type of relationship. The violence is not so much to the body as to the imagination.   The abuser is drunk on power, forcing her to sell of her grandmother’s jewellery to pay for his grandiose visions.  “But you said you like nice things” he whispers at night.

Or perhaps its the patient and the expert doctor about to undertake another round of emergency operations, they’ve almost lost her so many times, and now her family has to keep working so aren’t there to support her.  She was sick before the accident, so the doctors have decided to try some new techniques.   Trust us the doctor says we are the experts, we are doing everything to get you back to health.  She feels tired, exhausted.  The endless pain killers and aesthetic are effecting her memory, she sometimes forgets what life was like before the accident. Sometimes she gets confused and angry, “What are you doing to my body?” The doctors don’t like seeing their patients get up set, so they’ve largely stopped explaining the complex operations they are doing to her, instead politely returning questions with questions “You want to walk again don’t you?”

What’s this all about you say?  Stop talking in metaphors!  It’s hard because we are still in the fog of war, buildings demolished, news announcements made, plans launched. It’s all a confusing blur.    But there are a few simple and startling truths to start with.

We don’t actually know who is governing us.  Think about what that means.  The Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction act means we don’t know who has authority over the big decisions in our lives.  The Christchurch City Council seems bewildered by situation, CERA tries to be friendly but is secretive to its core.

The government is in the process of the biggest government buy out of private land in our small nations history.  They claim it is voluntary but it is founded on the thuggish threat that if you don’t sell the government will cut off your power and water, and you won’t be able to insure your house.

The recent government blue print was created with no input from citizens of the city.   Doctors aren’t allowed to do this our bodies, teachers aren’t allowed to do this to our children, so why is this process (which despite their claims goes against contemporary international best practice) allowed in our city?

The government, with our tacit permission, is failing those that we owe most to, our elderly.  It is humiliating and shameful that our elders, our kuia and kaumatua are been left alone to deal with the violent bureaucracy of EQC, insurance companies, and CERA.    If society is measured by how it treats its young and elderly, then we are failing.  It is well known the elderly are strong and resolute in crisis, they understand what it means to put others ahead of themselves, to sacrifice.  But it is also well known that this sacrifice is often too much for an aged body to bear, and it is often the case that many die quickly after the initial strength and resilience.   Plans for the future are nice to things to have, but we shouldn’t forget the reality around us, even if it is hidden behind closed doors.

But this isn’t just about us.  If other ways aren’t articulated, aren’t argued for clear and loud, then this process becomes normal, inevitable.  Then politics has won over people, and your city will be next.   Even now the extraordinary legislation being used in Christchurch that enables cabinet to make executive decisions without the normal checks and balances such as the Resource Management Act has been used as a precedent in the War Memorial Project in Wellington.  Watchout New Zealand, the NZ cabinet urban design team is coming to a city near you!

The stresses of our lives, the focus on holding our own ground in difficult times is making us forget our collective powers.  We only have what we have because at various points in the past others have stood up for our rights, our rights as citizens, as parents, as children, as Maori, as women, as disabled, and even just our right to be human.

Right now there are many groups in New Zealand really fundamentally struggling to live a just life:  the young and poor, the forgotten elderly, and many many burnout and tired people in Christchurch.

Come for a visit, have a walk around and think about what your home town would look like if this happened to you, and think about how others would be able to help you. German Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote a famous poem in the late 30s.

 

First they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

 

Dear New Zealand,

This is on you too.

 

Yours,

The Freerange Team in Christchurch.

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Heartbreak, despair and life lessons in earthquake town: Discovering we don’t actually have absolute rights to ‘our’ land and homes.

In 1942 my grandparents Elsie and Jack Locke moved to Christchurch with their young son Don, and bought a run down workers cottage. This was 392 Oxford Terrace, on the banks of the Avon River, in a community that came to be known as the Avon Loop. At first they were unimpressed with what must have been a damp, dark and small four-roomed house, until they looked back at the river from what was to become Elsie’s study. The river and its banks held much promise; so there they stayed and had three more children. The youngest was my mother who was born in the cottage itself, a rarity in the early 1950’s.

Years later, in the 1980’s my mother settled with my Dad to have us three kids further down stream towards the ocean. We made weekly trips back and forth between that home and the Avon Loop. Ten doors down on Oxford Terrace lives my Dad’s mother, our Grannie, Janet. We spent years along this stretch of the river with our cousins, popping in and out of the cottages, running along the riverbank, swinging in the branches of the willow trees, and revelling in the nurturing attention of our grandparents and the Avon Loop community at gatherings and festivals on the riverbank.

In recent years the Avon Loop has consisted of approximately eighty houses and numerous units in council flats. It has had a long-standing history of strong community resilience. The area started out as neighbourhood of workers houses in the late 1800’s, and became an area for young families in the 1940’s, when my family’s connection to the place began. In the mid 1970’s, a hotel in the Loop threatened to take over much of the community in its proposed expansion, prompting a coordinated community resistance. This heralded the birth of the Avon Loop Protection Association, now known as the Avon Loop Planning Association (ALPA). ALPA won, ensuring that all future developments needed to consult with the community. Furthermore, ALPA created a strong bond between all the residents, young and old, who shared the common aspiration of a connected and responsive community, where all voices and opinions could be heard. A place for the people who took care of the location that supported them, the river itself. ALPA settled into its role as the kaitiaki, the guardians of the river. My grandparents started a recycling scheme, planted the riverbank with natives and instigated the creation of a community cottage and children’s playgroup with ALPA.

However, since September the 4th 2010, anyone connected to Christchurch has had their lives changed forever. Due to two devastating earthquakes and all the smaller ones in between huge parts of Christchurch have been damaged beyond repair. The Avon Loop community was badly damaged, and this time the people have had no power or control over the fate of the community. No means to take part in the subsequent decisions made by the Government regarding the ongoing occupation of the Loop or what will become of the area in the future.

Nearly two years on from that cool spring morning in September 2010, I am sharing my story of the change and loss my family has suffered and continues experience as a result of the earthquakes. The home us kids grew up in out in the suburb of Burwood, a mudbrick house built by family, has crumbled and must be rebuilt. And we are also in the process of losing our family home, our cottage in the Loop, to land zoning and bureaucracy.

The undamaged cottage in which my parents currently live, is a beautifully built house, completed just after the February 2011 earthquake, using the materials from the original cottage that stood on the same site at 392 Oxford Terrace. The new cottage looks the same as the old one from the riverbank, and looks out onto the broken and dying magnolia trees my grandparent’s ashes are buried under. It is nestled among many others, half fallen down, demolished or abandoned. The cottage survived the earthquakes in one piece brilliantly, however the Loop has been red zoned as the riverbank is badly damaged and the land the houses sit on has sunk. The Government is unwilling to fix the riverbank, and insurance companies will no longer cover individual residences because of the new flood risk to the houses. This means all the houses will eventually have to go, whether the houses themselves are sound or not. Our parents have to leave their undamaged, year old home, as does our 92 year old Grannie who lives around the corner. She was on track to live out her days in her home with the support of my parents, however she will now be shifted to a retirement home.

At night there aren’t many lights on, a few here and there in between patches of darkness. It really does feel like coping with imminent death, as more and more households leave the Loop, finding new strong houses and communities elsewhere. This community in which I grew up in with my family, is in the process of dying. Gone are the dreams of living in a supportive, vibrant and happy community, within walking and biking distance of the city centre, living by the river and enjoying family so nearby.  Coping with this situation is very difficult, every day is different. Some days I am angry, others peaceful and accepting. It is an unknown, and no doubt long process we are all moving through together. I am still in shock and disbelief at it all, and sometimes I wonder when I will move on to the ‘next stage of grief’, to get closer to acceptance and healing. I don’t know how these things work, I’ve never felt grief like this before.

There is nothing we can do, lest we pump all of our money into a court battle with the Government we would inevitably lose. Since the second, most damaging and deadly February earthquake, the National Government established an authoritarian department called the ‘Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority’, CERA. It is headed by MP Gerry Brownlee, and has effectively taken over the Christchurch City Council’s ability to lead the city’s direction in the future. CERA has a mammoth task co-ordinating a city wide replan, rebuild and repair job, and makes it harder for itself by shutting out affected residents. They are excluding residents and alI the ideas, opinions and experience they have to offer, as well as many professional experts in areas such as design and architecture. Why they have made it impossible for public input is questionable, and as they rarely release any information, technical or otherwise we are left to feel shut out, shut down, disregarded, suspicious and disempowered.

Our family has been learning the hard way that we do not really own land and houses, just the rights to them. The Crown virtually owns New Zealand, which I argue was mostly stolen from Maori. Anyhow, the Crown, enabled by the Government can forcibly remove the rights you have to your land in such events as these. We could think of ourselves as lucky as they are buying out the entire Avon Loop along with many insurance companies, so we do not leave empty handed, if not very short changed, but I cannot consider us lucky. In fact I am fearful. I am scared that as we come back to the Loop less and less, our memories will fade. Each day I have spent there, and spend there now, walking around the riverbank and cottages, I see places that remind me of my grand parents and other memories with family. The community causes me to think daily of my connection to the land and the people on it. I am worried about what will happen when we don’t have this land. I am deeply saddened and frustrated that my daughter will not visit the Loop very often, and will have much less physical reminders of her family roots. She will not remember the time that we were here at all, as she is just two years old. I have taken all of this for granted my whole life, and now I see that not many people have grown up with such a home base.

What is certain is that next April 2013, our family will move out of the Loop, but what will become of the undamaged cottage remains to be seen. Will the Christchurch City Council be convinced to buy it as a park visitor centre? Can it be shifted to another location, or will it be deconstructed within two years of being built, reduced again to a pile of wood as the original cottage was only three years ago.

I currently feel very angry and deeply sad about our predicament, however I know that we will find a new family base somewhere when the time is right. I also know that I will be stronger for this experience, once the wounds begin to heal, and that there are many life lessons we are in the process of learning. I am not sure what they are exactly yet as I feel we are still in the midst of it all. But one thing that is for certain, which comforts me to no end, is that Nana and Grandad will forever remain in the earth on the riverbank, and for this reason alone we are forever bound to the Avon Loop, whatever may come of it in the future. It is sure that machinery will eventually dig up their resting places in order to restore the fragile, collapsed riverbank, or turn it all into a park. However, we will always return to be with our parents and grandparents, with Elsie and Jack Locke, no matter what the uncertain future holds for the river, its banks and the land the houses once stood on in the Loop. They are in the earth and a part of me, therefore I am in the earth and it is me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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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.

 

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Ducks (and Architecture) in Christchurch

It closes soon but I encourage anyone with interesting ideas and the time to enter.

It is a peculiar brief that demands some radical creativity to transcend it.    Three of the five goals of the brief are about the promotion of: architecture, architects, the local branch, and the New Zealand Institutes of Architects.  One is for it to be relocatable, and the last for it to be usable by other groups.  Incongruously, the brief asks that the project provide weatherproof and secure space for exhibitions, and that the exhibitions be able to be viewed by the public after hours and without anyone resident.  This is a great design challenge.

In light of the enormously generous projects that have popped up around Christchurch that provide physical and cultural amenity for the city such as neighbourhood water fountains, dance spaces, free cinemas, petanque courts and a new cross-city mini golf course, it seems extraordinary that the primary goal of this building is to promote architecture and NZIA.   We might as well install a giant sign saying THIS IS ARCHITECTURE.

Although, perhaps this is an enlightened challenge to the architects and designers of our times. What is architecture about architecture? Is this possible? Is it is an oxymoron?  What is the function of a building that primary purpose is to promote architecture?

We all know that this city is in desperate need of good architecture, and to develop a culture that promotes and understands the role that design can play in making this an even more beautiful and liveable city.    But I’m not sure if we need architecture that is about architecture.   It reaks of the eighties.    One of the great post-modern texts on architecture called Learning From Las Vegas says there are two types of building.  The first, Decorated Sheds are generic buildings with expensive and expressive signage that communicate its function; think service stations, the warehouse, and even the new gallery in Christchurch. The later is The Duck, which raises the symbolism of what it is to the architecture, at its most literal a duck is building that sells ducks, a giant hot dog that sells hot dogs, a building with a steeple that reaches to the sky is obviously a church, you get the idea.

Should the pavilion be a duck or a decorated shed?  Well to answer that we need to understand its function. What is this building for?  To promote architecture with exhibitions about architecture by architects.  Its all spirals into self-referentiality;  I can’t help but think the first exhibition will just have pictures of the building inside it, will those pictures have little pictures of the pictures that are in the building in the pictures?

Perhaps we should just build a giant duck that acts as a building, and it can sell little bath-sized-duck-buildings.  This surely is what the brief is asking for, this giant duck will once and for all convince the public on the need for good quality architecture.

Has the NZIA  demonstrated an extraordinary inability to connect with reality. Look at all the suffering, people living in garages, extraordinary high flu rates, destroyed heritage buildings, angry red zoned people, a council that has lost its democratic powers, a broke and broken university, a bully with dictatorship powers ruling the city, inefficient and non-communicating layers of government control; eqc, sera, council, and the strange sense that its the Insurance Companies with their $20 billion mountain of cash that is making the calls in this process.  All this and the architects of the country think the most important way to spend $30,000 is to design architecture about architecture.  Its like the organisation that represents architects like to think that architecture isn’t political.

Now, I would enter this competition. You think I’d be the sort of person they’d want to enter this competition.  I’ve been involved in the design and fabrication of complex contemporary pavilions in both Melbourne and Sydney, won design awards in NZ, Australia, and Europe,  worked on the design of temporary builds for the Rio Olympics, and now I’m doing a PHD looking at the emergence of temporary architecture in post-earthquake Christchurch.  But the rules of this competition state you either need to be a member of the local branch of the NZIA or team up with one.  So not only is it an architecture about architecture by the institute of architecture; only people associated with the institute of architecture can enter the competition.  Which is funny given how few of the amazing projects that have arisen since the earthquakes have any architects involved with them.

This is either a remarkably self-serving display by the NZIA, or a move of critical genius designed to facilitate much needed discussion about the role of architecture in the rebuild.  The latter seems unlikely, but then the former is too depressing to contemplate. I don’t know what to believe.

The only thing I have any confidence is that we can, on occasions, do brilliant design, and that there will be some people much less cynical than me who will push their way through this peculiar brief and propose a building that contributes meaningfully to what is happening to Christchurch at the moment.

I also have confidence that the judges will know what this is when they see it.

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Žižek on toilets and the Christchurch rebuild

A few years back, I was wandering through an art gallery and came upon a room with a video projected on a large white wall. The video was short, only a few minutes long, and since it repeated on a loop, I watched it several times. The video was of a speech given by a wild-eyed man with a shaggy beard who I later learned was the modern philosopher Slavoj Žižek who has since become an intellectual hero for members of the Occupy movement.

In the video, Žižek talks about the connection between objects and ideology using, as examples, the different types of toilets he encountered while traveling through Europe. He reflects on three types: the French, the German and the British toilet. For the uninitiated, I shall briefly describe each. In France, the toilet is designed with the hole at the back of the bowl so the waste falls immediately into water and can disappear unseen and unacknowledged by its maker. The German model is the exact opposite. The Germans place the hole in the front of the bowl with a raised shelf behind. When you use the toilet, the waste collects on the dry shelf below you, affording the opportunity to inspect it for disease before you flush it off the shelf and into the hole in the front. The English design is a compromise that places the hole in the center of the bowl with a larger amount of water. This lets the user decide whether they wish to confront their waste or not.

Noticing these things, Žižek wanted to know how these different designs had come about. Architect friends supplied him with technical books on the subject and he describes how each designer tries to prove their design is the best in a purely functional sense. Since they are all ultimately variations on a theme, Žižek says this argumentation merely reflects the cultural ideology behind the features of each design. While there may be technical arguments for one design feature or another, the best combination is ultimately a matter of cultural taste. To those who would argue we live in a post-ideological world, Žižek says you only need to go to the toilet to find you are literally sitting on ideology, so to speak.

While it may seem ridiculous (and perhaps a bit gross) to spend too much time pondering toilet design, I find his argument compelling on a number of levels. Every man-made object is, in varying proportions, both utilitarian and symbolic. We have items that are almost entirely symbolic which, like a king’s scepter, have almost no utilitarian purpose whatsoever. At the other extreme are things like the humble toilet, which are so banal and commonplace that we can forget they carry any symbolic baggage at all. The toilet is an especially extreme example since the act of using the toilet is considered by most cultures to be a vulgar necessity, to be done in private and not to be discussed, further negating any potential symbolic value. A designer wanting to make their mark on the world is not likely to choose the toilet as their medium. But there it is: holes in different places, shelves, different water flows, and we haven’t even left Europe.

These small differences can have lasting social impacts. To this day, most German men urinate sitting down, precisely because any attempt to pee directly on the German shelf from a height results in urine being splashed all over the room. Although the German-style toilet is disappearing (perhaps understandably) from German homes and public places, the culture of seated urination for men is alive and well. Foreign men living in the country for any length of time are likely to encounter signs urging them to sit down and it is not uncommon for a German host to ask for this directly, even if they have an English-style bowl. It makes me wonder how many habits I carry around from objects now gone or completely different from their antecedents (the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing on comes to mind).

To point out that objects carry cultural and ideological values with them is perhaps to state the obvious. But I think that objects and buildings have the potential to develop multiple layers of ideology that can, with time, eventually build up like geologic strata.

Take the example of an apartment building. There is the original mix of utility and symbolism infused by the designer and the builder of the time (and likely the funder as well). On top of this, users of the building add their decorative flair and periodic renovations from new owners leave architectural time stamps in the form of a 19th century banister here, 70s carpet there, and modern windows that open in and out in every direction imaginable.

Historical events and movements add a layer as well. I have been living in Berlin for the past year and the city is full of apartment buildings with abrupt endings and odd gaps, likely the result of Allied bombs. The plain architecture of the new buildings erected in these gaps show the urgent need for housing at the time, communist leanings, or both.

It is on the more meta-scale of the building scape where these ideological features are most pronounced. In addition to the scars of war, many of Berlin’s surviving buildings have blank spots where swastikas once were (or the hammer and sickle for that matter). These added layers of historical symbolism reveal the past struggles of identity and belief and reflect them back on the current users. The rebuilding of Berlin since the war and after the fall of the wall forced Berliners to reflect upon who they were and what they believed. It has also played a strong role in creating the feeling of possibility and reinvention that is a hallmark of the town.

Berlin is perhaps the most extreme example, but I think a similar struggle for identity is underway in Christchurch at the moment. In a city where people still care about which of the four original ships their ancestors came on, the brick buildings lost in the earthquakes are not only a matter of heritage but are also symbols to Cantabrians of how they have traditionally seen themselves—the most English of English-New Zealanders.

English is what most Pakeha have considered themselves, with people as recently as the 1950s still referring to Kiwis traveling to Britain as “visiting home”. New Zealanders only really began to define themselves as a separate national identity after WWII and were forced to confront this issue through a series of events: the loss of colonial trade links in the late 60s and early 70s, the rising legal recognition of the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Springbok tour in the 80s, and the continuation of anti-nuclear policies to the present day.

Discussions about New Zealand identity are few and far between these days and tend to be mixed in with racial issues (the “kiwi, not iwi” National slogan and Paul Henry’s breakfast show comments come to mind). The Christchurch rebuild therefore provides an important opportunity not only for current Cantabrians to consider what mark they want to leave on their town, but also for all New Zealanders to envision themselves more broadly in terms of bricks and mortar (or rather wood and steel, considering the circumstances).

It is interesting that these changes are happening in one of New Zealand’s more conservative cities. This is likely to mean that innovative designs, if they are to be accepted, will need to have both a vision for the future, and a connection with the past. I hope New Zealand’s design community is successful in this regard and is able to shape something positive out of what has been one of New Zealand’s most traumatic natural disasters. It certainly won’t be easy.

I wonder what sort of public toilets they will have.

 

Picture of a German toilet.

 

Picture of a please sit down sign.

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Dear Gerry and Roger pt I

[This is an open letter sent to The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction, Gerry Brownlee, and the Cera CEO, Roger Sutton]

Dear Gerry and Roger,

Re: Red Zone Decisions.

I am writing to express deep concerns about critical aspects of decision-making in Christchurch since the September 2010 earthquake. There are two areas in which your governance is failing. They are both difficult, but history and international precedent tell us they are critical to good governance. The two areas are transparency and vision.

Transparency is critical to the healthy functioning of democracy; it enables people to see why decisions are being made. In one of the most successful and well governed cities in the world, Vancouver, all council and planning meetings are held in public, filmed and archived. Deals between land-owners, councils, and governments are made in public, and are subsequently made in favour of public good.

I accept that decisions like red-zoning properties are not taken lightly, and that the motivation to protect residents in these areas is a noble one.  I also appreciate the incredible amount of detailed engineering expertise that is constantly contributing to our understanding of this very complex situation.

The people who work at Cera are, in my experience, very hard working and act with the utmost care and respect. I can only imagine the emotional toll it must take to announce night after night to communities that their homes and neighbourhoods are going to be destroyed.

This is, however a political issue, and the processes which have been created to work through these issues are, in my opinion, deeply troubling. There are much more complex and difficult situations in developing countries where the informal residents, who don’t own land, are accorded more respect and greater legal rights than the residents in the Christchurch’s red zones at the moment.

In its decisions to remove entire neighborhoods, the government has followed a course that has involved no real public or community engagement. Information is not shared with communities until a final decision has been made. For some residents, this vast chasm in communication has extended over a year now.

The decision to red-zone land is a complex one that necessarily draws on knowledge about geotechnical information, land use, property prices, and re-insurability. While there is undeniably a technical aspect to this work, the complete absence of community engagement in the decision-making process is paternal in nature and suggests a deep fear of or disrespect for the citizens who live in these places.

While it is obvious that there are complicated issues surrounding the liability of EQC and private insurers, the government should not permit this complexity to obscure the accountability of its own processes. Indeed, this complexity should encourage transparency of process. The “offer” to buy out houses cannot be presented as such if its refusal entails the withdrawal of both services and insurance. What is really on offer here is a forced removal from the land. The government knows well that the latter would call for  consultation, transparency, and for rights, such as the option of first refusal (if the land is resold at a future date) to be extended to residents. In its present terms, the government is offering a Claytons choice that illustrates cowardice in the face of the incredible bravery shown by the people here in Christchurch over the past 18 months.

We ask that you start to engage with residents before decisions are made. Tell them what is going on. They have lived through the past 18 months, why is there a need to keep information secret from the public? This invites rumours and gossip. There are two types of information at play here; that which is not of the government’s making: the land condition, the engineering reports, people’s insurance contracts etc. We understand that the current government is not to blame for the immense difficulties with these issues. Then there is another type of information which the government is responsible for: the communication, the decisions since the earthquake, the amount of money currently at stake. Acknowledge that people are mature enough to make the distinction between these. Let the sunlight in.

Please consider extending the offer on red-zone land. Five years seems a more appropriate timeframe. If you want to leave now then great take the offer, start afresh in a new house. If however the residents want to know what is happening to the area, if they think there might be a review process, if they are worried their land is going to be a park or a condo, then give people 4 or 5 years to work this out. There is a housing shortage in the city. Why force people out of perfectly good houses for no immediate reason? Time and some sense of stability are the fresh air that people need in Christchurch right now. It is your job to give them this. Not to pressure them into decisions without full knowledge of their situation and in order to conform to timelines that have no apparent logic.

At the TEDx conference in May 2011 one of the speakers talked about Christchurch becoming the place that people in the rest of the world will refer to as exemplary: “let’s do what they did in Christchurch”. Coming only a few months after February, this was a generous comment that recognized the city’s potential to pave a way for others.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing us in this vision. Your relationship with the community is paternal rather than constructive, your timelines are slow and opaque, and your power structures are vague and unarticulated. The unseemly haste to demolish the heritage of the city is at odds with the long political delays in decision making in the red zones, planning, and other areas. The people of Christchurch understand the need to make decisions based on economics and supply of capital. You need to understand that while the heritage of the city does not have a direct financial value, it does have an immense social and cultural worth. It is the government’s role to protect this worth, not expedite its destruction with false excuses of haste and cost.   There are dozens of examples both residential and urban, such as the Avon loop neighbourhood and the Anglican cathedral respectably, where there is no need to make decisions yet, time can be used in our favour.

Slow decision-making is fine and often better if the decisions are careful and people are made aware of the processes and information as to why it is taking time and what may happen. The ponderous decision-making currently emerging from Cera is unacceptable because critical decisions, like housing support for those still homeless one year after the event, are late and ineffective. The country continues to embrace the idea that no one should be left ruined or damaged by the events of the past 18 months. The hundreds of families living in cold garages, the elderly living in housing unfit for humans, the people who are soon to be forced out of perfectly good houses, and the lack of appeal or review process all illustrate your lack of ability, or will, to accomplish this.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing to give people a vision for the future, and by doing so you are extending their suffering and sense of powerlessness.  You made the peculiar decision to separate the planning of the CBD from the rest of the city, asking the City Council to create a plan for this central area, but not the rest of the city/  Through the dark times of last year they created a remarkable process and a visionary plan, that was not without problems, but that did give vision to peoples voices and much needed hope to this city.   You then sat on this plan for endless months, only to finally accept to the vision but reject the process, as if the ends can be separated from the means to achieve it.  Once again transparency was removed and powerful decisions were made behind closed doors with out any sense of logic or honest agenda.  They appointment of professional teams to work on the city offers some hope, but again there is no communication about how they were appointed, what they are doing, how they hope to achieve it, and by what criteria their success will be judged.

Soon after the February 22nd quake extraordinary legislation was passed that gave you power to do what was needed to assure that people were protected in this city. At the time, many legal experts were worried at the scope and breadth of these powers. Dean Knight of Victoria University expressed concern that the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, “gives ministers vast and untrammelled power to change laws in the name of earthquake recovery – without adequate checks and balances and that this legislation violates basic principles within our constitution and upsets our democratic infrastructure.” His concerns were echoed by others in the legal community. These are concerns which still need to be voiced.

In an abstracted sense the earthquake legislation was concerning and dangerous, but we held our noses and let the extraordinary legislation pass as a response to the extraordinary times in Christchurch. Now, 12 months later, the practical impact of poorly considered legislation is playing out in Canterbury. The last remaining traces of democracy are being folded into Cera’s reach, as if the problems and delays were being caused by a lack of centralized power. Gerry and Roger, you of all people must understand that with power comes responsibility. You cannot demotivate, disempower, and demolish communities without taking on the responsibility to care for these people. Saying that “there is no problem” or that “the market will sort it out” or that we “are being hysterical’ or that you “can’t do anything about it” is simply an abdication of your power. The best that can be said of the Cera legislation is that is sets the conditions for a benevolent dictatorship. The key part of this contract between the government and the people of NZ is a benevolence that is lacking with frequent references the people must continue to suffer until the market responds to their needs.

Gerry and Roger, you have remarkable power in your hands. Please show some humility and change this short-sighted, opaque and ill-timed decision-making. Please engage with the people of Christchurch. If you are not capable of reflection and change, and if you are not capable of articulating, or even enabling a vision for this city, then perhaps it is time to open up space for those who can.

Yours Sincerely

Barnaby Bennett

 

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