Things fall apart

It’s easy to be relentlessly negative in the face of complex things. The difficult is easy to caste as the fault of incompetence, and in reality sometimes things are just really really hard.  Yet, this same thought is too often used as a mask for poor process, poor decision making, and poor consultation.  I’m going to tell two stories today, one positive, the other negative, and in my view the key hinge that makes one story hopeful and one depressing is the amount of openness there is to the processes.  We’ve had long enough in Christchurch to learn some lessons about how to do things here, and two years on from a disaster we are stupid if we don’t learn from the inevitable failures and mistakes.

Firstly, the good news. Congratulations to all the teams behind the two competitions in the Christchurch CBD: the Council and CERA lead breathe competition, and the community-led Peterborough Village competition.  The results from these competitions can be seen here and here.  It’s hard to summarise such a diversity of entries, but I can say looking across the entries it is for me the first time I’ve felt some real excitement and hope about the type of city that might emerge in the future here. We see in these entries a real willingness to learn from the planning and building mistakes of the past 5o years with project full of exciting ideas that are environmentally progressive, affordable, and liveable.   Importantly the entries are diverse and come from around the world.   Critical to the outpouring of good work in these projects is the process of competition, a tradition long practiced in Europe for public projects.   Competitions work: firstly, because information about the projects has to be made public, this creates an openness and transparency about the schemes, land use is known, budgets are known, so that both the public, and the relevant experts (and the critical overlap of both) are able to  mull over ideas, critique them, and get used to how things might change.  The second important point is that there is not just competition between firms, but competition of ideas.  Alternatives can be compared, contrasted, weighed up and considered, again by both experts (as judges) and the community.   All this constitutes a recovery of not just the built environment but a sense of participation and involvement with the people that live in these places.   I’ve been harsh on some of the retro-modernism that is been planned for the city and the lack of talent in some of the big design firms in Christchurch. But here in these competitions we see the importance and designers and their role in formulating new ideas into built form, and crystallising peoples wishes into space and form.

The light shining from these competitions could not contrast more with the dark shadows falling over the secretive government-led inner-city planning being led by the CCDU, and CERA; which is essentially planning by cabinet and treasury.   Now, this next passage is written with the pre-condition that most of the comment about CERA is based on 2nd hand reports. But when you have a secretive government agency that won’t do any public engagement then rumours is all you’ve got to work with, and its a small place, rumours tend to be accurate here.  The idea what we can’t make public conversation because they don’t want it is to fall hook line and sinker for the political management running the program.

The points being though that we have some MAJOR projects being proposed in Christchurch. It is now two years after the major event, and nine months since the launch of the large government led-blue print and essentially the public has been told nothing of these projects, and has had no input into them.    The arts precinct, the convention centre, the stadium, and the frame are huge projects in which the business cases have not been made public yet, the design process has no public involvement. The word from behind the iron curtain is that there is a huge fight happening amongst the major property owners about the retail section that will replace the container mall, with one major owner refusing to show their schemes to CERA and proceeding directly with the council, and others are breaking up promised land sharing deals.   All this while smaller land owners with schemes ready to go are being told to give up on their land. Apparently the convention centre remains unknown as to whether it makes any financial sense, and the british team designing the Avon Otakaro scheme is struggling to work in a foreign city with extraordinary time pressures and no ability for public consultation.

Over two years on now 80% of the city is flat and empty, they are still months away from re-opening the centre of the city.  Does it tell you anything that the only significant rebuilding happening so far is in the areas the government has the least to do with?   And this is from an agency that set itself up with a authoritarian mandate, and with a planning logic that was dominant in the 1950s that wildly out of kilter with global best practice today, that was aiming to get things done quickly.   I really think CERA are their own worst enemies. The fortress mentality is ruining their relationship with the people they are supposed to be working for.  The Avon Otakaro scheme is a perfect example.  What is to lose from  making a public a sketch design and getting feedback on it?  Asking the public for specific information and feedback, with a couple of public workshops and some online tools with the council and CERA and other s are getting quite good at you could easily get some really useful feedback on how people use the area, what they want, and what they like and don’t like about a scheme.  This could be done in a couple of weeks relatively cheaply, seems reasonable for a public space $100 million project.  It’s certainly normal, and would give the designers much needed feedback on their design.  I just don’t get it.

I think it’s time for the government to have a cup of tea with the people of Christchurch, and re-think the way they are running this whole thing.  I just talked to someone from CERA today who was claiming that everything they do is for the people of Christchurch.  And hence lies the problem, they should be working WITH the people of Christchurch, not FOR us.   It’s pretty simple and with the amazing online tools these days its actually quite easy to do.   Oh and more competitions!