Christchurch, 2020 – Would we want to live there?

The one question so many people in Christchurch are asking is “Should I stay or should I go?” The motivation to stay – for those with the ability to leave – will depend on whether or not there is a quick emergence of a sense that there is a Christchurch worth staying for.

As more and more people make their incremental decisions about the future the range of opportunities to recreate our city diminishes day by day. If the push to rebuild as soon as possible, especially to re-establish a commercial CBD, creates a ‘reality on the ground’ within a matter of weeks or months then that range of opportunities becomes vanishingly small.

The following is my suggestion for a view of Christchurch in the future to which we can all commit, so that we can answer ‘yes’, here is something I can work towards, here is something I value, here is a city in which I would like my children to grow up and then inherit. Of course, I’m not saying my suggestion is, or should be, the answer but something like it, something that is discussed widely needs to be voiced and talked about in homes, streets and workplaces. It needs to happen there rather than in Ministries and corporate Head Offices. This is our city, our future.

So, what do I propose?

One principle to start the thinking is the notion of “putting the big rocks in place first”. For a city, public and semi-public institutions – courts, council buildings, art galleries, museums, cathedrals – are the ‘rocks’. The private sector can then generate ‘organic’ development around and over these ‘rocks’, filling the crevices, draping their edges with its small businesses and quirky opportunism.

There’s one ‘rock’, however, that is missing from the mix, and it’s the one that brings its own distinctive population – a university. With all the fine hopes for a central city that is based around cafes and cultural pursuits the one problem is the lack of a 24/7 population to sustain it, once much of the larger commercial and business activity departs (with its employees).

Simply, my proposal would be to shift large sections of the University of Canterbury to the current central city site. In effect, the University campus would materially and socially link the west and east of Hagley Park, creating two ‘centres’ to the city.

If the humanities, social sciences, fine arts, music departments and the Law School were re-sited in the central city they would bring with them a core population of students and, potentially, staff who could sustain inner city retail and hospitality businesses. It would also provide a cultural, artistic and intellectual ‘critical mass’ that would complement the tourism appeal of remaining heritage buildings, the Avon, etc..

To the west would remain, for example, engineering, forestry, commerce and the sciences and those disciplinary areas that most readily can link to industry and commerce. In essence, the west becomes a coherent ‘innovation’ and commercial heart to match the cultural heart to the east. Vacant buildings at the Ilam site of the University of Canterbury could be used to accommodate ‘partnerships’ between industry and academia.

The two ‘hearts’, or centres, would be linked by high frequency, free bus shuttles (or maybe even extended tramlines) available for students, tourists and the general public.

But there’s another sense in which these ‘hearts’ would not be isolated from each other. The ‘transition’ suburbs arching to the north (Merivale, Papanui) and south (Addington, Sydenham) of Hagley Park would be places of residential and small retail and small industrial intensification – a process already well established. People wishing to take advantage of either heart (or both) would be an impetus for inner city living as these areas themselves become part of a broader sense of the ‘central city’.

The eastern city heart or hub (arts, culture, ‘café life’, the legal professions) would anchor the city to the east and ensure that the eastern suburbs are not cut adrift from Christchurch’s future. The suggestions that involve the entire city shifting inevitably westward risk creating an even more marginalized ‘east’ that would be left to slowly – and painfully – wither. Using the eastern hub as an anchor would mean that public transport arteries could be developed out to the remaining residential areas that can still be viable in the east and out to the estuary and beyond along with the cycleways and walkways that have been suggested by others.

The rebuilt ‘cultural’ city centre could be a showcase of environmentally aware and human-scale design both in terms of buildings and inner city landscapes. The much longed for vibrant ‘urban village’ could become a reality given the economic viability provided by a University campus woven into the design.

So far as I can see, this option provides for and acknowledges the long-standing tensions that have been the reality for Christchurch (and for most cities) between the commercial/industrial imperatives and the cultural, artistic, environmental and humanistic imperatives. If large office buildings are needed for commercial operations then these can happen on the firmer ground out west.

Perhaps the greatest symbolism would be that right at the heart of this city would be Hagley Park, a recreational hub and the one part of the founding design that has not succumbed to the earthquake. The Park is an appropriate centre around which our daily lives can revolve.

There are other factors that favour such a future. Currently, the University of Canterbury is going through a thorough examination of the structural integrity of its buildings and so there is an element of flux already underway in terms of the future form and building needs of the university. There will also be considerable pressure to re-establish tourism in Christchurch as the gateway to the South Island and that means that a ‘tourist friendly’, distinctive centre is needed – not just a plain ‘mid-western’ commercial CBD. Retail in the current central city area could distinguish itself from suburban centres, and especially from the more intense commercial atmosphere to the west of Hagley Park, by creating a pervasive, overall human-scale atmosphere that attracts people.

As I said, this is only one suggestion but what it aims for will probably need to be the aim of any viable future plan for Christchurch. It has no future in being an instrumental, featureless ‘mid-western’ town built on the cheap. If it hopes to attract people (both as tourists and in their guise as educated workers) it needs to be more than that.

More importantly though, if it hopes to be a place that locals – who right now still have deep connections with and grief for the city that has been so devastated – will still call ‘home’ it needs to be much more than that.

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2 Responses to Christchurch, 2020 – Would we want to live there?

  1. Eric Espiner says:

    This is exactly what I had in mind ! I could see resistance to moving the Ilam campus en masse but shifting the arts and associated disciplines into the city is a more attainable prospect and in my view essential to repopulating the city 24/7. If one can do that, along with the provision of a range of dwellings for all age groups, one has a critical mass for developing all we expect in a modern city.

  2. TPSA says:

    Hi Eric (and thanks for commenting!).

    Yes, I think the difficulty with many ideas comes down to where the ‘resident’ population during the week comes from. While some suggestions speak of luring city dwellers into the central city, the success of that strategy very much depends upon the significant appeal of what is provided. I tried to look at it from the other direction: What kind of a population would attract the kind of ‘amenities’ and businesses that would make the central city a distinctive and appealing part of the city.

    Looking around, the only suitable population I could see was a student population – partly because they would have to be there if that’s where the courses were held and partly because it is within the realm of public decision making to ensure that that is exactly what happens. Also, it manifests the ‘big boulder’ principle and so minimises the need for the detailed planning that can look a bit contrived, aseptic and even barren in totally planned environments.

    Once the population arrives, everything else then follows as a reaction to that ‘signal’.

    As soon I thought through having a student population in the central city, many advantages for the city looked to be likely consequences (as I noted). The problems, so far as I can see, are ‘internal’ to the university – how to manage a split campus; timetabling for students whose courses span both ‘hearts’ of the campus; what to do with ‘sunk capital’ (i.e., the vacant buildings – though I’ve never met an academic who doesn’t have grand ideas that could fill up most buildings, no matter how big!).

    Then again, I could also see some advantages for the university – room at Ilam to develop a distinctive set of ‘innovation parks’ that could link to and ‘house’ aspects of industry (that’s not my ideal for a university, frankly, but in these circumstances it is a ‘bargaining chip’!); Christchurch becoming much more a ‘university town’ and therefore the university having more ‘clout’ in the city; more options to attract the extra 5,000 (or is it more?) students the VC seems to think Christchurch could attract (indeed, the larger, split campus provides the commitment and momentum from the wider city for just such an expansion); closer links to the arts ‘community’, the council, Ngai Tahu ‘head office’ and to the government departments, etc. that remain (as a psychologist I know that the informal networks and regular contacts are what really matter – which is sad in a way, for the rest of us outside the ‘networks’!).

    Undoubtedly there are problems that I haven’t seen, but I imagine that’s the case with any option Christchurch ends up following (by default or by design).

    Thanks again for the comment!

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