Is the Christchurch recovery plan green enough?

Is the recovery plan green enough?

Last updated 10:00 09/02/2013
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GREEN FIRST: Lincoln University landscape architecture student Ksenia Aleksandrova's vision for a "green" inner-city is a good example of the enthusiasm many have for the new city embracing this future.

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Christchurch earthquake

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For two years Christchurch residents have dreamed they will be getting back a new, green, sustainable city. But will they? JOHN McCRONE investigates.

Mayor Bob Parker is checking out words with his staff. "Green prosperity?" Can that be the new catchphrase for Christchurch?

A big question hanging over the Government-led recovery plan for Christchurch is whether it is green enough.

Are we building in sustainability, or is it just a hasty capital re-investment scheme - the blinkered pursuit of short-term profits over long-term needs?

Many feel green values got junked somewhere between the Share an Idea public consultation exercise immediately following the February 2011 earthquake - where the people of Christchurch made sustainability a top priority - and the eventual unveiling of the various masterplans of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) and its offshoot, the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU).

Critics say that with a National government running the show, this is no surprise.

"It's been a greenwash," complains Green Party MP Eugenie Sage.

Sage says fellow Green MP Kennedy Graham drew together the best of local thinking from a series of public forums after the February quake and presented a full report, Future of Christchurch: A 21st Century Eco-City, to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. But it must have gone straight in the nearest recycling bin.

"This Government with its ideology of economic growth by resource extraction, and lack of attention to the environmental impacts, is simply disinterested in sustainability. And because they are so much in control with Cera, it is only to be expected so little has been done. It's a loss of a huge opportunity," Sage says.

Is this a fair view? National might not use the language - as Sage notes, sustainability was a favoured Labour word - yet it could be doing the right things anyway.

On the other hand, it may be doing the bare minimum. If sustainability is considered a luxury add-on, it is going to be the first thing sacrificed when compromise is needed to keep the recovery moving along.

Attitudes matter, says Sage, because with making green changes, it is really all about the broad vision.

The original masterplan thinking that followed Share an Idea threw up some very green ideas, like a proposal for a district energy scheme for the central city (see box).

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Rather than office blocks spending $500,000 on their own heating and cooling gear, they could pay a tenth of that to tap into a city-wide boiler system fired by renewable fuel sources like straw or wood chips.

So little has since been heard about the scheme that some felt it must be one of those "too green" items now dropped from official consideration. In fact, behind the scenes the feasibility studies are going well. It remains in the mix.

But Sage says while such individual projects are significant, true sustainability is about much more global changes like achieving the right urban form - doing general things like avoiding the carbon inefficiencies of suburban sprawl, enforcing strong building standards and getting the transport system sorted.

Sage says Christchurch has a proud history of being forward looking in exactly this way. For a decade, it has been working towards an Urban Development Strategy (UDS) that enshrines sustainability principles. Even Auckland is just getting started on its equivalent.

Yet now we hear Prime Minister John Key telling councils they should ditch urban limits to make housing more affordable, says Sage.

"Relaxing the city limits here would just mean further sprawl potentially all the way to Rolleston. The suburbs might be cheaper to build because the land's cheaper, but they would be more expensive to live in because of the transport and infrastructure costs."

So it is the broadbrush design that has to be got right if you want to be green. And this is where the recovery appears to lack ambition, she says.

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Parker is in the ticklish position of not wanting to criticise the Government too directly - relationships between Christchurch City Council and central government having again become strained to breaking point - but he agrees there has been a lack of focus on sustainability.

And the job of the council this year will be to push it back into the conversation, he says.

"The people of this city are well- informed about a lot of the issues that face the world today and I think in some of those areas we're probably ahead of where the Government's thinking is.

"If we simply whip up a city that is all shiny, wonderful, tidy and new, yet neglect the opportunities to incorporate the ideas and technologies of the 21st century, all we will have done is create a newer version of the same old problems that we had before."

But this is why Parker is also toying to find the right jargon, like green prosperity.

Words like sustainability can have some backing off with the image of "people in baggy shorts dancing in circles under a full moon", he admits. "But our argument is that sustainability in fact makes great business sense."

Parker sees the issues in even wider terms than Sage. He says small cities like Christchurch now compete in a global marketplace for population, capital and talent. Being a green leader could have been Christchurch's new international brand.

But first, what is actually happening and where does it fall short? It is hardly all bad, says Parker. And on some things, Cera cannot help but deliver.

He pulls out a copy of the original Share an Idea research. What shows largest on the public's wishlist is a call for green spaces. The earthquakes have wrecked so much of Christchurch that it is going to be riddled with green spaces for a long time to come, Parker says.

The central city is going to be surrounded on all sides now with the addition of the green Frame. A lot of the Avon red zone will become a river park. So open areas are not an issue.

Parker also credits Cera with sticking by most of the broad strategic policies that Christchurch City Council had in place. The UDS, for example, is not being scrapped. Instead it has proven its value because the right places for future suburbs had already been earmarked.

"The reality is that 95 per cent of the land that has been accelerated in terms of putting it on the market, was already designated through that strategy."

Another controversial policy, Variation 48 - where new building in Christchurch has to be a metre higher above sea level to counter global sea level rise and the threat of "once in 200 year" floods - was also pushed through in the aftermath of the quakes, despite the extra pressure it created to red- zone low-lying suburbs.

So there are a lot of ticks on the sustainability checklist once you start looking, says Parker. But three areas where current thinking might fall short are building standards, higher density city housing, and transport planning.

The complaint from Sage and others is that New Zealand building standards are minimal. The recovery was a chance to push through stronger local regulations, but instead there is too much reliance on education and persuasion.

"Because the codes fall so short, yes, we will get more insulation and double glazing, but that's about it. You won't get rainwater tanks, decent passive solar designs, compact energy efficient housing, all those other things," Sage says.

The council originally tried to include a new green building certification scheme in its draft central city masterplan, but this was quickly dropped when the Government took over. Now the council is relying on its Energyfirst scheme, run by the Christchurch Agency for Energy (CAfE), to encourage developers to consider efficiency when putting up new commercial buildings.

A $5000 grant is available to hire an energy consultant while a building is still at the concept stage. However Sage says this kind of "leave it to the market" approach is always going to see shortcuts, especially if developers are racing each other to be the first to open up back in the central city.

Inner-city housing is another issue which looks "undercooked", says Parker.

The stated ambition of the UDS is to increase the population living within Christchurch's four avenues from its pre-quake total of 8000 to 30,000 by 2026, but the quakes interrupted before the council could get down to creating a detailed plan of how to make this happen.

Denser urban living should be greener because people are more likely to go places on foot, they live in more compact homes, they share more infrastructure, says Parker. Walkable neighbourhoods produce a third less greenhouse gas emissions, according to international research.

But many local developers are convinced "densification" just won't fly in Christchurch. "They say no-one will want to come and live in the central city. It's a pipedream."

So the authorities need to take the lead, says Parker - build a residential strategy into the recovery plan. International-scale developers would be able to see the commercial possibilities in projects like integrating the planned new rugby stadium with several blocks of surrounding apartments.

The whole east-side of the city from Madras St to down past Fitzgerald Ave is an open opportunity, says Parker. Yet left to the market, it is unlikely anything will happen because too few investors are willing to take the risk.

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Transport could be the weakest link in the current recovery thinking.

Transport matters because New Zealand, as a long and thinly- populated country, is near the top of the world league when it comes to per capita petrol and diesel consumption.

CafE spokesman Sam Fisher says Christchurch could already be considered a relatively green city, because its energy split is 60 per cent non-renewable and 40 per cent renewable. "Most cities in the world are 80-20, so we're doing pretty well."

However, that virtuous 40 per cent figure is nearly all due to electricity use. "In the South Island, 98 per cent of the electricity is hydro generated." So transport habits, our high dependence on cars and trucks to get about, are where things would really have to change, Fisher says.

With the earthquakes having torn up the landscape, there was the opportunity to consider radical moves. But experts like Lincoln University professor emeritus of transport studies Chris Kissling and Canterbury University geography professor Simon Kingham, say the feeling is the chance is being lost in the rush to get the familiar back up and running again.

There is also a confusing overlap of plans with, for instance, the CCDU responsible for the core central city plan and Environment Canterbury leading a Canterbury Regional Land Transport Strategy.

The CCDU's "accessible city" strategy is the current focus, the draft having been launched in November and public submissions closing this month. Kissling says it means central city accessibility for cars and buses, but greener methods of travel like cycling are thin on detail and the possibility of rail has dropped right out of the picture.

Kissling says there are many things that will be an improvement. The streamlining of the four avenues to create an outer ring road, the loss of a few of the central one-way streets, the slowing of inner-city speed limits to 30km an hour and pedestrian priority at lights. Car traffic will be calmed. Yet multistorey parking has been moved back right into the centre. Under pressure from the business community, the CBD is still being treated as if it needs to follow the design principles of a suburban mall.

The big loser has been rail. Kissling says rail seems a big investment for a small city, but rising fuel prices and a growing population mean it must happen in Christchurch eventually. And now is the time to at least be reserving the land in anticipation of a future network.

The way that the earthquakes have caused Christchurch to bulge out towards Rolleston and Rangiora means there is a good case for beginning a "park and ride" commuter service on the existing mainline tracks, says Kissling. The system could use small and frequent tram-trains with just a pair of linked carriages.

Then a spur line into the heart of the city could be built from the Moorhouse Ave main station. That could be extended to create a proper city-wide streetcar network eventually, with lines up to Canterbury University and the airport, or out to New Brighton and Sumner.

"I don't care whether it is Manchester St or Colombo St, we should be reserving a corridor for a loop into the city before it all gets built back up."

The argument is that bus lanes have already begun the process of reserving road space. But Kissling says now is the time to be marking tram routes on the map. "It's going to be a lot more costly if we have to buy back the land in the future."

Canterbury University's Kingham says cycling appears to be suffering from the same lack of attention. Cera and the other authorities have promised a cyclist-friendly rebuild but there is a disturbing lack of detail in any of the transport documents released so far.

This week the city council took the initiative and identified six cycleway projects that would boost cycling but at a cost of $25 million it said might only be able to afford to do the top three.

"What frustrates me at the moment is we are repairing roads but not putting new cycling infrastructure in. It's going to be really expensive if we have to put it in retrospectively in five years."

Kissling says it is not too late. It will be another year before the rebuild really cranks up so there is still time to strengthen the green elements of the recovery plan. Yet there is the danger that immediate needs are being put ahead of long- term thinking and pretty soon the chance for bigger change will be lost entirely.

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So Christchurch is doing the basics, but not going overboard. Brownlee and Cera have stressed the precariousness of Christchurch's position, the importance of a speedy return to normal, and thus their duty to strike a pragmatic balance.

However, for Christchurch, there may be an even stronger reason to champion a green recovery.

Parker says because of its size and isolation, Christchurch faces a general long-term survival problem.

"Cities around the world of half a million population are dying because of the extraordinary attraction, especially for young people, of the megacities.

"So for small cities to actually survive, we've got to confront these demographic truths and figure out what we can offer. We have to reinvent ourselves in a way that is much more relevant to the 21st century."

Parker says for many, the identity of Christchurch is still that of a blue-collar working city sat on the margin of a huge rural hinterland. But the city has to turn itself into a destination for talent and innovation if it is to be indeed sustainable.

Parker says council planners are worried about what happens once the temporary economic boom brought on by the massive rebuild - the spending of insurance funds, the influx of workers - is over.

"In 10 years' time, where is Christchurch going to be when all that suddenly stops?"

He agrees the Government has recognised the economic side of the argument. The CCDU's blueprint for the central city rebuild has health and high-tech innovation precincts in the plan. It is looking to the future engines of growth. But greenness as Christchurch's distinctive international brand is looking like a missed opportunity, says Parker.

"It could have been what we used to differentiate ourselves, show ourselves as unique, among all the other small cities in the world."

What does he mean?

Parker says a bold Christchurch would be getting the sustainability basics right and also embracing the really eye-catching. Some great ideas have been put forward and the city should be seizing them.

"One of the wonderful proposals that came up in Share an Idea was for aerial walkways and green parks on the tops of buildings." With the rebuilding of the central city being restricted to a common height, the roofs of shops and offices could have been turned into a new kind of connected public space.

Parker says another "wild" suggestion is to develop the Avon River Park as an edible forest. The existing fruit and nut trees in the backyards of now red-zoned properties could be expanded with planting and community gardens to make a "help yourself" public orchard.

Parker says the conservative side of Christchurch will see such ideas as impractical, frankly even ridiculous. Yet they would quickly capture the imagination of the world in a way that a new convention centre or covered rugby stadium simply won't.

The sheer extent of the earthquake devastation makes just about anything possible. And perhaps the Government is underestimating how much urban resilience, a really smart approach to sustainable design, means to a city of people who have been through such an experience, Parker suggests.

"What we learnt is so much of what we were worried about, didn't actually count for much when the big quake came. So let's be prepared to rethink it all."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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