'The Great Wall of Christchurch' is dividing east from west

Urban designer Garth Falconer in front of what he calls the "Great Wall of Christchurch" dividing east and west.
Iain McGregor

Urban designer Garth Falconer in front of what he calls the "Great Wall of Christchurch" dividing east and west.

OPINION: Dropping into central Christchurch after a few years was like being dropped into a peculiar sort of war zone. 

There is a Waterloo type of battle going on, with different forces in separate theatres fighting away, along with legions of road cones and mesh fences politely shepherding civilians and amidst it all there is this quaint little tram running around.

What's the fight about? Apparently the war is being waged to assert a strong city centre against the forces of spread and fragmentation. The clashes continue between mobility, retailing, economics, entertainment, accommodation, cultural and civic needs, and also involves a contingent of planning theory.

The Vodafone building, part of innovation precinct on Tuam St near the top end of High St, has moved ahead, unlike some  ...
STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX

The Vodafone building, part of innovation precinct on Tuam St near the top end of High St, has moved ahead, unlike some other precincts.

It's not an easy fight.  Christchurch is geographically the least constrained of all our cities, with its poached egg form lapping up onto the sides of the Port Hills and spilling out across the plains. Currently there appear to be several poached eggs and they're runny,  spreading further across the frying pan, not yet scrambled.

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Shops on High St that will be restored.
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Shops on High St that will be restored.

In an effort to marshal all the forces to give gravity to the centre, the all important Blueprint was produced in only 100 days by a small part of the planning contingent some five years ago. 

In designing such a plan – like any design effort – it's all about seeking an objective, starting from some concrete spot and pushing out into the unknown. And usually the bigger the objective, the more resourceful and adaptive the design needs to be to get there.

However the end objective with central Christchurch was never a clearly defined picture – it was more about warm, fuzzy principles: being accessible, vibrant, green, mixed use etc. The Blueprint plotted out a series of stages and tried to create certainty for the politicians and financiers using solid-sounding concepts like "anchors" and "precincts". 

The increasingly voiced concern is that this rushed effort has been doggedly held to ever since despite the fact that more than 1500 days later, the world is very different than it was back in 2012.

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We should admit that places where you try and design everything at once from one fixed point usually end up like a theme park – contrived and lifeless. Like planning to establish a forest,  you can plant some trees but you need to leave room for some chaos, chance and self initiative to take place. Urban ecology is similar – you need to provide for nurturing conditions and accept that it's going to take some time and there will be adaption and change along the way by many others, including non designers.

Clearly the overall plan of attack should be reviewed regularly to reset the principles, projects, layout, and sequence but also as an opportunity to re-engage the broader populace.

There are definitely patches of central Christchurch that now look and function well: the big institutions and large retailer areas in upper High St where there are impressive shiny buildings lining both sides of the street. Then there are smaller patches, less formal, with less mass, like around lower High St, where the smaller players are doing interesting funky things with development.

I was half-expecting to experience over-designed works and to instantly dislike the Earthquake Memorial Wall. Although up close it is a big wall – a Victorian columbaria without the niches,  austere and staunch – it is saved from looking like the tailrace of the Clutha Dam by being filtered by a row of new columnar maples and a stepped edge to the water. And people have been personalising the wall by attaching photos and leaving notes.

Speaking of walls, they shouldn't be a major feature of any central city as they are a dividing device. Currently along Manchester Street there is a "Great Wall of Christchurch", mainly of old blank-faced buildings bordering the eastern across a wide expanse  known as the East Frame. 

The city's east is major flank extending out to the red zone all the way to New Brighton. That whole eastern sector of the city is poorly connected and badly affected compared to the west.  Its future integration is essential to a rounded city. The tract of some 900 homes planned for this East Frame will provide a much needed residential component.

One of the biggest issues facing the city is one of population,  as it is relatively low for the current spread and it is not growing by much. The city could either do with another 370,000 people or learn to live closer together rather than continuing to opt for the stand alone cottage in the burbs on offer in many locations around the periphery.

I spent most of my Christchurch visit not just walking around but talking to friends,  sharing a range of perspectives. I have always been impressed by the sense of civic responsibility and interest held uppermost by the citizens of Christchurch.  At the moment they feel distanced and frustrated. It is time to re-engage, revise and loosen the reins.

Garth Falconer is an urban designer who, before the  earthquakes, helped design Cashel Mall. He is the author of Living in Paradox, a history of urban design across kainga, towns and city in New Zealand.

 - Stuff

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