Essays reflect on rebuild

QUESTIONING: James Dann, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Johnson and Barnaby Bennett, the editors of Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch.
QUESTIONING: James Dann, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Johnson and Barnaby Bennett, the editors of Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch.

Those who spend a lot of time in central Christchurch will know about its strangeness but it can be hard to identify just what makes it strange.

Ryan Reynolds puts his finger on it in a new essay. Christchurch, he says, is a post city and a pre city. We look back and we look ahead. The present tense is limited to demolishing and tidying up the old while preparing to build the new.

Reynolds is one of those who has made something of this transitional period. He co-founded Gap Filler and has just co-edited a book of 55 essays about "city-building after disaster in Christchurch", titled Once in a Lifetime. His essay on the work of Gap Filler, "Desire for the Gap", is among them.

This strange transitional time is also marked by anniversaries. The fourth anniversary of the first quake is less than a week away. But Reynolds and his three co-editors have another date in mind.

It is a little over two years since the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, or the Blueprint, was launched with much fanfare at the Christchurch City Council. The media went big on it. Reporters crossed live. Computer animation flew us over the new, 21st century city with its green frames and colour-coded precincts.

It looked like another green world. That was back in July 2012.

"It's been long enough to have a sense of how things are going, what's working in the plan and what's not," Reynolds says. "It's not five years out where it's irreversible."

But some things are irreversible. Heritage buildings, of course. Once they go, they go.

Architectural historian Jessica Halliday makes a good point in her essay, writing that "it is revealing that in a city whose identity had been built on its notable historic buildings, not one of the Government's major recovery projects outlined in the Blueprint involves harnessing the varied benefits of reusing a historic building".

Co-editor James Dann has thought about this too. The old Christchurch City Council building on Tuam St, built as a department store in the 1930s, could have been used in the transport hub. The Majestic Theatre could have had a new life. How about the Centennial Pool?

Instead, those and other buildings were sacrificed for the greater good of the Blueprint.

A lot of thought has gone into Once in a Lifetime. The book is as thick as the Yellow Pages. It even looks like the Yellow Pages.

Some themes recur across the 55 essays. Over-planned cities like Brasilia and Canberra are seen as warnings. Some parts of the Blueprint are more "grandiose" than a city like Christchurch can justify, as economist Shamubeel Eaqub puts it. The lack of public input and flexibility over the past two years is contrasted with the months after the quakes, when genuine public consultation happened.

As co-editor Barnaby Bennett writes, the quakes showed us that "dormant within the public is an extraordinary capacity for hard work, imagination, ingenuity and care for each other". It would be sad if those qualities were not drawn upon for the new city.

"The way the plan is laid out, it's like, this is the future of the city," Dann says. "All these buildings are set. But that's not how cities function."

"It's not the way most planners think about cities these days either," Bennett adds. "It's a political view of cities."

"If you change your mind, that's seen as a weakness," Reynolds says. "But critique is a positive thing. That's something you learn as a designer or architect, or working in theatre."

Dann sees that lack of flexibility and reluctance to accept criticism as the style of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee since early in the piece. Criticism was taken as political and critics were dubbed enemies of the rebuild.

"I don't think that the recovery of the city is being done in a particularly open or accountable fashion," Dann says.

But you might expect him to say that. After all, Dann is the Labour candidate for Ilam, running directly against Brownlee.

As a blogger, he has been a persistent critic of the rebuild. Is this book intended as another bomb thrown into the election campaign?

"It would be crazy to write a book like this and pretend it's not political," Bennett says. "But it's hard to find party political lines in there."

Reynolds explains that work started on the book last year before Labour put forward Dann as a candidate. Dann did offer to step aside. In the book he is described as an activist.

"It would be nice to have a sensible debate with all the parties on their vision for the city," Dann says. "The Blueprint came out nine months after the last election. They said they had a mandate because they won the election, but they didn't campaign on a covered stadium. They threw out the City Council's plan and part of the reason is that there were people in their ear who said this was not what they wanted to do."

As for former prime minister Helen Clark who writes a foreword, "we couldn't think of anyone better to approach," Reynolds says. There are her New Zealand connections and her disaster recovery work as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Her foreword is studiously neutral.

One of the most depressing essays in the book actually comes from outside the city. Business journalist Liam Dann, who grew up in Christchurch, talks about the "high level of fatigue" for the Christchurch story in Auckland.

But there are positive visions too. Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority Roger Sutton is confident that our children's children will inherit an inspiring city. He expects to look back in his old age and feel proud.

Transitional, ground-level responses like Gap Filler and the Plant Gang are recorded and could serve as an example for people in San Francisco or Detroit. The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (Scirt) has been a success story. The Ngai Tahu partnership is profound and groundbreaking. The All Right? campaign is understood to be "the world's first example of a public health social media campaign to address wellbeing in a disaster-affected area," according to public health specialist Lucy D'Aeth.

You could close on a musical moment. Once in a Lifetime is named after a song by Talking Heads. Free Theatre member George Parker quotes another rock song in his essay about the arts when he says, "Ultimately, there's still time to change the road you're on".

Councillor Raf Manji gets at the same point. He presents the idea that we should now be rethinking important parts of the Blueprint. If private sector funders can expect to know they are getting value for money, the public sector should expect the same.

There are pockets of optimism in the city and it feels less bleak than it did six months ago. There are more cranes on the horizon and more buildings going up, "but whose identity is the stuff that's happening?" Bennett asks.

"We are ultimately optimistic about it," Dann says. "In the first few months after the earthquake, amongst the devastation and the hardship, there was an optimism about what Christchurch could be. We could build a better city and the eyes of the world were on us.

"We had a responsibility to potentially deliver the first truly 21st century city. We haven't completely lost that opportunity."

Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, edited by Barnaby Bennett, James Dann, Emma Johnson and Ryan Reynolds (Freerange Press, $45) is launched at the Physics Room at 6pm, tomorrow.

Contributors, including Raf Manji, will talk about the book in the "Rebuilding Christchurch" panel in the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival at Rydges tomorrow at 4pm.

The Press