Will Christchurch still be the Garden City?

HOW WILL OUR GARDEN GROW?: The Chalice in Cathedral Sq, adorned with flowers.
HOW WILL OUR GARDEN GROW?: The Chalice in Cathedral Sq, adorned with flowers.

Christchurch boasts a proud history as a garden city that was ahead of its time - but some believe we are betraying our progressive origins and missing the opportunity to be a green city of the future. PAUL FOCAMP reports.

Near the Avon River on Chester St East, a gift to the city from Edmonds factory founder Thomas Edmonds is surrounded by temporary fencing.

The stone tower's clock is missing its spindle. Inscribed near the face are the words faith, hope, charity and peace.

The tower is accompanied by a stone booth, similarly walled up, that announces in stone: Christchurch: Garden City on Avon.

The tower, its rough-hewn stone and leonine gargoyles incongruous with its hifalutin ideals, stands mulishly confronting the one-way traffic of Madras St.

Nearby on the Avon's banks a chopped-back poplar is in decay.

The look is genteel, colonial, and may not capture what Christchurch is now - a city of an independent nation set in the Pacific Ocean - or what it may become.

Christchurch deputy mayor Vicki Buck says the "Garden City" is a "lovely, lovely image" but it does not capture the innovation happening in the city now.

While there are "tired people who don't want to see another insurance policy again in their lives", there is also a "feeling that anything is possible in the city".

For the people stepping forth with new ideas, " 'Garden City' does not hook them".

What about "Garden City of the Future"?

Buck says no. A city slogan needs more immediacy.

"You only have now. We want to compel people to come here now."

Now. Now. Now. We strive to live in the now.

But in doing so we often overlook context. And context in this age of rapid change, this age when according to Buck we "only have now", is still important.

Inspiration for the garden city slogan lies in Christchurch's origins.

Canterbury pioneers promoted the mainland centre as a leafy and healthy escape from "damp, polluted Britain".

Hagley Park, an inspiration for New York's Central Park, was established in the 1850s and was to provide "the greatest health for the greatest number" and about 50 years later English architect Ebenezer Howard kickstarted his own Garden City movement. His theories involved much more than a collection of manicured rose gardens.

He proposed self-sustaining cities which avoided the overcrowding of a metropolis and the isolation of rural life. He aimed to deliver the best of town and country.

Two years later Letchworth in Hertfordshire, Howard's first garden city, was founded but according to Lincoln University associate professor Dr Rupert Tipples, Christchurch had the jump on Howard.

Tipples quotes Sir John Gorst, the special commissioner representing the British government at the 1906 International Exhibition in Christchurch. Gorst said: "It is the loveliest town I have ever seen. It is a 'garden city'. To my mind Christchurch is exactly what we are trying to make our garden cities in England."

University of Canterbury associate professor and architectural historian Dr Ian Lochhead does not feel that Cera, post-quake, has captured the innovative spirit of Christchurch's pioneers.

A sustainable city would have heating systems for whole neighbourhoods as opposed to individual buildings, recycling of grey water and sinks for stormwater that support plantings instead of using reticulated water for the green areas of the city.

"I don't think Cera has engaged with that level of thinking at all," Lochhead says, and he is unconvinced by the Central Christchurch Development Unit's roading layout. "The fact we are widening Manchester St suggests to me that we are not thinking seriously about questions of, 'is the motor car the best means of getting people around the CBD [central business district]'."

The precincts that feature Cera's anchor projects, including a covered stadium and a convention centre, were "a post-World War II design which I thought we had long since moved away from", Lochhead says.

International architect Camia Young agrees. The blueprint was "super boring". Cities in Europe with "masterplanned precincts" lacked character and were often "quite cold and sterile". Intense zoning can result in you "living in your car and driving everywhere", Young says.

She acknowledges that zoning separates "loud and stinky" industry from housing but mixing retail and residential within reason can deliver more vibrancy to a city centre.

For the record the CCDU rejects those suggestions.

Design and planning manager Don Miskell says Manchester St will be expanded into a boulevard, with three rows of large trees, and traffic speed will be reduced to 30kmh. Dwellings will face the green space of the Eastern Frame as well as Manchester St. Being close to the city centre, Miskell expects the area to be a "very desirable place to live".

Miskell says the precincts will be "engines of productivity and growth" and none are "single use" areas.

The Justice and Emergency Services precinct will have retailers along its Colombo St frontage and the Convention Centre precinct will have retail and cafes. The bus interchange is adjacent to the entertainment area and there is provision for tourist accommodation there too. Residential development is permitted in all parts of the central city except the conservation zone, Miskell says.

Miskell says his team is dedicated to a greener city. In the centre there will be more trees, wider footpaths and safer cycle routes. He hopes new plantings along the Avon River will attract native birds.

Young says Cera's task is an imposing one - it is responding to an emergency.

"I think that the real challenge right now is to look at how Cera and council start their transition and council starts to take over again."

Exacerbated by the loss of democracy at ECan there have been grumbles that Christchurch citizens have been shut out of their city's rebuild by Cera.

Avon-Otakaro network co- chairman Evan Smith expects more transparency this year.

"[Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry] Brownlee and [Cera chief executive Roger] Sutton have said they want the community to be involved."

There is still time to modify and enhance plans for the city. As Lochhead points out: "This is a 20-year project, not a five-year project."

In that time planners anticipate growth across the city. Halswell could nearly triple its population to 40,825 residents by 2031.

Already Christchurch is sprawling onto some of the region's most fertile land - the Canterbury Plains - and the fear is that urban sprawl will continue.

Miskell says the CCDU wants to curb the sprawl by attracting 20,000 people to live in the city centre.

To fit that number of people in Christchurch's core will require high-density housing but Kiwis, wedded to three to four-bedroom homes and sections, won't be seduced by apartment blocks. On that score Cera and the Christchurch City Council are making similar noises.

Both the CCDU and the council's land use recovery plan talk about increasing the number of homes on the same space.

Council's social housing is old and in need of repair. Buck sees 30 such dwellings replaced by 80 warm and safe new homes.

Miskell too is optimistic. He expects "empty nesters" (parents of children who have left home) to be the core's pioneers, but ultimately wants to attract young families to the centre as well.

All eyes will be on the Breathe housing project on the corner of Madras and Gloucester streets, which Miskell says is at the due diligence stage.

Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu chief executive Arihia Bennett says Ngai Tahu were forced to leave their villages and settle in the city in the 1970s when they lost the right to subdivide their lands. "Thankfully times are changing and Ngai Tahu Papatipu Runanga are working with their local councils to correct this position and create a better future for their children and children's children, " she says.

But land-use rights remain a sensitive issue for Ngai Tahu.

Landscape architect Di Lucas says there is growing interest in the city centre. People are saying: "We don't want to stay in the 'burbs, we want to come in," she says.

Young nominates open patios, decks and shared gardens as part of that good design, while Lucas is keen to see the greening of walls and roofs.

Solving the transport problem could be more challenging.

For Buck, the planned growth within the city bounds at Halswell and Wigram is "happening faster than we anticipated".

Using red-zone land, much of which is flood-prone and unsuitable for housing, to grow food could mitigate any loss of food production from urban sprawl onto the plains, she says.

The Press