Experts like what they see

23:15, Aug 27 2011
Sam Martin, a London-based international landscape architect is speaking at the Christchurch City Council's International Speakers Series this weekend as part of the draft central city plan consultation process.
Sam Martin, a London-based international landscape architect is speaking at the Christchurch City Council's International Speakers Series this weekend as part of the draft central city plan consultation process.

When most people look at the devastation in Christchurch's central city, they think of what we have lost. Sam Martin sees only opportunity. "There's all these new views and spaces which have been created in the red zone. You can see opportunity wherever you go."

Optimism is an important part of the London-based architect's job. In May, his firm won a multimillion-dollar contract for the redesign of the Battersea power station site in London, an iconic site which has remained empty since it was decommissioned in the 1980s.

The landscaping portion of the project, which will include more than nine hectares of public space, is expected to cost $20 million. "It's a relatively decent scale," Martin says as he sprawls out on a grassy patch in front of the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Martin was born in Timaru and lived in Christchurch until 2000, when he moved to London to set up Exterior Architecture. He spent eight years living inside the four avenues and believes it had started to shrug off its reputation as a "pretty desolate place" before the earthquake. He is known for developing spaces which focus on "the human factor", and he says intimacy should be a key word for Christchurch's planners as they rebuild the city centre.

"Living in London is great, because you can walk everywhere: the schools are close, the shops are close, your friends are close and if you need to go somewhere you can just catch the tube. In Christchurch, people's main gripe is that they spend most of their lives in their car."

Martin supports plans to intensify the central city, and says the earthquake has given the city a "huge opportunity" to develop better cycle lanes, pedestrian walkways and public transport options.

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It's not about removing cars from the city's roads, he insists, but making it easier for people to use other methods of transport. "If you learn to cycle around the city as a six-year-old, you'll know that it's easier to cycle than to get in a car and try to find a park - our habits will evolve."

Martin has described the Avon River as the "heart and soul" of the city, so it is no surprise he supports plans to develop a park along the fringes of the river linking the east with the west.

A sustainable kahikatea forest could be set up on red-zoned residential land, with former residents sharing in the profits. Regardless of the details, he says the river park concept is a "no-brainer".

"It really is: it's got to be done, and sooner rather than later." "Sooner rather than later" comes up often during the interview: Martin is keen for people to return to the central city as soon as possible, irrespective of how much of it is ready for use.

He would like to see an earthquake information centre in Cathedral Square, allowing residents and visitors to learn the latest information about the rebuilding process. "People should be going into the middle of the city to find out what is happening in the city, not to suburban libraries on the fringes."

As for the long-term fate of the Square, Martin says that will depend on what is built around it, but he does not favour an inner-city park. "It's a civic space: covering it in grass and green would be the wrong thing to do."

He supports plans to set up more pocket parks and green spaces, but says officials must not lose sight of the people who will fill the green spaces. "The green bit is good, but it's about what links the greenways together and brings people into them."

In the short term, Christchurch needs to show the world that it is "open for business" - again, sooner rather than later. Longer-term, Martin says it is that sense of opportunity which residents and planners must harness as they slowly rebuild the city.

"Christchurch has already evolved so much in the last 20 years: I think the next 20 years can be even better."

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Kerry O'Neill has some words of advice: take a breath and focus on the future.

She works as a long-term planner at the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, set up after the devastating Black Saturday bushfires which killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of homes in the Australian state two years ago. She has helped to lead the planning process for the worst- affected communities, including Marysville, a town almost wiped off the map by the fires.

O'Neill says Victorian officials were careful to keep residents' feelings in mind as they developed rebuilding plans for their communities.

"It's an emotional rollercoaster, really, and you have to be sensitive to that. People are concerned about putting a roof over their heads, and some might have lost their businesses, so you need to understand that that journey is occurring at the same time as the rebuild."

Planners held regular meetings with residents to make sure proposals reflected what they wanted in their towns and paid tribute to what they had lost. "We'd ask people, 'What places in the main street had meaning for you?', then we'd try to incorporate that in the final designs."

However, a memorial for the victims of the bushfires is yet to be built. O'Neill says officials did not want to rush ahead until the affected communities had been given time to reflect on what they had lost. "You need to take time: it's important that it feels right."

She is impressed with the draft plan for the central city, saying it seems to be built on "a platform of remembrance", but stresses it is impossible to replace what has been destroyed. "You can't rebuild it as it was: there will always be a reminder that what was there before is no longer there." Instead, cities can rebuild with stronger, more resilient and innovative buildings.

After the bushfires, the Victorian state government strengthened the building requirements for houses with the greatest risk of bushfires. The regulations have made it more expensive for people to build homes in the areas, but will reduce the impact of another wildfire. "It's not just what it costs today - it's about the longer term." O'Neill says the need to balance short-term benefits with long-term planning is an important part of the rebuilding process.

While some Victorian residents understood what was involved in the planning process, others grew frustrated with the slow pace of progress.

"There's a lot of pressure to rebuild as quickly as you can, and sometimes that pressure can diminish the opportunities for innovation. It's important to pause and do the work which will get the best outcome for the city." At the same time, the towns needed to get back on their feet while the plans were being developed.

"In the interim, what things can you do to bring the city to life? Can you have interim businesses in the city? Can you have public events or art events?" The success of those interim measures, as well as the long-term revitalisation, depended on the local councils, state government and private sector working together as the plans were prepared.

"Each of the partners needs to have a real say and play their part, because no one sector can do it alone." However, it is the opinions of those who actually live in the devastated areas that matter most.

"Well-meaning benefactors" had pushed for changes to the bushfire rebuilding plans, causing tensions among some communities.

"If you've got a plan, you've got to stay faithful to it. If people feel like they are being ridden over or not heard, that's a problem. You need to keep listening to people or talking to people, building a relationship together rather than competing with each other."

In Victoria, the majority of planning and redevelopment work has been completed. While Christchurch's emotional rollercoaster ride is just beginning, O'Neill is confident the city can recover. "There will be change, and that might not be a bad thing. Some people might never be comfortable, but others will like the change, and it will be a better city for it."

The Press