Rebuild echoes original plans

Last updated 18:00 18/08/2012
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FOUNDING VISION: A copy of the 1850 black map of Christchurch.

Avon River Precinct
AVON RIVER PRECINCT: This will be bordered by green space, cycleways, and pavement cafes.

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Christchurch has returned to 1849 ideals with its new blueprint plan, writes Matthew Wright.

The Government plan to rebuild central Christchurch is the first large-scale revision since the city was originally planned in 1849-50.

Ironically, the open spaces and precincts around a reshaped CBD will return the city to something like the concept - though not the shape - envisaged by first town planner Edward Jollie.

He never got it, though - he lost an argument with his boss, Canterbury Association chief surveyor Joseph Thomas. Christchurch was laid out in 1850 to a revised plan which did not meet Jollie's ideals.

In hindsight the debate was predictable. Money was tight - and the plan had to be fit for purpose.

Colonial cities were being built across the colonial frontier on lines that were meant to eliminate the social problems of messy, slum-filled industrial cities back home in Britain.

Clean-sheet planning was a key first step; but there was more. Rich and poor were kept well separated. Parks, green belts and wide streets were essential. The streets were usually laid out in grid pattern - sometimes, patriotically, with the Union Jack slapped across it.

Partly that was to make life easier for surveyors, but it also created channels to let fresh air waft through the city - breezes thought able to blow away the moral pollution of the poor.

Weird thinking by our standards - but genuinely held in the 1840s.

Christchurch was planned as the centre of an idealised Anglican church settlement, and the pressure was on to make sure it met these principles.

The immediate inspiration was Melbourne, epitome of the colonial city in the late 1840s - Marvellous Melbourne, it was called.

But the problem was doing it. Lyttelton had no land to the scale the association needed, and they had to settle for the other side of the Port Hills.

Then the road needed to connect the two soaked up the association's available cash, crippling the scope of city-building.

The other problem was that the site was a swamp. And the Avon intruded, rudely, into the pattern. So did the holdings of the Deans family.

Jollie intruded, too, with his enthusiasms for open spaces and gardens. He wanted wide streets, "planted with trees", partly as fire- breaks. His first plan even "indulged in a little ornamentation such as crescents etc".

Thomas hated them - according to Jollie, dismissing the plan as "gingerbread". Given the way Victorian-age diarists sometimes bowdlerised their lives, it's likely the words were rather stronger.

Thomas took over, reducing Jollie to draftsman, enforcing narrower roads except for "two good wide streets on each side of the Avon" which Jollie was able to keep as "lungs to the city". It was that free-air idea again.

Thomas even picked street names - as Jollie recalled, by "putting on his gold spectacles and opening his Peerage" - then reading a name or two "to hear if it sounded well and if I agreed with him that it did".

Jollie's final plan of early 1850 included those "lungs", but had Thomas's stamp all over it. And although minor changes were made as the town expanded in the early 1850s it generally gave us the Christchurch we came to know - a "garden city", complete with Hagley Park. But it didn't have the green spaces Jollie wanted.

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That's changing today. The real question is whether the new scheme, with its echoes of history, will meet the needs of today and tomorrow. Time will doubtless tell us.

- The Press

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