Rebuild needs a rethink

ROD ORAM
Last updated 07:59 05/08/2012

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OPINION: Christchurch's plan can only fail to reach its aspirations.

There's a lot to like about the plan for rebuilding the centre of Christchurch. Plenty of spaces and civic amenities will make the city an even more pleasant place to live. Tight timeframes to deliver some of them by 2016 gives a sense of urgency and action.

Rightly, many residents are excited by the goals to make the city international, sustainable and prosperous. They're relieved the centre will soon show more signs of life. But there is a chasm between expressing those aspirations and what's needed to achieve them.

This is a conceptual failure, not a lack of detail to be filled in later.

Strategies still to come on economic regeneration and transport won't bridge the gap.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee asked the right question in the foreword to the plan: "What could a 21st century city look like if its people were given the chance to 'build again', keeping the good and improving the rest?" But the Government has given the wrong answer.

It believes rebuilding existing amenities in different places to better design amid lots of green space will do the job.

That, though, is now normal in plenty of cities around the world.

Nothing in the plan distinguishes Christchurch from the pack.

Nothing in the plan puts Christchurch at the leading edge of big shifts in the way people live, work, travel and play, or how cities are designed, built and powered.

The earthquakes have given Christchurch a unique opportunity to play such a global role. It can use it to attract the talent and investment it needs to recreate itself. But if it doesn't, Christchurch will end up as a pale imitation of another city. Hopefully this was not quite what Prime Minister John Key had in mind when he said at the plan's launch that Christchurch would be "very much like Melbourne'. A mini-Melbourne attracts little attention.

A global search on Google News reveals scant interest in Christchurch.

For example, Britain's Daily Mail short story began boringly: "A convention centre, sports stadium and performing arts complex are among the landmark projects planned for a new-look Christchurch after the city was levelled by an earthquake last year." As for attracting international investors, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times carried no stories.

The gulf between pragmatism and ambition looms large through the plan. Here are some of the main failures on critical, inter- locking factors.

The economy: before the earthquakes, the city, particularly its centre, had lost a lot of its traditional rationale and vitality.

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Building a much bigger, stronger economy will take far more investment than insurance payouts and public funds can provide.

But Christchurch will only attract such extra investment if it offers some big, bold new business opportunities.

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, the Christchurch City Council and the Government are working on an economic recovery strategy. People familiar with the work say it will likely be an update of the 2010 strategy for the city devised by the Canterbury Development Corporation, a city council agency.

But that strategy was doing little for the old city, because it was taking an incremental approach to growing existing sectors. Even enhanced, it would fail to give the new city new economic life.

If, though, Christchurch was determined to be a world-leading centre for urban design, development and operations, it could attract talent and money from the likes of IBM and Cisco.

Both IT multinationals are building big strategic businesses around systems to run cities of the future.

Similarly, the city could attract scientists and investment if it set out to create a world-leading nutrigenomics institute in the dairy sector. This would help push our existing farming and medical skills into very sophisticated, very high- value foods and pharmaceuticals.

But instead, the city centre plan focuses on five areas of economic activity, which, in order, are: retail, the convention centre and precincts for health, justice and emergency services, and innovation. The last should be first, because only it can stimulate new businesses. But it has no timeframe. The work on it is being led by the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry, which itself is in the midst of a massive reconfiguration.

Those sectors have limited growth potential. In fact, the plan envisages retail space shrinking to between 50,000 square metres and 60,000sqm in the core of the city from 75,000sqm pre-earthquakes.

As a result, there is excess land in the centre, the Government says.

To solve the problem, it will constrain the centre by creating large, open green spaces down the east and south sides of the central business district.

Coupled with height restrictions, this will push up rents well above existing, modern and attractive office accommodation in Addington and near the airport.

It may distort the market to the point the city faces Auckland rents on Christchurch incomes.

Another big weakness in the plan is housing within the four avenues defining the city centre. Currently some 7000 people live there. The plan envisages 20,000 in the future, which would help create a vibrant city. There's nothing in the plan, though, to drive that.

Overall, the plan's overarching gulf between aspiration and future reality concerns sustainability.

Lots of people in Christchurch want sustainability. But the council and the Government will do nothing to help achieve that beyond "encouraging" property developers to improve energy efficiency. Failure is certain, because existing New Zealand building codes, energy efficiency standards, designs and materials are so far behind world best practice and the Government has no intention of improving them.

If you want a glimpse of what zero-energy housing looks like, Beddington in Britain is a good example. Built more than a decade ago, it is described at wikipedia.org/wiki/BedZED.

If Christchurch recreated itself to those high, essential standards, and did so in distinctive New Zealand ways, it would attract all the international attention and investment it needs.

It would become rich and sustainable in every sense of the words - economically, socially, culturally and environmentally. It would become a global leader for the 21st century.

- Sunday Star Times

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