Christchurch's Blueprint legacy four years on: It is people, it is people, it is people
In the four years since the Blueprint for Christchurch was revealed, promising that Christchurch would again have a central city, there have been countless words written analysing its progress and process.
All this analysis will be forgotten, which is why I'm looking to a future where the Blueprint is a distant memory, and Christchurch is back to a functioning city. So what are the positive effects that the Blueprint has had so far, and will continue to have on the future Christchurch?
The answers are: laneways and courtyards, a revitalised office population and inner city living. Christchurch will indeed be a donut but one with a rich filled centre nourished by its outer ring. We will eventually get icing, too.
Many people think of the Blueprint as simply the location of a collection of 16 anchor projects and precincts. Importantly, however, it also included a series of design principles and urban planning rules which are redefining Christchurch in real time. The actual Blueprint was the diagram which accompanied the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan (CCRP).
The CCRP sets out a wider planning framework to recreate a better Christchurch, over time, which included many more people living in the city. And there's certainly room for residential and commercial development within the four avenues, as the anchor projects cover only 10 percent of the land area there.
Even before the CCRP, development was underway in Victoria St, Addington and then in the area west of the river, because those areas were outside the cordoned off red zone, which was still experiencing a continuing swarm of major aftershocks among red-stickered buildings.
The Stadium is the only anchor project yet to be announced and the main moves of the Blueprint have been well and truly set in motion. Already apparent in the city are a renewed focus on Te Papa Ōtākaro/Avon River; a lowered maximum building height (28m) which has a more human scale; a focus on creating active frontages; the elimination of visible car parks on streets; a growing network of cycle ways and a growing network of laneways and courtyards in and among the new city fabric.
LANEWAYS AND COURTYARDS
When you think about how people inhabit and interact with a city it's not about the buildings, but the streets, squares and spaces between the buildings – that is where the people are.
A short list of the new developments completed or underway in the city include the Awly Building, The Crossing, Triangle Centre, Cashel Square, The Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, The Terraces, King Edward Barracks. There are dozens of other buildings completed or underway; but the reason I've chosen this list is because these new developments are more than a simple street frontage with a new shop or café on the ground floor. Collectively they incorporate a series of smaller intimate spaces either through laneways and/or courtyards.
These are the kind of spaces which suit the Chrictchurch climate and scale incredibly well; and have been a proven success as shown by the historic Arts Centre which is focused around two quadrangles. The Arts Centre quadrangles provide human scale with sheltered sunny spaces where people can gather and socialise, away from the streets and protected from the prevailing winds.
A new example which will be open in early 2017 is the The King Edward Barracks. This comprises a cluster of low-rise office buildings which are formed around a garden accessed via a series of laneways both alongside and through the buildings. On the ground floors are a series of shops, cafes and service retail accessed from both the garden and the streets, creating an additional layer of permeability and human scale. The garden is open to the public, is a place to gather and socialise, and to discover the history of the site as told through a series of interpretation panels.
INNER CITY LIVING AND THE DONUT
We can design and imagine a new Christchurch full of amenities, parks, laneways, buildings and spaces, but these are all irrelevant without people. Pre-earthquake, the council was focused on bringing people back to the city outside business hours. Helen Clark reminded us of the importance of people in her speech to the UN where she repeated a Maori proverb which says: "He aha te mea nui o te ao? What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people".
I completely agree, and those who believe that we don't need a CBD are probably unaware of how much people thrive from each other's company, energy and proximity in a densely populated urban area. Why else do people meet each other in cafes, galleries, parks when they could simply stay at home?
Over the next six to 12 months several thousand people will return to the central city due to the opening of the the buildings mentioned earlier, plus many others. Office worker population is predicted to reach 11,000 by mid 2017.
Justin Kean, Director of Research and Capital Markets at JLL New Zealand estimates that each office worker spends $127 per week average in the city which would contribute around $80 million annually to the spending in the city. This is the beginning of the rich donut filling and will bring with it the sort of services and street life we notice when we travel to a city that is untouched by the kind of upheaval we are dealing with.
When you add 20,000 residents to the donut ring you end up with a vibrant city that is active during the day, the evenings and more importantly the weekends.
Look at Auckland and Wellington as local examples. Until about 25 years ago it was not possible to build apartments in central Auckland. Planning regulations changed and enabled the transformation of the city to one which is a highly desirable place to live, particularly when combined with its reinvigorated waterfront.
And while we are on waterfronts, Wellington has a fantastic one, but it started its transition 30 years ago when a group was formed to focus on bringing life into what was a grimy port area. Translating that to our current situation in Christchurch there are two main points to be aware of: planning regulations and time. We have the regulations, now we need to watch it happen. There have been hundreds of dwellings built within the four avenues since the earthquakes, with many more currently underway. Adding to that is the East and North Frame Residential Precinct which add over 900 new townhouses and apartments and accommodate over 2,000 residents.
So yes, Christchurch City will be a donut, but with a rich filling in the centre comprising the CBD, and the outer ring being the inner city residential areas comprising the existing area between Hagley Park and the river, the new East and North Frame, which will augment the existing residential stock, and the mixed use zone which includes the South Frame.
STREETS AND GRIDS
Megan Woods mentioned at a recent Property Council gathering that keeping the existing city grid was 19th century thinking applied to the reimagining of a 21st century city.
If you were starting from a blank canvas the grid might not be the modern response, particularly when we have rediscovered the river. However, the grid was kept because it was still intact when so much else had been lost, enabling people to remember and navigate what was otherwise an unknown cityscape.
One thing the Blueprint did not address is the one-way street system. One-way streets simply do not make sense in such a small city with a clear grid. As the city re-emerges, it may be worth reconsidering the efficient and legibility of this system. That could be the icing on the donut.
Designing and building anything from a house to a high rise hotel takes an enormous effort over several months or even years. Christchurch is being recreated in record time, the unspoken reality is that time to make or even repair a city is 20 to 30 years, or more.
There will be missing teeth in the pattern of streets over that time, and the development will come in waves driven by economics and lease cycles. Even downtown Auckland has empty sites that have been undeveloped since the 1980's.
All is not lost to time, as a quick visit to the City tomorrow will prove, and every few months people will return to enliven the streets, lanes and courtyards between the buildings.
Daryl Maguire is principal at Warren and Mahoney Architects, Christchurch.
- The Press