New city plan is... the old city plan

STREET LIFE: Architect Peter Beaven outside one of his residential creations. His alternative plan for the city would make a more dynamic, exciting place to live, he believes.
STREET LIFE: Architect Peter Beaven outside one of his residential creations. His alternative plan for the city would make a more dynamic, exciting place to live, he believes.

A rebuild of Christchurch's inner city in the European style with precincts is the best way to create a really exciting and liveable city, architect PETER BEAVEN argues.



In the weeks following the September earthquake and intensified by the February earthquake, the people who know the inner city and were aware of its failings under the old City Plan began to sense a new opportunity to create a much better place.

A consensus formed from all walks, which was essentially a return to a more European-style city, with residential buildings everywhere, a diverse street life, much quieter pedestrian-dominated streets, and all the kinds of street activity which make the real cities we love.

The best way to achieve this was often discussed - with precincts. There are many such special places all through the inner city where the landowners, local people and relevant professions all know the area well and could find their own very special character and development possibilities. All these precinct plans would be combined with the city council's infrastructure and overall strategy to make a new inner City Plan.

Each of the natural precincts in the city has a dominant major use, residential, retail, all of them.

The joy of the low-rise concept of diverse streets is that it immediately allows all the varied activities which make all street life exciting happen. Major uses become part of the scene. They don't have to all be zoned.

From where I live in St Mary's on Colombo St and down to Victoria Square, was exactly that rich mix of street life; now gone, tragically, but it will come back.

The very interesting thing was that all the people in this precinct knew exactly how valuable it was; only the city council's rules didn't.

Without ascertaining whether a huge new proposal which knocked down three heritage-type buildings was viable, down they came leaving the first big hole in the streetscape. Obsessive rules seem always to miss real townscape opportunities, but the locals always know - if they can have a voice.

One fine idea in the new plan is to make the four avenues a ring road with a slow-traffic inner city. This is perfect for the precinct-based inner city. Once you have a busy interesting street you don't need to tell people where to go and what to do; they will find it themselves.

Richard Dalman and I designed such a precinct. Taking in the failed Chancery Ln and its empty spaces beside, we made a little pedestrian precinct down behind Gloucester St to the river bank. Shops, cafes, studios and houses of different types lined a pedestrian lane with a little square, trees, some gardens, all mixed-use with offices stretching down to the river.

Some 140 people and all the other activities could live there in a Left Bank riverside precinct. Of course it means a new land ownership pattern but the huge increase in economic potential divided proportionally would make it very desirable, and once agreed on, easy and quick to achieve because no Resource Management Act procedure would be needed.

I spent hours looking at the new Central City Plan, and there it all was - the old City Plan all over again, grown magnificently. New zones, new rules, hugely detailed, even what you can put on the shelves in shops in the different zones, and the same big projects to stimulate our life everywhere, $1.1 billion worth!

Only about $50 million for housing and precincts, although there is some $50m for new cultural buildings.

Worst of all, the real design decisions, urban street facades, lanes, heritage precincts are avoided and left to council officers over the counter or the final ultimate expense of a Resource Management Act application.

Two of the big projects I know very well: the Avon River Precinct ($30m) and new library ($116m). I walked along the Avon River from the Avon Loop to Hagley Park. To people who live in the city it is perfectly delightful now and full of special places created over 150 years. Do we really expect a landscape team from the city council to do better?

Our city library is a superb building. It only needs to take over the old club next door and remove the road in front to make a park down to the river. Just these two ideas alone might save $100m. The best thing is that the precinct idea will largely regenerate itself without all this huge expenditure.

The Central City Plan is undeniably a brilliantly crafted public-relations wish-list. Up to that point we can afford it.

But the alternative Precinct Plan would generate its own momentum and quality without any of these huge expenditures and heavy directives. It could give such substantial savings and allow terrific big projects we could all agree on.

A precinct-oriented new Central City Plan discussion should be council-funded now as a real alternative.

* Peter Beaven, along with Sir Miles Warren, is one of only two New Zealand Institute of Architects gold medallists in Christchurch. He founded the Civic Trust in 1961 and attended the first Urban Design degree course in London in 1968.

The Press