“What is the City but the people” Shakespeare, Coriolanus
Out of the tragedy of the earthquakes there are opportunities to improve what was, in truth, a struggling CBD in Christchurch. In one critical area it is not clear that this is being taken. Perhaps amidst the ruin and suffering there has been an understandable tendency to gloss over the city’s preexisting problems, a natural urge to idealise what has been lost. But as a reasonably regular visitor there before the quakes it was very clear to me that this was a city with a very big problem, a big and increasingly damaging hole in the heart of it; an emptying centre. The city was becoming a classic ‘Doughnut City’, our very own little Detroit: all sub and a declining urbs. A centre that was largely being treated as little more than an impediment to quick driving between identical big box retail malls in the suburbs that encircle it.
It is also likely that this problem will return unless it is addressed directly in any reconstruction. And as there is a clear desire to rebuild a centre to the city it is important that everything is done to make it succeed and prosper. How then to address this? Why has this been such a problem in Christchurch?
It’s pretty easy to see that spread is a risk for a city without the natural containment of say Wellington with its steep hills and roiling seas on all sides to help keep it compact, or the squeeze of our harbours in Auckland. Which means that even more attention needs to be given to keeping dispersal to a level that doesn’t damage the viability of the city. After a national transport policy over the last half century or so that consciously or not promoted spread [and continues today] and local additions like the place-ruining one way system through the old and charming centre and you get a city under threat of losing its locus.
But perhaps the biggest disaster to strike Christchurch last century, and one narrowly avoided in Auckland, was the removal of the University out to a greenfields site at Ilam. Tertiary education provides a vitality and a sheer number of economically engaged people year after year that no casino, convention centre, or sports ground ever will. Those amenities, while sometimes productive, are about occasional visitors and when poorly designed, especially when they are supplied with oceans of carparking, often do irreparable damage to a city centre. This model actively encourages the suburban or out of town visitor to enjoy the main act and then quickly retreat back to their source rather than engage more deeply with the host place.
While it isn’t practical to move the whole university back to the centre I certainly expected new plans for Christchurch to take the opportunity to tie the University back to the CBD with a new and direct transit link. The core of a new system of movement designed to liberate the condensed city centre from auto-dependency while adding the necessary human vitality. Not only to relieve the city of the burdens and costs of having to accommodate large numbers of cars that will be the result if driving remains the primary system of movement, but also so that it can truly meet the stated aims of the people as expressed here [page 21 of the plan], and claimed to be ‘reflected in the plan’:
From the community’s responses, five key changes formed the basis of the draft Central City Plan:
1. Green city
2. Stronger built identity
3. Compact CBD
4. Live, work, play, learn and visit
5. Accessible city
These changes are reflected in this Recovery Plan.
A key to making these five aims real would be to make damn sure that the first lines drawn on any page are direct and effective transit links between key sources of vitality and the centre that they are trying to revive. And then of course to continue to design the arrangement of new generators of activity around direct and appealing means of interconnection. That successful land use and good transport links go together is pretty elemental planning.
And with the devastation of the quakes there is the best opportunity the city will ever have to identify and protect efficient and integrated new transport routes for the rest of its future. Buses will clearly be the best immediate mode to use this new system as they can quickly and cheaply be reintroduced and levels of service ramped up as the rebuild continues. But to not plan for the possibility of upgrading to more appealing and permanent electric systems on key routes such as out to the university and the coast would be singularly short sighted. But the key is the network, the system, not the mode; and in the plan released yesterday there is no sign of any thought about the role that transport plays in in both forming place and the success or otherwise of it. Identifying and branding a direct university and city connector and making sure that its fast and frequent, and even free for student pass holders, should be there for starters. And it, like all transit routes should not terminate away from the new city’s attractions.
Here’s the plan. It looks like half a plan; no integration between land use and transit. A total reliance on the previous systems of movement that have so contributed to the city’s hollowing out. So the new building forms may well be 21st century but the city pattern will be from the 1950s. Even the destructive one way system may be back:
The one piece of transport infrastructure is a bus interchange station, with no indication of routing or integration with any other new amenity. Except it is, I note, handy to the courts. After a page on cycling separation including this sole mention of the university:
Christchurch City Council has expressed a desire to develop a cycle route between the University of Canterbury and central Christchurch. It would stretch across Hagley Park and Deans Avenue, west to the university campus.
There is this page on the Bus Interchange followed by a page on Car Parking which unfortunately looks like the real key to the authors’ thinking about transport; they want lots of convenient yet discrete parking and buses whose movements are kept to a minimum [!?]:
Of course all that convenient but expensively hidden parking will mean a great deal of driving, and therefore wide multilane roads, not narrower human scaled streets. This is addressed nowhere in the 120 pages. Is this want the people of Christchurch said they wanted? Where is the planning for light rail that was often mentioned? Surely here is a chance to spend on a new dynamic and inspiring piece of infrastructure instead of losing that money to vast quantities of carparking structures? While there is hope for a vastly improved commitment to new cycling infrastructure; surely a no-brainer for such a flat city, this is a plan to rebuild exactly what was a big contributor to Christchurch’s pre-quake problem, the opportunity offered by the devastation is being missed, this is auto-dependency by design; green building set in an anti-green city. A very big shame and a very big risk to the vitality and therefore the success of the new Christchurch.