Post-earthquake Christchurch: an urban planner's dream?

Since experiencing the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Christchurch has been through some challenging times. The natural disaster claimed 185 lives, thousands of homes, severed communities and destroyed most of the central city. Landowners battled insurance companies, whilst earthquakes and aftershocks continued to rattle relentlessly through the city.

The government of the day made its decision to rebuild Christchurch. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money was poured into the earthquake recovery. The people of Christchurch were relieved. As an urban planner, notwithstanding the tragedy and devastation, the prospect of rebuilding and ‘re-planning’ Christchurch was exciting - an urban planner’s dream! But the task ahead was enormous and any decisions on the rebuild were bound to attract controversy.

The first contentious matter was the level of central government involvement. The government was spending taxpayer money and therefore wanted to maintain a level of control over its investment. In addition, it was considered that Christchurch City Council did not have the resources to deal with the rebuild. The government formed the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) who were charged with controlling the rebuild. New legislation was created to expedite development. Fueled by a critical media, much of the Christchurch population felt powerless in decisions made on their behalf. Others felt that central government was needed to get things done as the Council could not lead the rebuild alone.

So how did the government tackle this? Firstly, a ‘Blueprint’ for the central city was created in 100 days and published in July 2012. The Blueprint nominated specific land use or ‘precincts’ within the city. ‘Anchor projects’ that included civic buildings and public realm areas were to be delivered predominantly by the Crown. The Blueprint was created in response to the Council run, award winning ‘Share an Idea’ consultation exercise where people put forward what they wanted to see in the new central city. The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery designated a number of anchor project sites, enabling the ability to acquire land, protect it for its intended use and expedite development under the Resource Management Act. The large scale acquisition of central city land was criticised by many, however, if the Blueprint was to be achieved, like any other major infrastructure projects in New Zealand, designation processes and the newly introduced Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act (CER Act) were a logical tool for its implementation.

There were many positive aspects of the ‘new’ city plans and the government’s approach. The Blueprint and supporting Christchurch Central Recovery Plan gave greater certainty to the Christchurch people and business communities. It gave something for people to focus on. A more contained, low rise city with tracts of open space, laneways and quality public realm areas. The Blueprint nominated a large area for 900 residential dwellings, and facilities like a stadium and a national indoor sports facility within the central city. Using the new CER Act, Christchurch City Council District Plan rules were amended to implement the anticipated land use changes. Some of the changes were unpopular with landowners and developers, however, seeing the outcomes of the emerging new private developments comprising cohesive development, a mix of uses, active frontages, connected laneways and courtyards – most would now agree that the introduced changes have been a success.

But there were challenges and missed opportunities. One of the main powers the government possessed in the rebuild process was to expedite development by bypassing usual consultation and approval processes. In 2012, the government committed to completing the Crown anchor projects within five years after the release of the Blueprint. However, five years on, some major Crown anchor projects are only just starting construction. The Blueprint locked down future land use, which did not provide flexibility for changing uses, circumstances, technology and innovations over time. This begs the question - was the Blueprint too rushed? Should a greater collaborative approach been taken with Council and other key stakeholders? The Blueprint and central city recovery process was bold, but was it bold enough? Opportunities such as sustainable, innovative development and cutting edge architecture that could have made Christchurch a world leading city could have been achieved through various forms of regulation, however, in many cases the status quo and pre-earthquake design has prevailed.

From first-hand experience of working at CERA, processes, governance and decision making has been at times frustrating, but there have also been triumphs, opportunities seized and lessons learned. Working on the rebuild of the new Christchurch has been a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of us. So have my urban planning dreams for the central city become a reality? I think the jury is still out on that one. Vast gaps in the city’s fabric remain and we still have a long way to go, however, the foundations have been laid (so to speak) and there are certainly positive signs of a city coming to life with many more opportunities to make Christchurch great. For the first time since the earthquakes, we have a change of government which has not yet articulated what is in store for Christchurch. I shall watch in anticipation, and hopefully one day soon, we can live the city dream.