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It is now four years since the first quake struck Christchurch in September 2010. There are bright-eyed four-year old children who know nothing of the pre-quake city, and students that have completed entire university degrees post-quake. It’s been a while.
Unfortunately much of the national discussion about Christchurch is still framed around the sympathy, empathy, help, support and need that was so necessary in the immediate days and months after the earthquakes. Yes there are still thousands of people struggling with insurance and EQC repairs. But what people need now is their policies to be fulfilled, and reform and legislation to make sure that happens, not others to feel sorry for them. The default pity narrative needs to stop. It distracts from the real issues such as the economic, planning and governance problems that continue to dominate the city.
This article has 3 sections: The Blueprint, The Money, and why your vote affects us all in Christchurch.
I write the brief words below not as a long-term Christchurch resident. I moved here at the beginning of 2012. I write this as someone trained in architecture and city-building. I’ve discussed Christchurch with dozens of urban design experts, planners, and designers in the past few years and almost all of them are stunned and disappointed when I explain to them how the process is being managed in Christchurch. The major concern is that the entire central city planning is being led by a very small team of insulated designers, politicians, and property owners, who are using extraordinarily powerful legislation to achieve their goals.
A group of us (with Ryan Reynolds, James Dann, Emma Johnson, and myself as editors) recently published the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch. This book offers a 500-page investigation and critique of the Government’s Blueprint for Christchurch. We chose not to talk about the election in the book because it is looking at a much bigger picture, but now I feel the need to frame some of the contents around the election. The book has 55 essays, so this doesn’t represent all the views, but as an editor is does represent what I think.
I write this critique from the position that the involvement, confidence and trust of the public is absolutely critical for city-planning and design. There is an innate intelligence in the people that live in a city, and the publics that people form in response to the issues that arise. To exclude these publics, and to distrust them (if there was trust then why are their views not included) as the government does is foolish. To suggest, as the Minister in charge has, that this can in any way be best practice or industry leading is at odds with the planning and design literature of the past 40 years.
1. The Government’s Blueprint.
In 2011 the government asked the Christchurch City Council to develop a city plan for post-quake Christchurch. The CCC developed the now famous and award winning Share an Idea campaign and consulted broadly with the people of Christchurch, who generated over 100,000 ideas for the new city. This led to the release of the Council’s Draft City Plan in November 2011. At the beginning of 2012 Minister Brownlee rejected the spatial aspects of that plan and invited a new team of designers to work on what was to become the known as the 100-day Blueprint. Since the end of 2011 the people of Christchurch have had no opportunity to contribute or feed in or critique this document.
There have been mixed reviews of the plan, some see it is as a bold and necessary document (Canterbury Tourism), others as a promising too much, others wondered where the residential details were (Russell Brown), others that it ignored all the real problems facing Christchurch (NBR), and others as significant re-orientation of the post-quake city without due discussion with the people of Christchurch (me!).
It replaced a sophisticated set of instruments that the Council had developed to encourage good development and planning with 18 large government-led projects. You can see the details here.
Like any first draft of a document it has some really good bits and some questionable bits. It was a heroic effort to complete it in 100 days. The problem is not that the plan that was produced in 100 days; the real problem is the way that it has been implemented. There has been little or no consultation on the plan since its launch, massive projects like the $100 million dollar Avon-Otakaro park, or the $284m Convention Centre have had almost no public input or consultation. There has been no international peer review either. The designers that made the plan have been locked out of the process since it was launched and there has been little ability for it to adapt to the rapidly changing city.
Think about this for your own city. Imagine the government coming into the historic centres of Auckland or Wellington. Firstly they ignore the heritage fabric of the place and encourage the demolition of 80% of the city, then they over-rule the local council’s plan, then they use the full power of the state to compulsorily purchase land and implement a huge number of projects with little or no discussion with the public.
This is exactly what has happened in Christchurch. If it sounds a bit extreme then I think you understand it properly.
The Blueprint is being implemented by an agency completely separate and often conflicting with the local council. Instead of upgrading the Council’s original plan and working with them and their deep knowledge of the city, CERA (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) has replicated hundreds of positions, wasted millions of dollars and built a knowledge-base in competition rather than in collaboration with the city. (Brownwyn Hayward explains this well in her paper: Rethinking Resilience: Reflections on the Earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, 2010 and 2011)
The Council on the other hand is showing a rare mix of strong leadership and a real desire to be transparent and engage with various communities in a respectful and meaningful way. They are using new online tools to get quicker and better information and are directly funding and supporting scores of important post-quake projects in a way that CERA has never done.
If you think about the great things that have happened in the city since the quakes, almost all of them would have happened without the plan: the stunning restoration of the Arts Centre, C1, the urban gardening projects, Re:Start mall, Gap Filler, The Festival of Transitional Architecture, Life in Vacant Spaces, EPIC, Share an Idea, Ministry of Awesome, Court Theatre, Isaac Theatre Royal, developments like the Terrace, and the insurance-led building boom.
If speed was the goal of the blueprint then it has failed as we are barely 10% rebuilt almost 4 years after the big quake and if quality is the goal of the blueprint then why did it lower the environmental and urban design standards that were present in the council’s original plan. It amounts to a kind of homeopathic remedy that claims success when the patient was getting going to get better anyway.
The problem with much of the media discussion around the rebuild is that so much of it is about the speed or progress of it. There is little or no nuanced discussion of the quality of the decisions. While people do need their houses fixed quickly there are huge transport, urban planning, and infrastructure decisions that need time and consultation to make right. For the next 20 – 50 years it is going to be the quality of the decisions, not the speed with which they are made, that makes the difference. CERA’s Roger Sutton has said the same thing. (see Roger Sutton’s article in the new book) Given this the exclusion of the public from the decision-making is mysterious, unwise, and deeply undemocratic.
2. The money.
The full cost of the rebuild is around $40 – $50 billion dollars, and around $15 billion of this is government money, your money. This is as it should be and it would be disgrace if we ever neglected the need to care for a region of the country after a disaster of this scale.
However this money is not a one way deal, and it should not be seen as benevolence. Two of the main things growing the NZ economy at the moment are Canterbury based. The first is the massive expansion of dairy on the Canterbury plains, and the second is the enormous amount of insurance money coming into the city from insurance companies from overseas. The government is deeply involved in the dairy expansion (in that it was enabled by firing the elected regional Council in 2010), and has little to do with the latter, as these are contracts between individuals and insurance companies.
So let’s be clear that the economy of Canterbury is producing a significant amount of growth for the country at the moment. We all benefit from that.
Without the earthquake National’s much praised economy would have close to zero growth. “Truth is, the economic recovery is itself a myth. Take away the Christchurch rebuild and growth is nominally zero.” (Bruce Bisset. 6.09.2014)
While a large amount of money has been promised and spent by the Government to support post-quake Christchurch, (to fix the roads and pipes, to fund the central city, and many other activities), it is likely that the government will take in a very similar amount in taxes from GST and income tax. The GST on $40 billion is around $6 billion (and this continues to flow and money spreads through the economy), and a significant amount of the money is being spent on salary and wages that are taxed at various levels, if we pick a low figure of 20% then that is another $6.8 billion in tax take. So without even going into the broader tax take and economic gain around $13 billion will come back from the $15 billion spend.
“the wider New Zealand public need to recognise it’s not them just footing the bill for poor old Christchurch, it’s actually going to cost them very little.” The Government had been “strangely quiet in this department,” Gough said.” (Alan Wood. The Press. 31.05.2014)
So there is every chance that the earthquakes will be a cost neutral exercise for the government. On this level it has been a large and well-timed stimulus package for the country to help it out of the recession. (Interesting that this is the kind of stimulus package that Labour proposed going into the 2008 election.)
The hard work of people of the citizens of Christchurch, businesses, institutions, and government spending in Christchurch have been a huge part of NZ emergence from recession. While there has been extraordinary support and care for Christchurch in the past few years, the economic investment in Christchurch shouldn’t be seen as charity.
3. How you vote affects us all in Christchurch
The simple reality is that no great city has ever developed while being ruled by somewhere else. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t work.
In the months after the quakes extraordinary powers were necessary. But at some point these extraordinary powers need to go, and in Christchurch they are still in place 3.5 years after the big deadly quake. It’s too long. They are still being used to fast-track decisions around the local Council, they are still being used to demolish heritage buildings without consents or discussion, and still being used to progress projects like the $500 million dollar convention centre with no public business case or public input into public space.
There is little ability to offer nuanced and critical feedback on individual projects or planning decisions. The exceptions being the childrens playground which did great work with school kids. The population is forced to either embrace or reject the entire plan, and this further isolates and disengages people as they go through a difficult recovery from disaster. The Governments own science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman warned about this happening in 2011.
The key problem here is that we aren’t able to express the complex issues, to have the important arguments, and to direct the city in the direction that people live here want because we are being ruled by a large government agency.
I don’t think this is disaster capitalism or a conspiracy of any sorts. Its the more mundane reality of an ideology that distrusts the public and favours the safety and comfort of projects led by politicians and project managers.
As an extension of cabinet and its executive power, this government agency (Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction Authority) rules with the tacit consent of the rest of the country, and this is why your voice is important. When you vote during the next few weeks, please consider Christchurch.
The National government has basically admitted that the time for these extraordinary powers is over, but rather than give us a plan for it, they have decided to move CERA into the office of the PM, further shifting the power to Wellington and away from Christchurch.
This call to support a new government is not to reject everything that has been done. We can bank the good stuff, the hard work and tough decisions and acknowledge those how worked through this tough time, but we need to change tack to let the public back in, and to turn this rebuild process into the extraordinary opportunity it still promises to be.
It shouldn’t, but the outcome of this election will likely make a huge difference to how Christchurch is governed and will inform thousands of little decisions about how the city will feel and look in 10 years time. The city and its people have shown extraordinary capacity for growth, innovation, creativity and a strong vision for the city. The new council is heavy hitting and filled with skilled operators, and the rebuild is paying for itself. It shouldn’t depend on a national election to reclaim our governance back, but it does. And that is why your vote is important.
For further analysis of the relationship between Design and Democracy my essay is here: https://medium.com/@mrbarnabyb/design-and-democracy-339fa4688d70
And if for further information on the book please visit here: www.oncinalifetime.org.nz