It is the eighth anniversary of the earthquakes that devastated Christchurch, and much of the rebuild is now complete. The brash new complexes in the retail core scream ‘progress’, with multiple outlets competing for the high-end clothing dollar, while craft beer bars and gastropubs overlook the Avon River as it meanders through the city. This is Christchurchland, a city that hums with dystopian unease, with new developments that erase not just the history but also the very purpose of the city. Its modern buildings coexist with demolition sites that have sat broken behind fences since the quakes, an inconvenient reminder that progress is not linear, nor is it equally distributed. The government got the rebuild that they wanted – but what about the citizens?
The focus of the rebuild has always been on the CBD.
Every city has a centre. They evolve that way, whether it be over centuries or millennia in other parts of the world, or the relatively short time since the colonials laid out the first grid for what would become Christchurch. The centre is what we first think of when we name the city, even if that isn’t the most vital part. Rebuilding the centre was always going to be a symbolic as much as practical act.
The Christchurch City Council was initially tasked with leading the development of a plan for the rebuild. After asking the public for their input, through the ‘Share An Idea’ process – which attracted more than 100,000 suggestions for the future of the city – a draft plan was put out for consultation in the middle of 2011. Following feedback on this document, a recovery plan was submitted in December of 2011 to the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee. Nothing was heard from him until April of 2012, when he announced that he was setting up his own team of planners, who had 100 days to come up with a plan for the city. On the 30th of July, the team launched its Central City Recovery Plan, which came to be known as ‘the Blueprint’. The following day, it was passed into law. No feedback or public input was sought.
There were marked contrasts between the two plans. The council’s plan – drawn with feedback from the residents it would directly impact upon – placed its emphasis on building a ‘liveable city’ around a centre that was designed for people, with slow streets, a limit on the heights of buildings, and a mix of retail, office and residential use, often within the same building. The government’s plan, on the other hand, was drawn with input from developers, lobbyists, planners and politicians. On the wet July night when the Blueprint was launched, then Prime Minister John Key said: ‘we are announcing these anchor projects to provide certainty to the private sector, which is interested in investing in other projects around them such as hotels, restaurants and retail developments.’ Key, a former money trader, was prospecting for investment like the executive of a pharmaceutical company trying to drum up interest in a new asthma medication. That foreign investment never materialised.
The centrepiece of the Blueprint were the so-called ‘anchor projects’. These big-ticket items – a convention centre, a stadium, a sports facility – were presented alongside ‘precincts’ devoted to health, justice, innovation and the performing arts. All were designed to drive confidence among potential investors.
The most significant anchor project was ‘The Frame’: running along the inner city’s east and south, it was designed to create an inverse L-shape that would contain and constrain the city’s footprint. To do so, the government spent around $450 million to buy up land, making them by far the largest land-owner in the city. By soaking up land supply, the government was able to ensure that property prices would remain artificially high, which was vital for the major property developers who would lead the development of the retail precinct. These were some of the country’s richest men, including Philip Carter (brother of National MP and former Speaker of the House David Carter) and Antony Gough (uncle of city councillor Jamie Gough).
With the backing of the government, planning began on the retail core running along Cashel Mall, the city’s main pedestrian shopping street before the quakes. Four developers had responsibility for an area roughly the size of a city block each. A few additions to the Terraces aside, all are complete and strikingly similar. Each has an Australian-owned bank as its cornerstone tenant and internal atria or laneways to try and break up the monotony of a single monolithic building. In part due to the high rents, the retail offerings are what you might expect in a high-end mall in a Middle East petrostate with a questionable human rights record, not an oversized agricultural service town. Most of the ground floors facing the street are occupied by chain fashion stores, impossibly cool and frequently empty. There’s also a cosmetic surgery clinic.
The new CBD has tried to compete with the suburban malls, but instead ended up replicating them. Clean and shiny, glass-fronted buildings made of copper and concrete. In part because it is so new, the area feels sterile. It doesn’t feel lived in, nor does it feel alive. While it hums during the day with office workers and lime scooters, once it hits 6 pm it resembles an abandoned film set. The only people who call this part of the city home are the homeless.
Jump onto one of the heritage trams that loop through the central city, and you can experience Christchurchland. It looks like a regular city, but something doesn’t feel quite right, as though the designers of EuroDisney had been commissioned to build a working replica theme park of a rebuilding city. After riding down Cashel Mall, and past Gough’s development known as The Terrace, the tram then winds through Cathedral Square, where the new library and the convention centre sit alongside the still crippled Anglican Cathedral, and a row of ground floor retail stores that have stubbornly refused the wrecking ball. A surprisingly large number of damaged buildings are still hidden around the city, shrouded by shipping containers, bedazzled with tags. The trams, which have no use as actual public transport, are a sorry reminder that the council’s plan had initially included provisions for light rail in the city – a forward-looking plan for a public transport network that, inevitably, didn’t feature in the government’s plan.
Whether the plan proposed by the City Council would ever have succeeded is a moot point. What we can say is that the values that it highlighted were largely jettisoned in favour of a plan that put business, development, and investment at its centre. Back when we used to dream, there were calls for the rebuilt Christchurch to be ‘the best little city in the world’ or ‘the first 21st century city’. You don’t hear bold statements like that anymore. While there are press releases about ‘6-star green eco-friendly buildings’, there has be no effort to reimagine how people inhabit and use a city. Climate change presents a challenge for urban environments, yet Christchurch is even more dependent on private motor vehicles now than it was in 2011. Any attempt to increase the residential density of the CBD has been undermined by the prohibitively high land prices delivered by the Frame and required for the retail core. The result has been the malignant sprawl of the city across the Canterbury plains, with the commuter towns in the neighbouring districts of Selwyn and Waimakariri being the main benefactors.
It is worth noting the two most successful rebuild projects that have done what so many other developments have tried and failed to do: bring people back into the city. The Margaret Mahy Playground – named after one of New Zealand’s most cherished children’s authors – sits between the Avon River and the Frame. It is a giant outdoor playground, with four different zones, each reflecting an aspect of Canterbury’s natural history. From the day it was opened, it has been a wild success – and was one of the cheapest projects outlined in the Blueprint. The other unreserved success story is Turanga, the new central city library. Like the playground, it has been a bustling hive of activity since its opening, in October of last year. Also like the playground, it is a place you use for free and is very child-friendly. As well as 3D printers, recording studios and Playstations, it features clean toilets and free wi-fi – two things that tourists and the city’s vulnerably housed people alike can enjoy. The success of these two projects shows that there is a real demand for developments that are inclusive rather than exclusive. One can’t imagine that the $500 million convention centre will open to similar acclaim.
With most of the major projects completed, we know the direction that the city will be heading for the immediate future. The Blueprint championed by the last government was centred on business, development, and investment. Having failed to attract significant interest from overseas investors, it was mostly funded by a small pool of local wealth. Thus, the city largely serves the interests of these few capitalists rather than those of the wider city.
Christchurch in 2020 will be largely the same as Christchurch in 2010, except now all the buildings have glass facades. It will still be as unprepared for the challenges of the coming century. The problem for future governments will be whether they can unlock the land in the Frame for the benefit of all, rather than just the existing property owners. Only then will we start to a city that can respond to the multitude of challenges it faces.
All photographs are by James Dann.