The opportunity to rebuild the blank canvas that is Christchurch central into a world-leading eco city is one that gets residents excited, but all players need to sign up for it.
At Victoria Park across the Avon River from the Christchurch Town Hall, Captain Cook looks down on the thistle and castor oil plants colonising the formal flowerbeds.
The only sounds are the birds, the wind in the trees and the thump of jackhammers.
At the next turn of the river, the band rotunda built for the city by baking powder king Thomas Edmonds sits cracked and twisted on its foundations.
So is Christchurch “sure to rise”, and if so, what might it look like? The answer to the first question seems to be that too many people’s wealth is tied up in the central city red zone for it to be abandoned just yet.
There is no planning for an alternate city centre, despite the geotechnical challenges of making the land stable enough so buildings don’t fall down.
But by the time the earthquake clean-up is complete, half the buildings in the central city red zone will have come down, meaning up to 80 per cent of the surface area could be bare land.
A wide park will run alongside the Avon River, and join the green strip where damaged riverside houses have been cleared all the way to the sea.
At the time of the first earthquake in September 2010, Christchurch had high central city land and property values but low rents and low occupancy above the ground floor level.
The owners, many of them Canterbury farmers, aren’t likely to be the ones to rebuild. They may well treat any insurance payout as a windfall.
It’s likely a new group of owners and developers will come in, and there also needs to be leadership from local and central government.
When the Christchurch City Council asked residents what they wanted from the rebuild, the answer was for the garden city to be even greener, with sustainability a priority.
But what does sustainability mean when the land can turn to mush in a moment?
The initial greening is easy enough, with the amount of vacant land that will be available. The council’s draft rebuilding plan proposes to double the amount of pre-earthquake public open space in the central city (excluding Hagley Park).
Some of that will be land close to the river that can’t be built on. Some will be in the form of pocket parks and community gardens. The transitional phase includes “greening the rubble”, where trees, shrubs and grass are planted on cleared sites until they can be rebuilt.
The council wants a more compact CBD, pulling in from the four avenues – Bealey, Fitzgerald, Deans and Moorehouse – that have defined the city area since Edward Gibbon Wakefield drew up the street map 160 years ago.
The new city heart will be bounded by Lichfield St to the south, Manchester St to the east, and the Avon River to the north and west, with the greatly expanded Square in the middle.
“When we did work on the economic implications of a low-rise city, we were quickly able to determine we could provide all the floor area we needed with a lower cross section across the city than we had before,” says the mayor, Bob Parker.
Even before the quake Christchurch had become a donut, with much of the retail and commercial activity moving out into the suburbs. That’s common with many cities around the world, and a common response is to encourage residential occupation to reinvigorate the centre.
“Those buildings which would have been suitable for lofts and apartments would have required significant work to be done. For most of the older buildings, the value was in the land and owners were reluctant to go down the path of changing their use,” Parker says.
After the 1980s property boom that saddled the city with ugly and economically unsuccessful office blocks, almost all of which are now coming down, major investors like insurance companies and pension funds quit the city. Many of the buildings in the red zone are now owned by Canterbury individuals – or will default to their bankers.
Parker says as institutional developers, the council and the government need to take the lead by getting major infrastructure back into the centre.
“The convention centre is probably the first we need to get off the blocks, in terms of working out where it should go,” he says.
A likely spot is the land near the Town Hall that will be freed up when the Parkroyal hotel comes down. The town hall itself is badly damaged, but Parker is counting on the main auditorium and the James Hay Theatre being salvageable.
“It could take some innovative engineering but we would be reluctant to lose it.” The council wants to move the AMI stadium to within the four avenues.
Parker says the plan is designed to encourage low rise up to 31 metres in the central core, with a special zone around the convention centre that will allow people to construct hotels over that height without going through a resource consent.
“If they build to those envelopes, there is only those basic rules, there is just a building consent, no resource consent is required.
” Development contributions have been dropped for building in the four avenues, which could cut $20,000 off the cost of an apartment.
“The central city core will be reduced and while we are not compelling people, we are not saying ‘you have to put retail there,’ we are saying there are incentives to focus retail there.
“The building code will be stricter on what happens at ground level in central city blocks to connect what is inside with what is happening at the pavement. We are slowing the traffic down, and there is a literal greening in the feel of the parks,” Parker says.
Semi-permeable paving means rainwater can go into the soil rather than running down the gutters to the rivers.
He says being greener can help the city attract the younger residents it needs to regenerate and survive.
“We think there is strong competitive element to constructing an environmentally sustainable city.”
The council is hiring 70 extra staff to handle building consents in the central city, and it has worked with the Green Building Council to create BASE (Building a Sustainable Environment), a stripped down 20-point checklist that is a cheaper version of the Greenstar certification for sustainable commercial buildings.
The council can lead by example. Its own headquarters, completed two years ago, is a 1970s tower that was refurbished by Ngai Tahu Properties to bring it up to a six Greenstar rating.
It has a tri-generation system that uses biogas piped from the Burwood landfill to make electricity for the building and adjoining art gallery.
The glass front creates a thermal and solar buffering zone, venting air and heat from the building. Electronic shutters help regulate temperature, and rainwater is collected to flush the toilets and water the many plants in the building.
“People want to work in green buildings and it pays off, you invest more at the start but you end up with a much more efficient building,” Parker says.
The money from the carbon credits it gets from harvesting landfill gas goes into a trust for research and education projects around energy saving, such as looking at the feasibility of a district heating scheme for the new compact city.
Parker also talks of the need to get landowners and developers working together on a block-wide basis to overcome the geotechnical challenges of rebuilding on an area which is a series of shingle banks covered by between two and 20 metres of soft silty sands and less compressed soils.
He wants to make light rail a priority, arguing that people are willing to walk much further to catch a tram than they would a bus.
“The opportunity for Christchurch is extraordinary. If we just build what we had before, we’ve gone nowhere and I don’t think it would succeed.
“The world is aware of the issues around sustainability and climate change, the cost of fuel and changing lifestyles around that. Our job is to create a brilliant public space. If we create a space that people enjoy, that is aesthetically involving, that has key community infrastructure like art galleries and sports stadiums in the city, we create a framework that is enticing to people,” Parker says.
The problem for Parker is many of the decisions are out of his council’s hands.
The draft plan has been handed to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) and its Minister, Gerry Brownlee.
Rebuilding can’t start until insurers release the money. That could be quite some time away, because of concerns about continuing quakes, the need for extremely deep foundations and the risk from the demolition of neighbouring buildings.
Building codes will need to be rewritten at national level. Nothing will happen until the royal commission releases its report on why buildings fell down and makes its recommendations.
At the moment all the decisions seem to be made by engineers. Architects and urban planners don’t get a look in.
The New Zealand Institute of Architects appointed Ian Athfield as its architectural ambassador for Christchurch after the September 2010 quake, but now says his profession has been sidelined, with no local architects invited to be part of the council’s design process.
Athfield says the wholesale demolition of the centre will make rebuilding much harder.
“Memory is a very important part of this equation. For many people in Christchurch their memories have gone. Manchester St, Madras St, the sites are scraped clean.
“A half demolished building will give you more answers than one taken completely away,” he says.
Athfield says rather than requiring permanent structures, the council should allow people to throw up temporary, transportable structures, like the containers that have allowed retailers to return to the Cashell St mall.
“The thing that’s missing now is Christchurch’s a main street. You need a mix of food and clothing outlets and so on at relatively low rentals.
“The council’s formula for rebuilding is a pipe dream – a minimum three floors, maximum seven, made of permanent materials.”
Former mayor Garry Moore agrees that a blank sheet is not the best place to start from.
“When we inevitably look back on this, the engineers will be found wanting. We have destroyed far too many buildings,” Moore says.
“Geotech engineers are driving the thing in ways I don’t think is right, and it’s almost like people are scared to stand up to them.”
Moore says what the city needs now are urban planners. “Architects see the built form, not the spaces in between. What I decided as mayor is that urban form is more important than architecture. For 30 years, we have not done urban form well.
“I’m concerned the status quo has captured the process. We are getting conventional thinking at a time we have this amazing opportunity to be innovating.”
He wants to see communities with housing for a range of income levels so people can move from one part of a suburb to another and still be part of it.
As mayor Moore promoted the ideas of Danish architect Jan Gehl for reorienting city design towards pedestrians and cyclists. Gehl’s firm continues to be tapped for advice by the council, although Moore has moved on to embrace the ideas of a new generation of urbanists.
He says Christchurch, and New Zealand, is going to have to get used to doing things differently – and that may mean building without comprehensive earthquake insurance.
“For me the model for Christchurch has to be New Orleans, which since the flood has gone from being 47th most popular city for graduates to number two, so young entrepreneurs are drawn there,” he says.
He says when property owners wake up to the fact their land will never be worth what it was before September 2010, entrepreneurs can come in and different sort of buildings will go up.
“That is when the architects and engineers come in. The designers are there to ensure the form of the city offers sustainable village living.”
Eugenie Sage, the Green Party’s new Christchurch-based MP, says while the council has done a good job getting residents involved and responding to public support for sustainability principles, CERA seems only focused on tearing things down.
“CERA’s draft recovery strategy lacked vision, it ignored public transport, there was no sustainability vision,” Sage says.
She says getting transport right is critical to making the city liveable and sustainable – it’s an area where Christchurch has fallen down badly, with rush hour gridlock now the norm.
By Adam Gifford