This article was first published in the Press on 13 Feb 2017
Barnaby Bennett is a designer and publisher.
Christchurch has made a bit of a mess of its consultation and planning processes post-quake, but the discussions over Cathedral Square and the residential red zone offer a chance to address this problem and produce some better results.
Both are complex projects that mix publicly owned land with a need for community engagement and private investment. If successful, these projects will produce the vibrant, abundant, and social life we all want to see in Christchurch.
However, both opportunities could be ruined if the conventional approaches to master planning that characterised the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) blueprint process are continued. There has been too much thinking about problems of spatial zoning and ownership in the master planning processes so far, and not enough in terms of time and activity.
One of the main lessons we can learn from the proliferation of temporary projects in the last six years is that thinking in terms of time, rather than space, unlocks the city’s massive potential and adds to the kinds of things people can do within it. I’m not arguing that we should continue with temporary solutions, but rather that we need to think in terms of time, not just space.
For example the residential red zone will not benefit from a single master plan that is fixed at some arbitrary point in the future (like the CCDU’s blueprint was). The worst possible result of the planning process would be to split the huge territory up into different ownership groups and then walk away from the area, leaving it with a vision but no leadership to achieve it.
Instead the area needs a cohesive vision, developed with all stakeholder and public groups, and a subsequent series of timeframes for achieving tangible and active goals: in six months garden allotments will be functioning, in two years the flooding infrastructure will be finished, in five years sports and cultural events will be happening, in twenty years major developments will be finished and capital reinvested to pay back loans used to start the large wetlands park, in fifty years the river will be clean and the water drinkable, in 1000 years the area will be awash with birdlife and 800-year-old trees.
The vision and timeframes need to be directed by experts in discussion with locals and stakeholders. From this process, commercial opportunities are then realised and spatial layout can be carefully considered.
The immediate consequence of such a vision is that the problem immediately shifts from one of land ownership and spatial allocation to a problem of ongoing authority and decision-making. Not realising this is one of the big mistakes that held up the central city. There was too much spatial planning and not enough care for the ways in which the city needed to be run and activated.
The key to bringing Cathedral Square to life is to get it working in the short term.
First, see it as a minimum viable product. Create a bold ongoing event or agency or object that will make Cathedral Square a destination — something that both serves the people of the central city and attracts visitors.
It needs to be a space that people want to visit every day, not just once a year. Programmes of action need to be created — concerts, Sunday markets, finishing of marathons, arts festivals, sports events, the Buskers Festival and any others ideas the fine citizens, tangata whenua, cultural groups and youth can imagine. Brand this as a new and cohesive phase.
The worst thing now would be to hold up the functioning of the square for another three years while a new landscape design is drawn and then constructed. The square has been through this enough times. The problems with the square are not going to be fixed with new pavers.
Instead the council and Regenerate Christchurch should start activating the square and let the design evolve in response to demands that flow from that. This might be best achieved by getting a new creative group to lead the programming. But the principle is the same as the residential red zone. Create a vision and then get small things happening immediately. After a few years, review the progress and then make changes and improvements in response to the problems you actually know exist. At this point invest properly and let it fly.
You’ll note in both the response to the residential red zone and to Cathedral Square, that the focus is not on spaces, aesthetics or master planning. Instead the task is to work out how to mix short-term activation with long-term ecological, community and economic restoration.
Planning that prioritises time and activation as key considerations — instead of ownership and master planning — will lead to a city that is owned by its citizens and works in both the short and long term.
Most importantly it will avoid the terrible waiting games that have paralysed the city since 2011.