Sunday, February 27, 2011

Renewing Christchurch

Making sense of it from a distance
After tragedy, life is transformed.  Existing plans, hopes and expectations are unhinged.  With loss, especially untimely loss, comes an unmapped corner on the path through life, leading to a future that can only look bleak by comparison with what went before. 
But for all sorts of reasons – friends, family, the will to survive, perhaps only instinct – you move on even through deep grief and despair.  Slowly, and despite a natural belief that maybe life doesn’t make that much sense any more, you learn to live a new one.  Time doesn’t really heal and the idea of closure is simply an attempt – usually by others – to distance tragedy that won't ever go away.  But we can learn to live with a new and sorrow-tinged reality.
As it is with individuals, so it must be with communities. 
Christchurch has turned a corner that was never seen, never planned.  The press is talking recovery, but these early days are the days of individuals plumbing the depths and a community sharing the despair.
It might feel too early to think about the future in this awful present.  But keeping moving is how we survive the grief. 
Kobe 1995
My attention was recently drawn to the way in which Kobe was rebuilt after the disastrous Hanshin earthquake of 1995.  The scale of the Kobe quake was unimaginable, even by Christchurch standards.
Kobe 1995 – Some figures
6,400 people killed, 15,000 injured
400,000 buildings damaged, 100,000 collapsed completely
200,000 housing units were partially or completely destroyed
85% of schools, many hospitals, and other major public facilities sustained heavy damage.
Widespread damage to water, gas, and sewer system, rail, road, and port facilities
845,000 households lost gas service for as long as 2.5 months
Restoration of water and wastewater systems to nearly 1.27 million households took as long as 4 months in some places
2,000 small and medium sized businesses failed

Being told about others’ experiences doesn’t make your own grief easier. But it does tell you that life goes on. And it can offer lessons on how that might happen.
For example, rebuilding is inevitably long and slow.  Rushing into renewal is not an option.  Putting together lifelines is a drawn out process.  A city less vulnerable will take research, analysis, and thinking through. 
So the early urgency lies in providing a quality of temporary shelter and restoring fundamental services that may need to provide for years rather than months.
It is appropriate for a strong lead – and funding – for this to come from the very top given the enormity of this disaster, for the Cabinet and the government to work closely with the civic leaders of Christchurch through this time of rescue and restoration.
Among other things, we may just have to rewrite last year's National Infrastructure Plan even before the ink is dry, demonstrating statecraft by a capacity to rethink the country’s spending priorities and to focus now on the billions that must be directed towards Christchurch.
A time for civic renewal
David Edgington drew lessons from Kobe in his recent book Reconstructing Kobe: The Geography of Crisis and Opportunity (March 2010).  Among other things, planners were challenged by local citizens who felt vulnerable and disempowered following the earthquake. They had to win back community trust through local consultation especially among those facing the complete transformation of their neighbourhoods.
What disaster and recovery can do is meld communities, creating new relationships between the people and the governors.  Civil life comes to the fore, with strong, inclusive government action supported by widespread volunteerism.
It seems appropriate for civic leaders to take a lead in looking beyond recovery to renewal in Christchurch.  But it is equally important that the long-term is not contained – or constrained – in a rushed-out plan. Let’s hope that the earthquake is not seized on by planners as an opportunity for a super-sized urban development project. 
The people of Christchurch will need to be consulted widely, to play an active part in decisions about how their future will be reshaped and their communities renewed.  And that should happen bit by bit, project by project, street by street, suburb by suburb.
Whatever comes out of Christchurch's renewal, let us hope that like Kobe it is inspired by a stronger sense of community, and a heightened level of trust between councils, their constituents, and the development sector.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A cruel blow to a beautiful city

Christchurch is reeling after the latest earthquake.  Most of us can just look on with the sense of helplessness that distance brings.  To see the centre of a modern city, one of ours, so devastated, its people so vulnerable and suffering is numbing.
Today, tomorrow, and for some time to come the search for survivors and the cleanup will go on.  We will hear stories of miraculous survival, heroism, and tragic loss.
And then, as the city looks once more to recovery and rebuilding, we might look for the lessons to be learned. 
We cannot resist the power of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami, and the like.  But we can perhaps limit the devastation that accompanies them.
The implosion of many of Christchurch’s beautiful heritage buildings is a tragedy on its own, the wiping from the landscape of much of the City’s and nation’s history.  But seeing the collapse of more modern buildings is sobering. 
What are the lessons of architecture and engineering that might be drawn from this?  How much resistance can we realistically build into our structures?  Or should we be thinking less rigidly, and explore designs that deflect or reduce the impacts when buildings are faced with irresistible forces?  Should we think more about the survival of the people in and around buildings and less about the survival of the structures?  Are there innovations in design that offer refuge, protection, and escape even if walls crumble and floors collapse?
And what can urban designers and planners take from this devastation?  What does it tell us about the importance of space in the central city, of wide boulevards, generous parks, and civic squares?  About the need for more space, not less.  The centre of Christchurch is still relatively open, and perhaps that has saved some lives.  It was possible to take refuge in the streets, the squares, and the parks. 
This event must surely erode planners’ resistance to the decentralisation that is the mark of a prosperous, modern city, that makes it that little bit more liveable, and so much more resilient in the face of disaster?  Perhaps we should be thankful that a diminishing share of Christchurch’s people actually works in the CBD – today just 26% of the total.  And that not too many dwellings – and residents -- had been crammed into retrofitted buildings or high rise apartments assembled in inner city precincts.
We might also need to rethink infrastructure and network utilities in vulnerable settings.  Do the economies of scale associated with large, integrated networks and single source headworks for water supply and wastewater treatment offer the resilience and recovery that dispersed or local plant might do?  Do we have the redundancy built into our energy networks that permit selective shut off and rapid recovery?  How vulnerable are our communication networks, and how easily overloaded?  Where are our fuel supplies?  Are they safe, accessible in an emergency?
Are we overloading old networks with new demands?  What are the costs of building resilience into infrastructure and what are the gains in terms of recovery and continuity of service in the face of destructive forces?
This has been and will be a life changing event for many people – life shattering in far too many cases.
 Out of tragedy people look for blame and for meaning to ease the grief.  We need to acknowledge the former and try to get past it in the interests of the recovery and healing that the city and its citizens must go through. 

But we owe it to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake to look hard, deep, and wide at how might we better shape our cities to cope with the unexpected and the unwanted.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hey, city planners, there is no silver bullet

Encarta: Silver bullet – a magical solution to a problem
Malling Queen St
Interesting article in Monday’s NZ Herald by Brian Rudman.  Making Queen Street into a pedestrian friendly mall won’t fix the tired hick town look, he says.  I agree.  And, as he also says, we have just finished spending $43+ million giving it a makeover, of sorts.  What did that achieve?  Are visitor numbers up?  Have landlords spruced up their facades?  Are retailers reporting more sales?  It’s still a canyon, admittedly with some new pavers and trees. 
But really, the idea that we can resuscitate the Golden Mile and create a place for promenading or a 1.5 km boulevard for shopping - or perhaps even both – is a nonsense.  It’s out of touch.  That’s not how we do it nowadays.  We can promenade in parks or on the water’s edge.  And we can shop in malls or the town centres  and villages that are beginning to breathe again, where we can park our cars and get so much more bought in a single visit.
Anyway, the city is no longer just about shopping.  It’s about recreation and entertainment, culture and  people, meeting and eating, looking and being looked at, and maybe a little indulgent retail therapy here and there.
Shooting up Main Street
There is no silver bullet for fixing up Main Street, or for making a gee whiz central city around it (along it?).  It’s nice to have the hired guns ride in to tell us how they cleaned up the last town or two.  Let’s give them a respectful hearing. But they don’t live here, and we don’t live there.  We don’t need to swallow the Next Big Idea lock stock and barrel.
Queen Street is no longer the heart of Auckland, although it’s still an important artery.  It is no longer what defines us or the city, and hasn’t been for a long time now.  It’s had its day, although it still has a useful role to play.
Hot Spotting
What might really make a difference to Auckland are the distinctive bits, the real hot spots.  We have a burgeoning civic and cultural centre stretching from the Art Gallery, through the Library (yes) the Town Hall, to Aotea Square, the Civic Theatre, and the Edge.  We could work on tying that lot together a bit better and pumping new life into it.  Make it easier to traverse.  Some street art and signage perhaps.  More activity.  An artists’ display area.  An ethnic foods precinct.  An artisans’ corner.  Let the people in and go with their ideas so that the centre never sleeps.  After all, this is the heart of our multi-culture.
And Karangahape Rd; there’s a place of character with its own distinctive subculture.  Perhaps it would be more so if we had alternative to the slog up Queens St by connecting our cultural hearth at Aotea Square with our other half via Myers Park and St Kevin’s Arcade.
And Quay St, another place where people could spend a lot more time as we open up the waterfront.  Especially if we don’t ruin it by turning Queens Wharf into an Occasional Event Centre. We have to think a bit more about how to get people across from the Britomart Transport Terminal, though, and take a more expansive view of where the people’s waterfront might begin and end and what we might do to get more of them there more of the time.  
And then there’s the Viaduct Basin.  We seem to have built it to hide it (shame that).  Let’s exploit that now, and keep it that way – Auckland’s little downtown secret and big surprise, a seafarers’ (and party goers’) delight, tucked just around the corner.  A centre of global yachting, and a destination out on its own. 

And we might even end up with something decent in the Beaumont Quarter (if we can keep its character).  And we’ve got Ponsonby Rd, Kelly Tarltons, and Mission Bay.  So Auckland’s already got the hot spots, although presumably could do with more.  (I often think we need to create a place for our kids in the city; where could we do that, and how?  And I don’t just mean movie theatres and internet cafes.
Streets doing what streets are meant to do
All Queen St does is join some of these spots together.  And that’s okay, although maybe it could be done with more panache.
The message is – think in nodes and links.  Because as the hot spots get hotter, more people will wander up and down the old dame, and other streets, between them.  Slick landlords or retailers on the corridors between the hot spots will be doing what they can to capture the passers by – and that is what will jazz the streets up.  
Look at what happened to Willis St, Manners St and even the newly funky Chews Lane in Wellington when the notion of the Golden Mile was finally put to rest in the capital.  And Wellington has plenty of hot spots – the government centre, Lambton Harbour and Queens Wharf, Courtney Place, Cuba Mall – each a hub of attraction and activity, jointly leading to a nice job of sprucing up, if not transforming, the links between them.
Get the hot spots humming 

So if we want to make Auckland something distictive let’s put our planning and design– and public money, if we must – into the hot spots; build on our strengths, and let the links look after themselves.  We don’t have to do it all at once.  We don’t need a Master Plan -- or even a roaming gun for hire -- to tell us what to do.  A series of small projects, a nudge here and there, and a vision of the central city as a series of places rather than as a map might help.  Urban design might say something about our pasts, our presents, and our futures.  That means its good to improvise and build as we go.  Its not a magical solutoin, but it could be fun.
If it means reducing cars in key parts of the city, that’s fine, too.  Just do it subtly.  Longer pedestrian phases on intersections is an easy start.  More shuttle buses would help.  Reducing lanes, increasing parking charges.  There are plenty of ways without throwing our money at more bricks and mortar.
Auckland – a city of hot spots.  And hopefully, in due course, some quirky byways between them.
But don’t pretend that the big ideas, the big hits will deliver.  Marshall your ammunition – pick your targets carefully, and pick them off as time, money, and inspiration allow.  But forget the silver bullet.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Can we do Londonism?

Londonism – leadership building a city's ideology
The Economist recently outlined how a strong mayoral office has helped transform London into a global city.  Although the reshaping of once desolate Docklands and Canary Wharf goes back over 20 years, the article sees their emergence as a centre of global commerce and recreation as an expression of “Londonism”.  This, it says, is “a distinct ideology” focused on the leadership provided by a strong mayoralty.  Two totally different mayors, it argues, have helped create a vibrant, open, progressive, and highly successful city even in the midst of Britain’s economic doldrums. 
In this posting I ask whether the creation of a stronger mayoral office might have done this for Auckland, and what sort of Auckland a visionary mayor might promote.
So, does Auckland governance deliver the right leadership?
Creating a stronger international presence so that Auckland can secure its place among the world’s wealthier centres was the aspiration behind the Royal Commission on Auckland’s Governance. 
The Commission received useful advice on how the necessary leadership might be achieved from international expert, Robin Hambleton.  Unfortunately, it watered down his recommendations and, like medicine, the watered down version may not deliver the cure. 
Processor Hambleton pointed to the benefits of a directly elected Mayor presiding over an authority making strategic decisions on (selected) matters of city-wide significance.  London provides the example of just such leadership delivering the vision needed to lift a city out of the ordinary. 
At the same time, community leadership continues to reside in London’s 32 boroughs and central London’s City Corporation.  The Royal Commission’s prescription for Auckland, though, downplayed community leadership by promoting the merger of existing councils and dramatically reducing both councillor numbers and their proximity to communities. 
However, it did retain the idea of a mayor elected at large with an executive office attached to the mayoralty, although with more limited executive powers than in London and a more traditional brief. 
In essence, the Commission’s prescription, and the government’s subsequent modifications, focused on changing structures to achieve gains in efficiencies and submerge parochialism, rather than on reshaping Auckland’s leadership. 
The government paid lip service to local democracy by retaining ward-based elections for councillors.  But this further compromises city-wide leadership by retaining an incipient parochialism in council, without really achieving local leadership.  Locally elected boards cannot do much, either, as they lack budgets and only have the powers delegated by the council. 
So we have a governance structure that compared with London compromises on leadership at all levels.  The question remains whether the civic leadership can still evolve, and be effective.
Making the most of what we’ve got
Fortunately, the mayoral contest turned into a two horse race.  And while it was between two tried and tested mayors from the old regime, they did offer voters a choice of politics and style.  With a solid win, community-focused Mayor Len Brown can assume a mandate to insert his values of inclusion into a long-term vision for Auckland, albeit one that needs to take the council with it.  Fortunately for him the council is weighted in his favour. 
Like former London mayor “red” Ken Livingstone in London, he is also prepared to back some of the infrastructure projects that business favours.  And, keen to make his mark quickly, Mayor Brown has embarked on a programme of 100 projects in 100 days.  Most of these are sensible, tidy-up initiatives, pulling together a range of outstanding issues.  But this is short-termism, much of it to do with matters that could have been handled locally; hardly visionary.  It implies that the new Mayor could get his fingers into all sorts of pies and be distracted from the big picture.
Can Auckland have its Canary Wharf?
On the other hand, the risk of consciously pursuing a big vision is that we try to emulate the big stories from overseas: waterfront master plans; convention centres, cruise ship terminals and the like.  This is the “me-too” version of vision – Auckland wanting to be one of the big boys.  And, incidentally, spending big money to do it.  Unfortunately times have changed.  The rebuiilding of Docklands coincided largely with boom times in one of the world's major metropolitan centres.  But this is Auckland emerging tentatively from the depths of a major global downturn.
Of course, this simply increases the challenge, and behoves us to find a different way.  And that may just be to blend Mayor Brown’s focus on community with how we assert our place in the world.
This is Auckland, Tamaki Maka Rau, with its own distinctive heritage – a Māori, Polynesian and Pacific heritage, a colonial past, a land of settlers, where cultures old and new meet and mix.  It is a city of seas, seafarers and travellers, a waypoint between east and west.  It’s an outdoor sort of place, a weathered place that can function well in rain or shine.  (Now there’s a challenge – one that Wellington, for example, has risen to in its streetscapes, byways, and public places).  . 
One Auckland, many Aucklands
As the Economist says about London, Auckland has its own geography and its own lifestyles.  It enjoys spectacular landscapes reaching from coast to coast and houses diverse and evolving communities, some steeped in the long history of the land and others fresh off the boat. 
Can we link these places and peoples, perhaps bring them together symbolically on the shores of the Waitemata and the city centre?  At the same time, can we ensure that their individuality is expressed in a series of well connected places and spaces – leafy suburbs, urban villages, rural settlements, and coastal communities -- of colour and character?
We do not have to reinvent Auckland so much as highlight and build on what we already have and who we already are.  Urban form, urban design, and civic projects will ideally bring out what’s best about our city, our citizens, and our landscapes, making Auckland open and accessible.  This is the challenge for our mayor and for mayors to come, a challenge of creating a singular vision globally recognised, one that encompasses our localism, diversity, and internationalism.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cities in search of resilience

Resilience: the ability to recover quickly from setbacks (Encarta)
An age of extreme events?
Without debating whether an increase in the frequency of extreme events reflects climate warming , such events can be catastrophic when they impact on densely populated areas.  Natural disturbances, whether geophysical (tsunami, earthquakes, mudslides) or climatic (flooding, hurricane strength winds, tidal surges), become disasters if they strike heavily populated centres. 
So do human acts of aggression.  The tactic of terrorising civilian populations taken to new heights in the bombing raids of the Second World War and adopted by today’s extremists is most effective – and destructive - when directed at the heart of major cities.



Promoting preparedness
So how do we respond, especially given the expectation that we face an increase in such events?
We can prepare ourselves individually by sensible precautions. House design, construction, maintenance can help in high risk areas.  Having household plans and resources for escape, survival, and recovery is becoming more common.  As communities we can build our collective emergency response and recovery capacity.  We can also look to our hinterlands to ensure that land use practices -- clearances, monocultures, river straightening, irrigation, and dams -- do not precipitate major events such as dust storms or floods that impact on cities downwind and downstream.
The Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 increased the New Zealand government’s focus on risk reduction, hazard avoidance, and community readiness.  In particular, Part 1 (3) (d) requires:
local authorities to co-ordinate, through regional groups, planning, programmes, and activities related to civil defence emergency management across the areas of reduction, readiness, response, and recovery, and encourage co-operation and joint action within those regional groups;
The effects of climate change, presumably including the potential for violent storms and inundation, are matters to which people exercising powers under the Resource Management Act should have particular regard (Part 2 7 (i)).
Vulnerable by design
There is an imperative in legislation in New Zealand, then, for local and regional councils to consider hazard mitigation and risk avoidance in our urban planning and design.  This is so internationally.
It is not coincidence that many – if not most – major cities in the world are built on rivers or at the coast given their origins as nodal points, or  on fertile flood plains, in the lee of mountains, between mountains and sea, even on fault lines.  They are consequently built across unstable and vulnerable sites in many instances.  This is should be a fundamental consideration in our urban design, architecture, and engineering. [1]
So here are some reasons why we might seriously question the compact city paradigm which so influences planning and urban design today:
  1. It relies on sophisticated, centralised interdependent systems of services.  This creates greater capacity for disruption when any one part fails.  Economies of scale in utilities may come with increased risk of failure under duress.  This applies to sewage treatment infrastructure, communications, water, energy distribution, and power supplies.  It also applies to public transport systems.
  2. Poorly designed intensification reduces permeable surfaces, intensifying flood impacts.
  3. Converting brownfield and even greenfield sites (such as undeveloped urban space) to housing or mixed use reduces the safety valve of open space and increases vulnerability associated with the concentration of buildings and populations.
  4. Crowding more people into smaller spaces around constrained road capacity reduces prospects for rapid evacuation from the city or into safe structures and areas.
  5. Lifting the density of buildings increases the consequential impacts of severe events by such things as the collapse of structures, the spread of fire, and the transmission of disease.
  6. Mixing uses increases the risk of injury and destruction when people live close to premises where hazardous and flammable goods may be stored.  Gas, chemical cleaners, and fuel are obvious examples.
  7. Reducing the space available reduces the capacity of people – households and communities – to fend for themselves, particularly if the consequences of a disruptive event are prolonged.
Looking over these issues, it is unsurprising that our past history of increasing prosperity was a history of reducing urban densities even as rural-urban migration pushed up city populations. What is surprising is that we seem to have given up the quest to make this same movement -- essentially a de facto public health programme -- work in a resource constrained environment.
Back to the future?
One of the drivers of early town and country planning was the desire to protect public health, with zones separating industry from where people lived.  A healthy workforce was a productive workforce, so it made sense to reduce the exposure of people to industrial pollution.  There were also public health benefits from getting families out of high density slums into something approximating a rural lifestyle with access to space, gardens, and parks.  The resulting residential areas – the suburbs -- came to be highly valued in the 20th century.  Many people still value them, even in a post-industrial age.
But in today’s quest to preserve city edges, to support public transit, and curtail car use planners have moved to reinstate higher urban densities around existing city centres, denigrating suburban life as “sprawl”, and downplaying the new risks that revisiting the old ways raise.
Planning for resilience
We may have to rethink these revisionary ideals in the face of reality.  A better understanding of resource constraints and the need for diversity may mean that we shouldn't look at expanding our cities in the uncritical way we did in the past, providing large plots for small households.  But for many people, and perhaps for nature, high density, mixed use is not necessarily the best alternative. 
I’m not sure what form a move to resilience in urban design might favour.  Most probably it will – and should – vary from place to place.  Decentralisation will have a role to play.  Certainly smaller centres, within, on, or beyond the edges of large cities, with a full range of services and amenities and a high level of self sufficiency are likely to offer more resilience to communities than centralised, hierarchical and interdependent services stretched over the entire city.  
In some places, well constructed and spacious high rise apartments set in extensive green spaces might work.  In others, terraced housing, each dwelling with a small garden, interconnected by pathways and roads to nearby community and commercial centres will be appropriate.  Traditional suburbs, perhaps scaled down, will have their place, providing private and public spaces to nurture families and nature.  High density suburbs with extensive parks, green belts, and generous transport corridors are another option. 
Whatever the form, the risk of disasters in our cities being compounded by crowding and mean design calls for putting resilience into the urban design equation.  The possibility of marginal long-term savings in fuel consumption and vehicle emissions used to justify constricting our urban places (and lives) may otherwise come at too high a cost.



[1]               This is hardly an original observation.  It was argued for Wellington in 1981, for example, by A Cibirowski in “Urban design and physical planning tools to make cities safer in earthquake prone areas”, cited in McKay, B (2005) “Plan Tectonics", Planning Quarterly