Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Renewing planning in the aftermath of Christchurch

Planning and civic renewal
In my last blog I suggested that in the steps of Kobe the renewal of Christchurch should see the strengthening and practical expression of civic spirit.  No doubt that is easier said than done, but building on the identity that is Christchurch leans more today on the character of its people than the shape of its buildings.  The citizens of Christchurch need to play a prominent role in reshaping their city.
But for them to do so requires a range of options to be considered. 
I note the initiative being taken already by some the city’s leading architects, urban designers, and engineers to begin work on urban design principles and long-term scenarios that might underpin the renewal of Christchurch. Hopefully, they will draw in the development sector, too, and draw deeply on their knowledge of local communities.  Such an initiative contributes to our hope that civil society will line up with central and local government to play its full part in the city's recovery.
A decentralised city?
I would like to throw one idea into the mix to be considered, that of a decentralised city.  I am not sure quite what shape this might take, but know that it would be a city held together by identity and civic spirit rather than relying on the contiguity and ever increasing density that seems to inform modern planning lore.
A decentralised city might be one with a number of nodes, sensibly sited, well-connected by wide, multi-modal, corridors that can accommodate a range of activities and transport options.  Each centre in a city of centres would have its own sustaining civic hub of commerce and community.  
A decentralised city can build on the existing frame of centres, suburbs and settlements, and may see the emergence of new ones in the hinterland, defined perhaps by community and capacity, quality of landscape, and integrity of landform and geology. 
What might it mean for Christchurch?
In urbanism, big is not necessarily better.  The national and international response to the tragedy of Christchurch demonstrates that its being well-connected that is essential.  Centralised is not necessary for efficiency, and as communications technology advances, decentralised is not necessarily counter-productive.
Indeed, the break-up and distribution of large business entities, many operating from small centres, is a growing international trend providing a further rationale for decentralisation.
A future for the centre
This is not to walk away from Christchurch’s city centre, a place with a rich past and a positive future, although how that will shape up is hard to know at the moment.  It is no longer simply a precinct of architecture in touch with the past in the way it has been, but it can be a living memorial to both the city’s pioneers and to the people who followed, a salute to Samaritans and survivors, symbolic of enterprise and spirit. 
The people of Christchurch may need to work out new ways of renewal at the centre, but its future need not be the hard-edged, high rise one of cities elsewhere.
Changing paradigms
Engineers and architects are bound to play important, innovative roles in the renewal of Christchurch, its infrastructure and built form.  In urban design and planning it may now be time to get over a fixation with boosting density, with filling the inner city with apartments, and with promoting the idea that the more employees we can cram into a square kilometre the better.  None of these things is particularly helpful in times of disruption.
And while the experts work through new infrastructure options for Christchurch and Canterbury, other places in New Zealand – our flood prone, shaky isles -- might also explore low rise options, and local solutions to utility services.  It may be timely to temper the quest for large, integrated land use and infrastructure plans and utility systems with options that provide a little more reassurance of something will survive in times of emergency. In New Zealand -- as elsewhere -- blind adherence to high rise as a means of managing resources might have had its day.
Maybe the new Christchurch will demonstrate resilience in more ways than one, finding green solutions for infrastructure, including package sewage plants, distributed water supplies, perhaps even supplementing the grid with electricity generated locally.  Building on its foundation of engineering, architecture, communications, and IT expertise, Christchurch could reassert itself as a pioneering community with a firm fix on the future.
Rethinking planning
Exploring decentralisation is just one planning option for rethinking Christchurch and exploring how to preserve its intrinsic qualities while providing for a secure, prosperous, but inevitably different future.  There are bound to be others.  They all need to be aired, debated, and tested in terms of costs, citizen’s preferences, and the resilience (and opportunities) they might offer in adverse times. 
Perhaps the future for Christchurch will emerge bit-by-bit from such a process, rather than as some blue print rolled out by planners over the existing cityscape.  Maybe we won’t even recognise what is planned until we look back on the next ten to twenty years of renewal and progress.
If nothing else, planning should now put the need for resilience ahead of the conceit that we can regulate for certainty when we look to the future of our cities.  It is time to move away from ever more restrictive rules intended to impose the planners’ preoccupation with rigidly fixing urban form to unstable landscapes and changing communities.
This is not our first natural disaster.  It won’t be our last.  But it must be heeded.  For the people who think that they can plan to eliminate uncertainty, whether it is for national infrastructure or a local apartment precinct, this is a wake-up call. In these times planning is a profession that must move beyond making rules for modernity and look to its own renewal or else, as the dust of Christchurch settles, resign itself to irrelevance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,
I agree with you on at least two points:
1) Enough of planners' 'conceit that we can regulate for certainty when we look to the future of our cities' and 'preoccupation with rigidly fixing urban form'.
2) Chch rebuilding should have resilience as a key principle, and this particularly means a decentralised and renewable energy-powered infrastructure.
The two points make a nice package. If adhered to, they would earn the planners of the new Chch the credit of being the creators of a new urban planning paradigm and the practical outcome would be the world's first city truly ready for the vagaries of the 21st century.