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.


Andrew D Atkin said...

Well, it looks terribly expensive. Maybe the expansion of telecommuting could be an option? It might be a good idea to look seriously at replacing some buildings with fibre, where possible.

Anonymous said...

Some sage advice Phil. Letters in today's Herald prompted me to have look at Kobe which lost 6000 lives in the 1995 earthquake. Now rebuilt and "one of Japans most beautiful cities". This You Tube video about the reconstruction illustrates the importance of building trust between the (re)developers and the communities. It took 10 years but they did manage to reconstruct. If Kobe and Napier can do it, so can Christchurch.

Phil McDermott said...

Thanks for your contributions.
Whatever comes out of Christchurch's renewal, let us hope that like Kobe it is inspired by a stronger sense of community than ever, and a heightened level of trust between councils, their constituents, and the development sector.
I am mulling over the idea of a decentralised city, one with a number of growth nodes, sensibly sited, well connected by wide, potentially multi-modal, corridors, each, though with its own centre and balance of community facilities. Electronic connectedness will no doubt play a part in this.

In urbanism, big is not necessarily better but even as the national and international response to the tragedy of Christchurch demonstrates, well-connected is essential. And at the same time we could explore more carefully local solutions to utility servcies. Maybe the new Christchurch could be a demonstration of resilience in more ways than one.

At the risk of being doctrinaire - this really is a wake up call for doctrinaire planning.

Andrew D Atkin said...

Hi again,

Christchurch is a flat and boring city (to me!). So, I personally like the idea of clearing away the buildings that are ruined and just replacing them with greenery where possible (how about some fruit trees?), and then building the extra capacity on the outskirts, or in outer nodes, when and as required. A more hard-core 'garden city' is a good idea for a city that is otherwise quite sterile, in my opinion.

And of course, "modernisation" should not just mean modern-style buildings replacing the old ones. The conditions that Christchurch was orginially built from are not quite the same as those of today (different development opportunites, industries and demands etc), and so yesterdays optimum structural form may not represent the optimum for today.

So I certainly agree with you Phil that they should not haste with a design plan. From this disaster may come a lot of unique opportunity!