Speaker by Various Artists


Once in a Lifetime: Unofficial versions

by Barnaby Bennett, James Dann, Emma Johnson, and Ryan Reynolds

The issues around the Christchurch rebuild are dense, manifold and inevitably localised, and it can be hard for people outside the city to understand how or why its citizens might be unhappy with the decisions made on their behalf. Decisions about what kind of place people will live in.

A good deal of light has been cast on the matter by the book Once in Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, published by Freerange Press and edited by Barnaby Bennett, James Dann, Emma Johnson, and Ryan Reynolds. The book features a foreword by Helen Clark and its 55 authors include Kevin McCloud, Rebecca McFie, Eric Crampton, Giovanni Tiso and Raf Manji.

The book is still available from Freerange for $45, but the editors have kindly granted Public Address permission to to run its introduction in full in this post. It explains some things.


What a day it was

It began with a sharp jolt at 4:37 a.m. on 4 September 2010. Radio New Zealand shifted to their emergency broadcast (which unfortunately was the Beach Boys’ song Good Vibrations) and a collective thought emerged from New Zealanders that would be repeated endlessly over the next few years: ‘Christchurch isn’t supposed to have big earthquakes.’

When dawn rose and the dust settled after this first quake in September, it felt like a bullet had been dodged. The damage was significant; buildings were evacuated; there was talk of widespread demolition. Yet somehow, almost magically, no one was killed.

The quake altered the political landscape, and the previously unpopular mayor Bob Parker surged to a second term in the November local body elections. Local MP and Minister Gerry Brownlee was given the new role of Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (CER), and Parliament passed the first version of the CER legislation to enable a coordinated response to the destruction. Little did these leaders or the people of Christchurch know what was still to come.

At 12:51 p.m. on 22 February 2011, a violent aftershock centred in Lyttelton shook the city, causing extensive damage to buildings and land across the region. The city’s power, water, sewerage, roading and governance systems were overwhelmed. The next day the New Zealand government declared the second-ever national state of emergency. It would emerge that 185 people from seventeen different countries died as a result of the quake. The majority of these deaths were due to the collapse of two relatively modern central city buildings: the Canterbury Television and Pyne Gould Corporation buildings. The heroism in the hours and days after the quake was extraordinary – involving thousands of volunteers, police, fire service, armed forces and urban search and rescue teams from around the world. This book looks at what happened next, as the people of Christchurch were forced to recreate their broken city.

It was immediately evident that the post-quake demolition and planning processes were going to be long and complex. Shortly after the February quake, the Government reconfigured its portfolios and chose Minister Brownlee to lead the official response as Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, alongside the mayor, Civil Defence and other officials. At the end of March a new government organisation, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), was created to oversee the reconstruction processes. A few weeks later a major piece of legislation was passed that gave the Minister extraordinary powers to bypass most other New Zealand laws to accomplish the reconstruction.

That legislation obliged the Christchurch City Council to undertake a process to determine the planning of the central city, and present it for ministerial approval or revision. Pre-quake, the city council had already sought recommendations to improve the liveability of the city, engaging internationally recognised Gehl Architects. Gehl Architects were utilised again post-quake, and helped facilitate the large city-wide consultation campaign that became known as Share an Idea. Through digital media, snail mail and in-person workshops, more than 100,000 ideas for Christchurch were garnered from a population that was still reeling from the impact of the February quake just three months prior, and experiencing regular and often violent aftershocks. In total, Christchurch has suffered more than 13,000 aftershocks, including two more large and damaging shakes on 13 June and 23 December 2011.

The abundant ideas were recorded by Council and analysed for commonalities and patterns. This led to the development of five overarching themes: a green city; an accessible city; a stronger built identity; a compact central business district; ‘a place to live, work, play, learn and visit’. These themes in turn informed the urban design in the Council’s draft Central City Plan (CCP), which was revealed to the public and opened for feedback in August 2011, less than six months after the fateful day.

In November 2011 a nationwide general election was held, and the National Party – including Minister Brownlee – was re-elected to government for a further three years.

The next month, as per the legislation, the Christchurch City Council presented a revised CCP to the Minister for his approval, having digested public feedback on the August draft. The Minister opened the opportunity for further submissions to be made regarding the Council’s plan.

After what had felt like the rapid development of the Council’s plan, it took the Minister four months to announce that, while the principles of the plan were solid, the spatial layout was not well enough defined and the rules that underpinned the plan were too restrictive. On 18 April 2012 the Minister announced the establishment of a new unit within CERA, called the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), and appointed former Timaru District Council Chief Executive Warwick Isaacs to lead it. His most recent experience had been coordinating the building demolitions programme for CERA. The first task of the CCDU was to pull together a team of designers and come back with a more developed design – a blueprint for the city – within 100 days.

New Zealand-based planning and design consultants Boffa Miskell led a consortium of designers and architects from firms in Christchurch and Sydney: Woods Bagot, Populous, Sheppard and Rout, RCP, and Warren and Mahoney.

The designers and consultants were pulled together to substantially revise the spatial framework of the Council’s CCP and largely rewrite the regulatory framework: the zonings, consent obligations and other foundational rules. The group’s major task was to find sites for the series of anchor projects that the Government had decided would comprise their recovery plan.

On 30 July 2012, almost a year since the Council’s first draft plan and seventeen months since the worst quake, Prime Minister John Key joined Minister Brownlee and Mayor Bob Parker to launch the national Government’s new Christchurch Central Recovery Plan (CCRP) and Blueprint at the Council’s Civic Offices. While the city’s politicians, businessmen and leaders applauded the occasion, people outside could be seen protesting the slow progress of repairs and lack of attention to housing.

Christchurch now had the controversial plan that was to become the primary document in the reimagining of the central city.

The new Blueprint placed a series of major buildings and precincts across the city. Most of these were carried over – in a slightly different form or scale – from the Council’s draft plan, such as a Metro Sports Facility, the re-design of the Avon River and surroundings, a large children’s playground, a convention centre and a new central library.

A handful of significant new projects emerged in the Blueprint: the Performing Arts Precinct, Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Innovation Precinct and a new stadium in the city. The most notable change was the formalisation and extension of the desire, expressed in the Council’s plan, to have greenways along the edges of a more compact central city. The new Blueprint entailed the purchase of large areas of the central city to develop a massive green edge called The Frame, encompassing around twelve entire city blocks. The goals of The Frame were to create a government-owned land bank to protect property prices in the city, to create an edge to prevent the central city from bleeding into the light industrial areas to the east and south and to provide future opportunity for inner-city residential development.

The integrated public approach, seen in the earlier Council plans, was now gone. The Council’s CCP had proposed large publicly-funded projects, but also included incentives and regulations, with frameworks for how to incorporate education, housing, public art, high-quality streetscapes, character, identity and heritage. The Government CCRP removed environmental standards for buildings in the city, directives to investigate light-rail for the city, and any strategic approach to how to manage the city’s diverse and important heritage stock. It progressed from a framework that encapsulated a wide range of community ideals to a minister-led masterplan.

The differences between the Council plan and the new Blueprint are evident in the process as well. The Council draft plan was developed from a city-wide consultation exercise. They sought feedback on the draft plan, with a travelling roadshow that more than 6000 people visited. A further 4700 submissions were received on the draft plan, and 427 people presented in person to the Council over eight days in October 2011. The government-led Blueprint was launched on 30 July 2012 and became law the following day ­– with no further feedback or review process. The new government-led process does, however, continue the significant and historic relationship with Ngai Tahu.

It soon became clear that many of the anchor projects in the ambitious Blueprint were placed where there were existing buildings that had survived the quakes. Thus, it was unstated but insinuated that the Majestic Theatre would be demolished for a proposed road to be widened; the old council offices for a new transport interchange; the Centennial Pool complex for a large family playground; the NG Building of art galleries, shops and offices for the new stadium and so on. Other controversial aspects included the apparent assumption that the Christchurch Town Hall would be demolished and the inclusion of a Cricket Oval in Hagley Park.

The transport-related aspects of the plan had been excluded from the Blueprint and postponed to a separate addendum. It was to be another fifteen months before the transport plan, An Accessible City, was released and adopted into the larger planning law of the city. This long process did, however, give stakeholders and the public the opportunity to submit feedback. The main aspects of this plan were to retain the people-focused urban design of the spatial plan and to restrict travel speeds to 30 km/h in the central city. Controversially, most of the one-way streets were preserved, a decision that overturned the Council’s proposal to remove the one-way system that, it claimed, encourages people to drive through rather than to the city.

The new plan required significant investment from local and central government. It led to tense negotiations between these organisations, behind closed doors, with many of the city’s own elected councillors excluded. The negotiations were only publicised once a deal was signed between the two agencies – despite involving billions of dollars of public money. On 27 June 2013, a deal was announced: $4.8 billion of funding for the rebuild was to be split, with $2.9 billion coming from central government and $1.9 billion from local government.

In October 2013 Council elections were held and Lianne Dalziel – who stepped down as Member of Parliament for hardest-hit Christchurch East to stand for the role – was elected mayor, along with nine new city councillors and only four incumbents. They rode a wave of public enthusiasm to clean house, to revitalise the dysfunctional bureaucracy with a stronger council that could both work with, and stand up to, central government. Changes to the local government had already transpired prior to the elections, with the CEO resigning amidst controversy around his salary and his handling of an issue that resulted in the Council being stripped of its accreditation to issue building consents.

There is considerable tension between the local and central governments with overlapping areas of planning and governance in the central city, and competing views on financial priorities. This leads to complex power relations. Central government can impose a new stadium in the city that the local government must partly pay for; Council can assert some autonomy and decide to repair the Christchurch Town Hall, which contradicts the CCDU plan for a Performing Arts Precinct. In this post-quake tangle, every issue has become thornier.

While the central government is covering a significant amount of the costs they also stand to recoup a considerable percentage of this through taxes from increased economic growth as a result of the rebuild. The local government on the other hand has large debt problems and is in danger of not being able to meet its commitments to the large projects.

By 2014 it was abundantly clear that the rebuild was going to take longer than most initial projections. The cost, complexity and scale of the whole process continue to surprise everyone. Most major projects are running behind schedule; it is likely to be at least ten years on from the first quake before all the major projects are completed. The entire earthquake recovery is estimated to cost around $40 billion, the majority of this coming from insurance companies, with central and local government contributing significant amounts, and comparatively small amounts of new private investment emerging to support the city so far.

Two years after the launch of the Blueprint, onsite work has begun on just four out of the eighteen government-led anchor projects: the Cricket Oval, Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Te Papa Otakaro / Avon River Precinct and the Bus Interchange. Many are in various stages of tendering, designing or documentation with little public discussion or presence.  A number of projects such as the Arts Precinct, the Stadium and Te Puna Ahurea Cultural Centre are contested, or there has been little progress to date.

Like the land, the people of Christchurch are well-surveyed. Coming up to four years after the first quake all data still indicate that people here are suffering considerably more hardship and stress than normal. The quakes that at first united everyone and brought together communities of people from different economic and class backgrounds now risk amplifying those differences as the well-off and financially independent are able to adjust and adapt more readily. Amid these many controversies and complexities, it is important to acknowledge that much that could have gone wrong hasn’t. There has not been a collapse in land value, mass emigration, a ruined local economy, widespread fraudulence or a general lack of basic provisions. There has been significant adaptation and innovation by government institutions in health, justice and economic support. And many of the unplanned activities in the city – private developments like C1 Espresso; community groups like Addington Action and the Student Volunteer Army; cultural inventions like the new Festival of Transitional Architecture, the Ministry of Awesome and the many Gap Filler projects – have been both inspirational and influential.

In short, it’s all very complicated.

There is no clear dividing line between the disaster and the subsequent plans, actions and developments. The city’s character is saturated with the disaster; the earthquake remains an inescapable daily presence and topic of conversation.

Alongside the continuing trauma, this crisis has helped form profound friendships and a collective sense of purpose. In a complex web comprising multiple layers of government, local and external developers, community groups, NGOs, architects, planners and all the residents of the city, we have the daunting chance not just to rebuild, but to reimagine our city.

Once in a lifetime

The title ‘Once in a lifetime’ indicates both an opportunity and a threat: the unparalleled occasion to grow, develop and explore, and an imperative not to miss our collective ‘only chance’. This phrase captures something of the simultaneous liberation and pressure felt in Christchurch in the past few years.

In an interview about the Talking Heads’ song of the same title, writer David Byrne said: ‘We're largely unconscious. We operate half-awake, on autopilot. And we end up with a house and family and job and we never stop and ask how did we get here.’ Thus, his song actually implies that every moment is a once in a lifetime opportunity and burden – though people don’t often think in this way.In nearly every facet of our lives – work, relationships, home environment – humans are constantly navigating between fully investing ourselves in the choices we’ve already made and opening ourselves to new possibilities and ways of being. We may reveal these inner struggles to our friends and family, but it is rare that these personal considerations take collective form.

In times of crisis, many issues that were previously hidden, unknown or private become temporarily communal. Whole societies of people must suddenly debate their collective values and future. Balancing, on a city-wide scale, the inevitable sense of urgency and need for decisiveness with the sense that meaningful change may be possible is one of the most daunting tasks that individuals and societies can face.

The real once-in-a-lifetime prospect in Christchurch, then, is that these questions – of whether and how to re-assert our old values and choices or take time to flirt with rare new possibilities – are unavoidable, shared and city-wide. A few years on from the major earthquakes many key decisions and plans have been made, including the crucial final Government Blueprint for the recovery, but the consequences have not been fully reaped. The purpose of this book is to reflect on these issues while it is not too late to make informed changes.

City of dreams

In late 2013, the editors of this book felt that what had been a fairly widespread optimism about the rebuild – for both the official plans and the unofficial activities and developments – was steadily wearing away. This seemed to be the occasion to examine whether we, collectively as a city, might be missing our chance to make this new city the best representation of our shared values, to make the most of this awful situation. We put a call out, seeking contributions on a wide range of urban recovery topics from planning, economics, arts and health, to anything else people wanted to propose. The fact that most of the authors transcend their disciplinary boundaries may indicate the convolution of this unprecedented post-quake scenario: nobody is an expert and no discipline can work in isolation. This process yielded a unique collection of multidisciplinary essays by professional journalists, politicians, students, planners, academics, publicans, artists, designers, economists and much more.

Recognising the diversity of the submissions, we opted to group the essays not by topic or discipline, but by their underlying theme or consequence. The chapter sequence tells a story of the past few years, from exploring different methods and philosophies of Making Plans, to the marketing, politics and genuine consultation involved in Selling the Plans to the general public and investors. Implementing the envisioned change requires Rewriting the Rules to permit new ways of acting. During this process, we have been Considering the Common Good, asking how we might shape our city to reflect our shared values, and debating what those values might actually be. Along the way there are repeated reminders of the importance of Thinking Big, Acting Small and Meeting in the Middle, which refer not only to the scale of responses, but also to hierarchies and power relationships. This cognisance leads to many real and imagined possibilities of Building Back Better, and culminates in Reimagining Recovery, dreaming of ways in which we might yet enact deep-seated change.

Within each of these chapters there are at least two different currents, revealing perhaps the most persistent theme of the book: the relationship between the official responses of those in power and the many and varied unofficial responses. As an example, the chapter Rewriting the Rules focuses on the Government’s extraordinary powers and the legislation that granted them – but also on the ways certain developers, community groups and concerned citizens have been subverting conventions to reshape some of the unwritten rules and habits of our city. Similarly, the chapter Making Plans includes pieces representing both ‘sides’: the tendency of the official architects’ and politicians’ plans to concentrate on the finished product, and the tendency of the unsanctioned approaches to emphasise who’s involved and the process by which the eventual plans are made or enacted.

This leads to the next most prominent, and multifaceted, theme of the book: means and ends, or the correlation between process and product. Are closed-door decisions necessary in order to act quickly and guarantee quality outcomes? Or will exclusive processes inevitably lead to an exclusive city? Can deep and meaningful consultation occur once and inform many subsequent plans, or must consultation be a recurring and iterative process to be valid? Must every process begin with the people, buildings, resources and activities that already exist? Or does starting from scratch allow for more innovation?

There is also a third current coursing through the book: anger.

Of course, anger has been present from the very first moments the quakes disrupted the lives of people in Canterbury. Like the issues that radiate from the earthquakes, anger and frustration have spread to other aspects of life in the city such as traffic problems, dealing with insurance companies and government agencies, school closures, rent increases, political decision-making and more. But it is belittling to treat this anger as simply an emotional consequence of the quakes to be mitigated by holidays and relaxation. Much of this anger is justified. It can be the motivating factor for people to clearly articulate difficult issues, and it’s certainly part of the creative process that leads to new solutions.  

Living through the past few years has been difficult here, but it has also provided moments of joy, engagement and a sense of collective effort rarely experienced in the routines of normal daily life. We’ve tried to capture some of the liberating potential of the city through the range of visual essays throughout the book, many of which document and celebrate things – sanctioned and unsanctioned – that have been happening in the city. Along with the anger we hope that some of this excitement and adventure comes through the pages of Once in a lifetime.

Though this is undoubtedly a book about Christchurch, there are contributing authors from around the country and the world. Partly, this is in recognition that for those who’ve been living in Christchurch, we editors included, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. External eyes, voices and calm minds are more important than ever. We also draw upon parallel situations in post-disaster New Orleans and Italy, post-riot UK, and even find key similarities in ‘healthy’ cities in Australia and the USA. As with the multiple meanings of the phrase ‘once in a lifetime’, we must recognise the singularity of this state of affairs and simultaneously learn from its many precedents.

In addition to the themes discussed above – official versus unofficial responses, tension between means and ends, and the anger and joy beneath the surface – is one last idea that has been prominent in much of rhetoric here in the past four years: putting people first. While cities are extraordinarily complex collectives of systems, objects, infrastructures, ecosystems and other unnamed things, humans are the glue that holds them together.

 Hutia te rito o te harakeke, kei whea te korimako, e kō? 

 Ka rere ki uta, ka rere ki tai.

Kī mai koe ki au, he aha te mea nui o te ao?

Māku e kī atu,

He tangata! he tangata! he tangata!

Pluck out the flax shoot and where will the bellbird sing?

 It flies inland, it flies seawards. 

Ask me, what is the most important thing in the world?

I shall reply,

It is people! It is people! It is people! 

 The last three lines of this whakatauākī (proverb) have been widely quoted in post-quake Christchurch. In a place where there has been such significant grief, hardship and radical change, it is easy to understand why the focus on humanity in this message has resonated.

Yet, when used post-quake, the first two lines of the whakatauākī are almost always missing, and these are important to understanding the latter half. The saying – credited to the Te Taitokerau (Northland) region – tells us that if the young flax shoots are not protected the bellbirds will leave. While the proverb is interpreted a number of ways – as all good proverbs are – all versions utilise the sophisticated mixing of human and natural metaphors. Flax grow in a radial fashion, with the need to protect the young fresh shoots at the centre, and the harvesting of the older mature leaves for production.

It is a reminder that to truly care for humans we must also care for the environment – in all its forms – that supports our wellbeing. It is clear that we all share a desire to care for people in post-quake Christchurch, but how to cultivate the wellbeing of the places, ecologies, and institutions that support and care for all the humans that live here is less often discussed.

How do we use this rare and unique, this terrible, opportunity to (re)make a city that cares and provides for the things we hold important? It is a question that has many different and competing answers.

This collection of 55 essays spans arts, economics, ecology, architecture, planning, philosophy, health and much more, and introduces the complex problems and opportunities this situation has provoked. Reflecting from the midst of this entanglement is essential for the future of Christchurch and New Zealand, and what emerges should be of increasing interest to cities worldwide as the challenges of the twenty-first century confront us. 

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