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How did we get here and where to now ?

What has happened in the last 20 months?
The first 4 September 2010 gave Canterbury a very big scare but things didn’t really change – not in our minds at least.

22 February 2011 changed all of that particularly for Christchurch.  However the implications of the earthquake have been felt much wider.

At Fox & Associates we have been heavily involved with earthquake assessments in conjunction with a number of Structural and Geotechnical Engineers.  We are the supporting act to the engineers who continue to work their way through the backlog of buildings that need inspection or attend to buildings being weakened by continual aftershocks. 

We have recently been working in the central city and it amazed me how few buildings remain in some blocks – it was sad but at the same time it does drive home just what an opportunity we have to start with a blank canvas.

Government figures show that in 2011 Christchurch lost 9000 residents. The same figures however show Canterbury only lost 5000 people so many residents have stayed in the region and now reside in townships around Christchurch.  

Figures recently released show that the largest exodus was Maori, Pacific Islanders and young families. 

Like most people we all know people who have shifted out of the region and for many it is most likely a permanent shift.  This I find sad as most of them were a talented group of people with much to offer Christchurch. 

My hope is they are in fact the minority as we will need our best and brightest to make Christchurch into the City it could and should be. 

What good has come out of this tragedy?
I recently watched the movie ‘When a City falls’ and was buoyed by some of the commentary from people expressing their resolve to be part of Christchurch’s rebuild and a desire to correct past wrongs making the city infinitely more liveable, attractive and more of a community than it was prior to 22 February 2011. 

You see many examples of people doing their bit like Coraline Winn starting up ‘Gap Filler’, some of the conceptual designs being touted or the revival of events such as the local markets.  These all help build that sense of community.  I have come to understand so much better the need for ‘community’ and how we had drifted away from this with our lifestyles and desire ‘To keep up with the Jones’.

There is now far more discussion around the need for a holistic approaches to design and planning of this City not the random growth that has happened to most cities with the western world.  A sense of need to heal our communities and make them workable again in light of the future challenges presented to us.

Where to from here – what are our challenges?
Not long after the February earthquakes we heard of the need to get 10,000 more building sites on to the market to cater for the people who were forced from their homes/suburbs.  This figure has been shown to be hugely inflated. 

In the mad scramble by developers to be first to the market we will see some developments fast tracked both through the Consulting firms and also in some instances through Councils. 

Some designs will be good and will facilitate stronger communities, but there is a too large a proportion of developments which are just more of the same in terms of what has been trotted out before, creating fractured and dysfunctional suburbs.

This is also reflected in the commercial building sector.  I recently read an article from Ian Maxwell who I think summed it up nicely:

“Right now Christchurch has two extreme choices.  The first is to rebuild the city, inclusive of all its heritage buildings (the ones left standing, that is) and including a grand plan for beautification of the whole city; this is the expensive option.  The second is the cheap option, which is to knock everything down and rebuild the city with tilt- slab buildings (an often-quoted example), lots of expansive car parks, the existing road layout and no further consideration of the urban environment.  There are, of course, many paths in between these two extreme options.  While the first option may look more expensive, it has to be emphasised that this would be an investment, not an expense.  To put it bluntly, when one invests more, one expects both a larger return on that investment and a larger debt that has to be repaid over a longer period.  When you cheap out, you may have lower debt, but you also have an asset that is worth much less and with lower economic returns.  In the context of a city, a well- thought-through and beautiful city, with much of the heritage maintained, can be imagined to attract more tourism and more business activity.  In my business travels around the world, I have noted that the beautiful cities attract business and migration, and tend to outgrow their uglier counterparts in economic terms.  Small cities that are beautiful also have the happiest inhabitants.  In the long term, well-thought- through and large infrastructure projects tend to be “profitable”; and by profitable I mean that the debt (typically bonds) that is raised to fund the projects are repaid and the people get the benefit of the infrastructure.”

This supports what we have always told our clients.  The cost of design is a comparatively small fraction of the cost of a development.  You are better to spend a little extra time and money in the design process, because good designs typically do not cost more to construct, but the end result will be infinitely better and more valuable.  It is a case of doing more and better with what you have.

What can we do?  What can you do?
It becomes our collective (social) responsibility to create a City where people want to come and live (and call Christchurch home), for Christchurch to be known as a place where people want to belong, contribute and to excel.

What is a solution?

  • Clients should have a clear mandate in their heads when they ‘interview’/engage their Consultants. 
  • Consultants need to have a good hard look at themselves and ask if they are looking to continually improve their design ability and incorporate modern design principles.  Too many Consultants are just doing business as usual and that is not good enough!  If we are not improving then we are going backwards (in a relative sense)
  • Council has an Urban Design Panel (comprised of external Practicing Consultants) which I believe also has a useful role to play in land development.  Council had virtually confirmed (but for the Mayor’s ratification) the appointment of two Land Development Consultants to be included on the expanded Urban Design Panel and start assessing land development proposals within the larger Christchurch area not just the inner city development with a specific focus on building design.  This needs to be fast tracked so an Urban Design Panel is established to assess the land development proposals and hopefully lift the quality of design.  My question then is ‘How difficult would it be to appoint the additional members and get the expanded panel operating?’  This may just alleviate some of the pressure on Council which can’t be a bad thing can it?
  • Purchasers should use their discretion and buy in those developments which are of a better design.  This is easy to say but for the vast majority of people who have grown up with poor design it is hard for the general public to know what is different and so the question is how do we then educate the public on good and bad design?[/bullet_list]

Ideally we would educate our society to differentiate between good and bad design and to buy only good sections that will give them the lifestyle they deserve.  Purchasers would send a clear message to the Council, Developers and Consultants not to waste our precious resources producing rubbish.

If we don’t do our bit and instead wait for somebody else to do the work we could well be disappointed and sell our future generations short. 

Now is not the time to be settling for OKAY we should be demanding EXCELLENCE this is our chance to get it right and to invest wisely.  Let’s challenge each other to do out bit, become demanding and not accept ambivalence or mediocrity!

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