Is Christchurch, without any public debate, all set to resurrect a failed urban model?

When I lived in central Christchurch many years ago, I sometimes would visit the Christchurch Cathedral for some moments of meditation and reflection. While Peter Beck, the former Dean of Christchurch, encouraged people to visit the Cathedral because they might just 'touch the divine', some quiet contemplation was enough for me. A quiet sanctuary amidst the hurly-burly of city life, I often thought the Cathedral was a small capitalism -free zone where mammon was kept firmly outside.

So I'm disappointed and saddened as much as anyone that the Christchurch Cathedral is to be pulled down. But the earthquakes have taken no prisoners and the Cathedral has seen its last of days. The site is dangerous and, as each day passes, the Cathedral crumbles a little bit more.

If the Anglican Church had been prepared to take the people of Christchurch into its confidence then perhaps some of the acrimony could of been avoided. But it seems that the Bishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, has been taking lessons from the Christchurch City Council on how not to be publicly accountable and transparent.

Even so, I also think that much of the anger and yes, distress, has been provoked by the fact that so much of Christchurch's past has gone forever. While they might just be doing what has to be done, its hard not to think that the barbarians have descended on Christchurch in the form of demolition crews.

Perhaps more troubling though is while central Christchurch gets flattened, what will replace it remains unclear. There seems to be a certain arbitrariness emerging with vested interests beginning to flex their commercial muscle.

While the controversy ebbs and flows around the Cathedral how many people have noticed that a dreary square-box 13 storey office building has been proposed for the Square? The plans have been prepared yet this building fails to comply to the 7 storey limit in the draft plan.

This week a $70 million office and retail centre was proposed for the Cashel Mall and it has got the green light. Where did this proposal come from? Where is the debate? How realistic are such large building projects when major city employers have moved their offices out of central Christchurch?

Are we forgetting that, even before the quakes, central Christchurch was already in trouble? The empty shops were testament that the large suburban malls had killed off the Central Business District as a retail centre.

Yet here we are with, apparently, the rich and poweful determined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

While it might, on the surface anyway, appear strange for someone like me to be agreeing with someone like property developer Bob Jones, I think he was right when he argued that resurrecting the Christchurch CBD was a pointless and self-defeating enterprise. Wrote Jones in October last year:

Christchurch has always justifiably boasted of being our garden city. A new and realistic strategy should build on this desirable feature and abandon thoughts of resurrecting its CBD. It could follow the model of many Christchurch-sized American cities with insignificant CBDs and instead comprise suburbs, each with its own commercial centre of low-rise, low-cost, walk-up offices with shops below, in garden settings...

If Christchurch was to restructure itself in this fashion, which is both practically and financially feasible, it would be an army of gardeners and not builders that would be required, o transform it into a very different but hugely admired, fabulous garden city.

Existing major buildings that withstood the quake, such as the Art Gallery, the Forsythe Barr tower and others, would no longer sit in a city streetscape, but instead in isolation in a garden setting linked by avenues. It would not be a worse scenario, but instead different from before and arguably a great deal more appealing. The planners should abandon the ridiculous Noddyland terraced offices proposal put before the public, plainly designed by people with no awareness of contemporary office market demands for space and light.

We need a radically different and people-orientated city, not some pale imitation of a failed urban model that only serves to placate the property developers and vested commercial interests.

The danger though is that is exactly what we're going to get.


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