Even before the earthquakes of 2011, Christchurch’s CBD was struggling. But with up to 70 per cent of the buildings in the centre of the city scheduled for full or partial demolition, Christchurch has been left with an even larger hole at its centre. Christchurch Dilemmas asks, how can the city rebuild its heart?
Urban designer James Lunday visited the red-zoned central city immediately after the earthquakes in 2011 and has been returning to Christchurch in the years since. He sees the rebuild as a huge opportunity for the city.
“You can become an amazing beacon for how a new way of urban living can be created.”
But Lunday has concerns about the numbers of large-scale developments springing up through the city. He argues they don’t allow for the “fine grain” of independent shops, owner-operator businesses and startups that give the CBD an edge over the suburban malls.
“We’re seeing very big buildings replacing what was a whole myriad of small buildings,” he says. “We’re still building a 20th century city - built for the car, wide streets, and no activity.”
Bringing people back from the suburbs is a challenge globally - not just for those struck by disaster, he says.
“Internationally what’s driven the reinvention of cities is bringing people in to live in the centre - building new apartments downtown, reinventing the lanes, excluding traffic from areas, giving the streets over to people, greening the streets, local markets - something you don’t get in the suburbs.
“It’s where all the best things can congregate together and everybody can enjoy them.”
In this episode, Christchurch Dilemmas looks to cities around the world that have revitalised their centres. In Portland, the inner city Pearl District has been transformed from a run-down industrial area to a place where “the pedestrian owns the streets,” says Lundy.
And then there’s San Francisco’s Little Italy neighbourhood. “There’s no architectural ego on display here - these are houses for ordinary people, that have variety and fun about them,” says Lundy. “You need everything from young people, families through to elderly singles - all living and mixing in the same community, using the same facilities.”
Closer to home, Christchurch landscape architect Di Lucas ran a design competition in 2013 for mixed use developments in the city.
“Mixed use means having commercial activity, like retail and offices and residential - apartments, townhouses - on one site,” she says. This keeps people in the centre of the city, where they can live, work, eat and play in one space.
“But since the competition very little mixed use has developed as yet,” Lucas says. “A lot of people used existing use rights to build purely commercial, there’s fire regulations that make it expensive to do the mixing.”
On Christchurch’s High Street, developers Richard Peebles and Mike Percasky are working to restore what remains of one of the heritage buildings. They say the development will cater to small food businesses, with a covered market area, and spaces for small independent operators rather than national brands.
“Fifteen years ago this area was just all secondhand stores … Then it started developing, getting a bit trendy, some of the boutique fashion people started coming, and it was actually becoming really successful pre-quake. What we’re trying to do is bring those operators back,” Peebles says.
So how can Christchurch go about getting people back into the city centre? And what’s preventing it from happening?
For more on the ideas for the Red Zone - and to join the discussion - go to ChchDilemmas.co.nz
*Christchurch Dilemmas is produced by Gerard Smyth and edited by Gaylene Barnes, with support from NZ On Air and RNZ.
Written story by Tess McClure.