Public transport is perhaps one of the best places to get an authentic sense of the local culture. While working in New York City, one of the most memorable subway moments for me were the random visits by young break dancers who would perform a series of jaw-dropping front/back flips in the 1m wide passageway. On the Vietnamese public bus that I would regularly take to get to Hanoi Architectural University, I witnessed young people silently and automatically giving up their seats for the elderly (if the offer was not made quickly enough, the ticketing staff would speed up the process). For the virtually active Seoulites, wifi-enabled subway stations, rail cars and buses were essential to the long commute home, while the rail cars’ heated seats were a bonus in the freezing Korean winter. I enjoyed observing how the locals’ behaviours differed from place to place, and how the transport system developed to meet their different needs.
While the environmental and economic benefits of public transport are inarguable, the social benefit has been paid less attention – public transport is a rare opportunity for time-poor urbanites to see how other people live, behave and look, and rub shoulders with each other. So how easy, pleasant and ‘experiential’ are we making public transport for diverse user groups? And how do we attract those that are used to driving?
I was in Auckland last month mulling over these thoughts at train stations, bus stops and bike lanes. Just the fact that Auckland has a train system and bike lanes is worth celebrating, as they didn’t exist in the early 2000s when I was a local resident there. Without real time bus location apps, blindly waiting for delayed buses in crowded bus stops was a frustrating experience for sleep-deprived, time-poor architecture students. Over the last decade, technology has solved many issues related to convenience or at least is in the process of doing so. Political pressure to increase and improve public transport options is on the rise. Public investment in new buses and stops, rail cars and stations has led to safer, newer and cleaner rides, with fares being tested and adjusted.
Despite the above positive changes, the proportion of Auckland’s public transport users is still low, about one third of Sydney’s and half of Melbourne’s. About 55% of the CBD workforce use private vehicles.
Is there a way to turn public transport into a treat rather than just a cost/convenience-driven choice? Auckland’s transport system including the bus, train and bike lanes, appears to be safe and well-maintained, it is functional. The experience of waiting or arriving at the nodes on the other hand, couldn’t be more boring, unwelcoming and uncomfortable.
Not every node can have the Sydney Harbour view of Circular Quay, the active plaza of New York ‘s Union Square or the awe-inspiring architecture of Lisbon Orient Station. But taking a few lessons from successful transport nodes of the world; we’d better start paying more attention to the waiting experience and the sense of welcome on arrival.
Mature willows gently sway in the morning sun dotting the edge of Avon River, where ducks, eels and trouts go about their daily activities. The river runs through Hagley Park, the Botanical Gardens, the city centre and many suburbs, creating pockets of green spaces along it.
Pre-earthquake, discovering heritage buildings and courtyards was delightful, as were the Cathedral Square weekend markets and the pedestrianised City Mall. The quiet suburbs would offer their front gardens to passers-by for their visual enjoyment. These places looked inviting, calling for neighbourly interactions and civic participation. The distinctive Canterburian landscape has stayed the same and redevelopments will provide safer and newer places – but the city seems to be at the crossroads of becoming more inward-looking and less welcoming. Will Christchurch live up to the Garden City tagline in the future?
Christchurch looks very different now compared to 5 years ago when two major earthquakes hit (Sep 2010 and Feb 2011), killing 185 people and damaging 100,000 homes. About 8,000 homes are being demolished in the residential red zone, an area to the city centre’s north east ‘where the land has been so badly damaged by the earthquakes it is unlikely it can be rebuilt on for a prolonged period’ (see CERA map). The city centre was affected the most – losing many workers, memories and assets. 1,240 central city buildings and the places that we used to love have been demolished, 20% of which were heritage buildings. Large sites packed with gravel now dominate the scene, offering plenty of free car parking, but little else. A city that was once known for Gothic Revival architecture can no longer claim to be New Zealand’s most European city, at least architecturally.
There was a moment of panic after the earthquakes, as many left the city to escape the stress of constant aftershocks, and to find an alternative home, work and a sense of normality. The 4% drop in the population between 2010 and 2012 was palpable on the streets and public spaces; the loss of places, social circles and things to do had created a ghost city where the locals say they could hear a pin drop at night.
But there is hope.
With so much infrastructural work, the construction industry is now the most common industry with 59% increase in the number of workers (see census inforgraphic) who are contributing to the local economy, and also its identity. Christchurch City Council just got $635 million insurance payout, which will help rebuild the city. With large investments going into the centre – now feels like the right time to pause and ask: are we building the future that inspired us back in 2011, when we had clear values and aspirations for how we wanted to live?
I think back to the amazing community engagement process by the Christchurch City Council called ‘Share an Idea’. The 105,991 ideas collected for the Central City Plan development were summarised into six themes: green city; distinctive city; urban life; market city; transport choice; and remembering the earthquakes. It felt like the community had spoken and the city centre was going to be more compact, smarter and greener. It would be a real triumph, a story of a city that showed the world how to turn a natural disaster around.
There certainly have been positive changes and new micro-scale culture in the city centre. Grassroots responses like Gap Filler and various street artists are what the city desperately needed pre-earthquake to satisfy the creatives and hipsters. Transitional retail precinct Re: Start has been an inspirational project, although its land will soon be returned to the owner for permanent redevelopment. The much anticipated Margaret Mahy Family Playground opened last December and it includes nature-themed play equipment, picnic spots and food stalls. Compared to Christchurch before the earthquakes, the city centre is quirkier and less traditional; more generous and less transactional.
While the transitional phase has led to innovation and creativity, the future of Christchurch relies on longer-term investment. What used to be small scale offices, shops and houses have been cleared and the lands amalgamated to make room for large developments: apartments on the East Frame and various precincts. As such, the building and public realm designs face the inevitable fate of becoming ‘same same’, lacking diversity in materiality, detail, scales and user groups. “Too much glass”, “too grey”, and “too big”: there are increasing concerns from the community about how the city centre is shaping up. Publicly accessible private lands are likely to look and feel exclusive – deterring non-residents from using the through-block links. At the anticipated price tag of $500,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, I wonder how quickly the centre will be gentrified, further driving away the ‘undesirables’.
The character of the suburbs is changing too. There are more cars on the road due to roadworks and detours, and shopping centres and supermarkets are prevalent (read my article about Christchurch suburbs two years ago). Many have taken the opportunity to improve their houses with the insurance payout, putting up new street front fences. The hard, blank walls taller than humans mark the property boundary line and butt right up to the footpath edge, keeping out traffic noise and unsolicited looks. Inward-looking and private, the city’s homes seem to be more closing in than opening up. It didn’t used to be that way (my parents still remain proud of receiving the Community Pride Garden Awards 7-8 years in a row). Many houses that haven’t gone though ‘improvements’ still boast inviting street frontages, with setbacks covered in greenery and low, permeable, interesting fences. These houses share their gardens – and provide the perception of safety, and contribute positively to the neighbourhood character and the making of ‘Christchurch the Garden City’.
The future character of Christchurch will not only be determined by the city centre, but also the community’s contribution to the public realm. ‘Christchurch the Garden City’ should not be just about council-managed or developer-owned parks and gardens; it should be an aligned vision agreed and delivered by the people of Christchurch.
In a suburb called Ilam, only 5 minutes’ drive away from the “red zone” in the earthquake-struck city of Christchurch, lives and works Richard Gardiner, a retired high school design teacher. His one-and-a-half-storey bungalow, built in 1927, was relatively unaffected by the earthquake. “We are very fortunate,” he said and took a moment to reflect before continuing. “We had no major structural damage to the house apart from the chimney. The day after the earthquake I climbed onto the roof to take down the remaining bits of chimney. A silly idea I realised afterwards, with all the relentless aftershocks!” he said. Gardiner set up his architectural model making business Scaled Down not long before the earthquake shattered the city on 22 February 2011. The disastrous event unexpectedly turned what began as a personal hobby into a full-time career. “I would say 75% of the commissions are from ordinary people wanting to keep something to remind themselves of their destroyed houses, and more importantly, the memories they built in them,” Gardiner said. With the opportunity for renewal also comes the tension of how much of our past we should hold onto.
Almost 3 years after the catastrophic day, standing in the midst of vast gravel fields of the Central Business District (CBD) where office buildings, hotels and restaurants once stood, I certainly have difficulty picturing what the city, my hometown since 1994, used to look like. As a high schooler in the mid-nineties, my usual hangouts were limited to friends’ houses, suburban malls and numerous neighbourhood parks, while taking the bus to “the city”, “the [Cathedral] Square” or “Hoyts on Moorehouse Ave” was a special and almost rebellious action. Not that there was anything particularly exciting in the CBD, but at least it was a good place to watch tourists with large cameras hanging from their necks, see who is winning the Giant Chess game and, sometimes, hear the Wizard speak nonsense – or the truth – from the top of a wooden ladder. At the end of the day, after what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of wait, I would be glad to be on the bus back to the comfort and safety of my suburban home.
When I turned 16, I had a weekend job in a souvenir store on Colombo Street. A short segment of Colombo Street to the south of the Cathedral Square was lined with restaurants and shops then, mainly serving foreign tourists, and in turn activating the otherwise quiet CBD. In the following decade, I would frequently visit my hometown from Auckland, New York or Sydney, and enjoy its slow-paced suburban life as well as urban renewal projects in the CBD: the Christchurch Tram reappeared after 41 years of absence, as a tourist attraction; the City Mall underwent significant facade and landscape upgrades to become more pedestrianised; public buses became better organised at a central bus interchange; and a new NZ$47.5M art gallery became a welcome addition to the arts precinct. All of them are now partly or completely closed due to post-earthquake repair works.
Now constant road works and the lack of amenities in the CBD are driving businesses to relocate to or start new in the suburbs, begging a question that needs to be asked: what characteristics do we intend our suburbs to have? While suburban malls like the Westfield in Riccarton have been busy around the clock with the loss of CBD, earthquake-displaced boutique stores were left with no place to go for a while. A recent redevelopment of a former tannery site in Woolston, rightfully called The Tannery, is already proving to be a success. The 1.8-hectare site is to house 70 tenants when completed, including a pilates studio, an art gallery, bars and shops. “No corporates. We only accept boutique retailers. Keep things nice and local,” Bruce, a project manager of The Tannery, said.
Julie, a manager at a home store called Cosi Fan Tutte, likes being able to stay close to her neighbourhood. “The earthquake changed everything from the way we shop and work, to the way we socialise. To be honest, I hardly used to spend much time in the CBD before the earthquake, apart from picking up a few things from Ballantynes [department store]. And now, I never go there. The roads are bad, and there are more stores popping up in my neighbourhood. I shop here, work here, live here and socialise in friends’ homes. There is a stronger sense of community than before but I do miss live music – there aren’t that many places to go for entertainment,” Julie said.
Hornby, one of the damage-free suburbs, is also booming. Mitre 10, a giant hardware store, set up a mega store there following the earthquake. Next door, other big boxes selling things like curtains, paint and bikes followed suit. (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has wonderful mapping of rebuilding efforts including the current status of demolition/building works, population change, and “anchor projects” in the CBD.)
However, this unique opportunity to recast a vision for Christchurch must not look at the suburbs and CBD in isolation. Evan Smith, a community organiser of CanCERN (Canterbury Communities’ Earthquake Recovery Network), argues the city must be built upon “village values”. In the first instance the phrase scares me (and also reminds me of Howard’s diagram of The Three Magnets, where he advocates values of Town-Country). A city is not a collection of suburbs, it is not a village or a town. A city must aspire to innovation, culture, education, creative arts: it must be a hub that fosters congregation of people in an organised and accidental manner. I appreciate “Village values” interpreted as self-organising communities that help each other at times of needs or as a set of more independent infrastructure systems. I also don’t see the suburb as the devil in urban development – some folks like my parents enjoy living in their suburban house of 20 years with a large vegetable patch, two cars, and kind neighbours. However, the City of Christchurch must not go back to its past that had two separate entities: the CBD for working and suburbs for living.
While the city presents an ambitious vision for a new CBD with various specialties from Retail Precinct to Health Precinct, it is not clear, without residential or mixed use mapping, how these precincts will accommodate and foster vibrant city living. Cafes, restaurants and bars alone do not make public spaces vibrant; people do. The city centre needs to be a place for living, not just for working or socialising. In contrast to suburbs that can take on distinct, excluding characteristics over time, Christchurch Central Development is an opportunity for more diverse, walkable, mixed communities in the city centre. One that I hope, will encourage my parents to try out city-living as they reach their 70’s.