The 6.3 magnitude earthquake damaged the city so badly there were fears it was beyond repair. Not only were entire suburbs wiped out but around 70% of the buildings within the 400 hectare CBD area known as the Four Avenues were damaged beyond repair. The city was under lockdown for months, becoming a dead zone where the abandoned lunchtime fare from quake day fed a growing population of rodents. Questions were asked whether the city centre should in fact be shifted. Was the land even worth rebuilding on? Would people ever return to where so much heartbreak was felt? Amidst the uncertainty, the Government came out strongly in favour of rebuilding, but not just replacing what was lost. They wanted to create a better city. A year after the deadly quake, they developed what’s known as the Blueprint. It wasn’t just about rebuilding, but also addressing the pre-quake issues of a dying CBD and a culture of suburbia. The Blueprint needed to re-establish a community within the area the early settlers designated as the city’s central hub more than 150 years ago.

“people, people people.”

Don Miskell

The people of Christchurch had come up with a wish list via the Christchurch City Council’s “Share an Idea” campaign, which attracted 106,000 submissions. They said their new city needed to be green, distinctive, accessible, compact, prosperous, and a great place to live, work, play, and visit. Miskell’s team had 100 days to put those ideas on paper and come up with a world-class plan to attract investors, developers, and the community back to the space within the iconic Four Avenues. Their solution: a low-rise, compact city, housing key facilities and anchor projects, precincts, and yes… places for people. “It’s all about the people,” he says. “We wanted to encourage spaces where people can work, live, visit, invest, and play—a city where people can be kept busy and active around the clock, effectively a 24 hour city.”

Don Miskell says that P word over and over again as he sits in a modern, covered courtyard with sunlight streaming through the glass roof at Arbo—one of the city’s newest central city cafes. The atrium’s centrepiece is a giant white snow tree, a unique and endearing feature—symbolic of the creativity sprouting up around the city. The lunch rush has left, but there are plenty of people coming and going through the new building. It gives you a sense that normal life is slowly returning to Christchurch. Miskell is chuffed. “When I walk around, I’m pretty happy.” He’s had more involvement in seeing people and business return to the quake-stricken CBD than most. He’s a development planner by trade, and headed up the team of consultants at the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) which was charged with creating the Blueprint for central Christchurch’s re-emergence from  the rubble.

blueprint for living people

Pre-quake, the old Christchurch CBD was struggling. It was a 9 to 5 city, with large chunks of office and retail space laying empty on nights and weekends as people lived, shopped, and socialised in the vast suburban ring around the centre of town. The Blueprint process gave planners the chance to fix that; to start over. They decided to shrink the CBD to a more compact, denser area, corralled between the Avon River and new “green frames.”

The planners see Christchurch as a city filled with courtyards, lanes, and squares.

A smaller city encourages people to interact with each other, with more chances to bump into people, and get to know who’s “in the neighbourhood.” Ideally, Miskell says, any new building will have three uses: people living there, working there, and socialising there. “One of our biggest wishes is to get people to actually live in the city. If you can have people occupying the space for longer than the work day, it adds variety, but also makes it safer.” Before the quakes, only 2-2.5% of the city’s population lived within the Four Avenues, and when the quakes hit almost half of them were displaced. He says the aim is to get 6% of Christchurch residents living in the CBD within 25 years. While that’s still not as high as Wellington or Auckland’s central city, he thinks it’s a realistic goal.

Cue the East Frame. This is a radical concept for Christchurch residents who have been accustomed to living in houses along leafy suburban streets. The Blueprint has a designated 5-and-a-half block residential area featuring two long rows of apartment style living, with a 40-50 metre wide park running through the middle. Designed as the new eastern border of the inner city, the long frame is punctuated at its northern end by the popular Margaret Mahy Family Playground. Having people live in the city underpins the local economy, Miskell explains. It automatically creates demand for other services, stimulating businesses like supermarkets, cafes, and restaurants which pop up to meet the needs of those living close by, in turn providing more jobs and opportunities to bring people into the new fabric of Christchurch’s heart.

In order to meet the needs of residents, the city has to provide economic as well as social opportunities. One can’t exist without the other for very long.

Thirty minutes out of the city is Dr Andreas Wesener’s office. He teaches urban design at Lincoln University, and has a copy of the Blueprint pinned to his office wall. He refers to it constantly during our interview—he knows it inside out. While very supportive of the compact size and “mixed use” concept, he is nervous about the successful integration of a central residential sector. He can’t stress enough how important it is to have people actually living in the CBD. “If a city doesn’t have a critical mass, it’s only relying on visitors and tourists, which makes it very vulnerable to economic conditions.” He feels the residential redevelopment needs to get a move on. “At the moment there are new corporate buildings, carparking buildings, office and retail space but it’s currently a city that people come to visit but then leave again. That’s not healthy.”

The first medium-density housing development in the inner city since the quake, known as the Atlas Quarter, is expected to be finished by the end of 2017, providing 95 homes. By mid-2019, 200 of the planned 910 homes in the East Frame will have been built. However none have been presold so it’s not known how much appetite there is yet for inner city living. While the homes haven’t hit the market by mid-2017, it’s no secret that they’ll be priced between $400,000 and $1.4 million.  Dr Wesener fears that’s too high. “We don’t have an apartment living culture in Christchurch, even before the quakes, so it needs to be more affordable for people than living in the suburbs in order to attract a population base.” In the past 20 years there’s been an international trend of movement from the suburbs towards inner city living. But he’s concerned that the Blueprint’s plan may favour the high-end market, which may thwart that. “A good city contains a mix of people, socially too,” he says.

Studies show people feel more comfortable when surrounded by things on a human scale.

Both men agree, getting people to live within the city will make or break the rebuild’s success. But just as important as attracting residents, is meeting the needs of business. In order to meet the needs of residents, the city has to provide economic as well as social opportunities. One can’t exist without the other for very long. Don Miskell says “The Blueprint design needed to minimise uncertainty and create confidence for developers and investors to reinvest their insurance cheques in the city.” 75% of the $40 billion cost of the city’s rebuild is to be met by insurance money, not as one big cheque, but as thousands of individual payments to home, building, and business owners across the city. “We couldn’t make people reinvest their dollars here but we definitely wanted them to, rather than move their life and business to another city, or overseas.”

The CCDU was mandated to make a city attractive enough for people to reinvest; hence the number of government-led “anchor projects,” including a convention centre, a metro sports facility, and a stadium. Those facilities are intended to attract visitors from the suburbs, as well as tourists and business travellers. But do the needs of business clash with the needs of the new inner city residents?

Dr Andreas Wesener says in an ideal world, the two would go hand-in-hand. “These things normally co-exist and organically grow together. That’s how most cities come into existence.” But then most cities don’t start again from scratch. If a mixed-use, people-orientated city is the goal, Dr Wesener questions the decision to rebuild the Convention Centre inside the CBD saying there’s “lots of research to suggest it’s not the best use of land for the central city, as it becomes a large underused space that is counterproductive in terms of activity levels.” He fears it will be one extreme or the other, manically busy for a few days at a time and then “pretty dead,” failing to provide the constant activity needed for a thriving inner city. But Miskell rejects that, saying the Convention Centre will attract high spending tourists into the heart of the city, bolstering the local economy and attracting development. Official figures predict the Convention Centre will bring in $400 million within the first 8 years of operation.

people girls bicycle in street Naomi Haussmann

The blueprint centres heavily around the idea of “precincts.” Don Miskell tells me it’s called “agglomeration.” I have to get him to spell it for me—I’ve never heard of it. He explains it’s essentially putting “like-minded” people together. There are a lot of planned precincts: a health precinct, a justice and emergency precinct, a performing arts precinct, the Avon River precinct, and the retail precinct. That last one makes sense to the shopaholic in me, the rest need explaining. “If Christchurch is going to succeed and have a growing economy, it has to allow people to share ideas, and agglomeration means they can transfer their ideas faster.” It’s about efficiency. The “innovation” precinct is considered the star performer so far. It’s seen a snowball effect, where larger businesses move in, attracting smaller companies, and vice versa. The area is already a hub of creative industry, with a few coffee shops and cafes fitting in to feed the innovative minds.

But can the precinct concept create exclusive communities?

Miskell points out that agglomeration actually happens a lot where, for example, restaurants and bars cluster together in one spot. He says the precinct model just gives businesses better information on where they might want to rebuild. Dr Wesener is however concerned that by lumping like-minded activity together, the planners are inadvertently creating dead zones during the “off hours” for that type of activity. He cites the 4.2 hectare Justice Precinct as an example—pointing out that outside of office hours, a complex the size of a city block will be largely vacant, save for a few on-duty emergency workers. Napier is New Zealand’s only other city to have ‘started over’ following an earthquake—theirs was in 1931 and the city was reborn as the art deco capital. While there’s no architectural design mandate for Christchurch, the planners have spelt it out in a gentleman’s agreement that they see Christchurch as a city filled with courtyards, lanes, and squares.

People sit outside courtyard
people in public space Naomi Haussmann

While many assume this choice stems from the laneways of Melbourne, Miskell points to inspiration from Christchurch itself. The Arts Centre, a collection of gothic revival buildings dating back to 1877, is built around quads and courtyards. “It sets a historical precedent” Miskell says, adding that “the courtyard concept is also practical for Christchurch, as it provides comfort and shelter from the city’s prevailing easterly wind.” And it wasn’t just the early settlers. Before the earthquakes the Sol Square development sparked a modern resurgence of city life in courtyards and squares, so much so that the City Council put in place a ‘Laneway Strategy’ before the quakes struck.

Dr Wesener explains there’s actually a social science behind our preference for this kind of design. Studies show people feel more comfortable when surrounded by things on a human scale. For example, a courtyard space is created by surrounding buildings, which provide passive security for the courtyard from occupants looking into the space from the windows above. When people feel safe, they can relax and enjoy themselves. Don Miskell takes us to his favourite post-quake example known as Stranges Lane. We walk past major construction sites and countless wire fences to find it nestled between niche bars and trendy restaurants. “It’s intimate and not too big,” he gushes. This is exactly the kind of space he foresaw in the plan, and judging by the comfortable bustle of patrons and pedestrians around us, people are already breathing life into this section of the Blueprint.

bridge over river buildings background

But it’s not just buildings that Miskell hopes will entice people  to find a home back in the CBD, hence the $85 million dollar  clean-up of the Avon River which meanders through the central city. “With the Government buying up the East Frame and taking that land out of supply, the centre of gravity of the city moves westward one block, so we jumped the city across the river to make the river a central focus” he says proudly. Professional services, like Deloitte, Price Waterhouse Coopers, EY, and Aurecon are already validating this choice, this year moving thousands of workers into award-winning architectural masterpieces on the western banks of the revitalised river.

By May 2017, all anchor projects except the stadium were underway in some form and the Christchurch City Council has granted nearly 500 building consents for the Central City. But alongside the shiny new offices and construction sites sit empty plots and half demolished buildings, attracting vandals, pigeons, and sometimes squatters. There’s still a long way to go yet, prompting some community criticism that the rebuild is taking too long. In response, Don Miskell pulls out a powerpoint presentation, with research from Harvard University. It shows three important phases for cities following a natural disaster. The Emergency phase, the Restoration phase, and the Reconstruction phase. According to the research, the length of the Emergency phase dictates the progress of the rest by powers of ten.

For Christchurch, a State of Emergency was in place for 10 weeks, which means the Restoration phase (restoring water and power) clocks in at 100 weeks—or two years—and the Reconstruction phase should run to 1000 weeks (20 years). As frustrating as the pace may be, Miskell says that by international standards the city’s rebuild is right on track.

Their solution: a low-rise, compact city, housing key facilities and anchor projects, precincts, and yes… places for people

One of the more unique anchor projects emerging from the Blueprint is the Margaret Mahy Family Playground. It’s been a far greater success than anyone could have imagined, attracting not just kids, but anyone with a sense of adventure—in fact Miskell proudly shows me a photo of him and his team on the giant slide. Dr Wesener describes the $40 million playground as a radical idea but a hugely successful one. Completed long before the neighbouring East Frame residences, it’s become a big drawcard to the city. On a sunny Monday afternoon, Michelle Ling whizzes down the iconic slide with her 5 and 7 year old boys. She’s a self-confessed “suburban girl” living 10km away, but she makes special play dates at the playground in town. “This is the only reason I come into the city.” And that’s what the planners want to hear—people are making the new parts of Christchurch part of their patterns of living. The built environment the planners imagined is working out on a human scale.

boy looks at camera playground people

Joy Reid

Joy is the Europe Correspondent for TVNZ and is based with her young family in London. She took up this posting after nearly a decade in TVNZ’s Christchurch newsroom where she was an integral part of the earthquake coverage and stories around the city’s subsequent recovery. Joy is otherwise known as “Mum” to two very effervescent children which keep her very busy, but mostly laughing. She keeps pace with life via her coffee addiction and winds down by finding a bargain.