John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Plan lacks key element: action

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Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee watches Christchurch demolition work. Photo / Jarrod Booker
Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee watches Christchurch demolition work. Photo / Jarrod Booker

Two months ago, Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee invited a number of us journalists who sometimes write about Christchurch to come and see what was happening. We went, we saw and there wasn't much to report. For what was mainly happening was more destruction.

Brownlee's bus took us to subdivisions being laid out for new housing in the northwest, and through the red zone of the eastern suburbs where the abandoned houses still remain, for evidence, he explained, in insurance claims.

Then the bus went inside the cordon where the rubble had been cleared away and about two thirds of the central city had been reduced to vacant lots. We peered at places once familiar to everyone who has ever lived in Christchurch and realised with horror we couldn't remember what was there.

The Square was indistinguishable, the cathedral clearly a write-off.

Here and there a number of the city's newer office blocks still stood, dusty and deserted but looking solid enough. They were like sentinels of revival - until they came under the gaze of our guide from Cera, the Government's Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

"That one's going to go," Brownlee said of most of them. Of some he was uncertain and would add, "... but probably going to go".

Far from being sad about this, he was positively cheerful. For he was in charge of the other thing we were told was happening at that time, the plan.

All the city was waiting for the plan. This wouldn't be the theme park of solar-powered trams that the City Council produced some months earlier. This would be a serious, heavyweight Cera plan.

It would have at least one anchor project, probably a convention centre. The message he was getting from business was that they wouldn't be reinvesting in the central city until they knew where things such as a convention centre would be.

The plan was to be produced in July. It just made it this week.

Town planners are rarely given a completely blank canvas for their work, but even more rare for their plan to be so desperately needed it is beyond criticism.

The plan handed down to Christchurch on Monday night is a planner's mirage. It would compress the central city by several blocks, surround it by green spaces and allow no building taller than seven floors.

All the buildings would be "smart" (have broadband) and "sustainable" (energy-efficient lights and heating). Their "physical connections" would be "footpaths, cycleways, public transport and public spaces such as parks and laneways". I think it will have streets too.

The inner city would be focused on the Avon River, or rather the Otakaro/Avon that Ngai Tahu used for fishing and travelling long before the English arrived on four ships, walked over the hills and drained a swamp, or so their descendants were told.

The riverbank oaks and willows are to be supplemented with indigenous plantings - flaxes and grasses, I guess. It won't be the same.

The plan has two anchor projects: a 35,000-seat sports stadium, possibly covered, and the convention centre. The latter has a site over two blocks between the river and the northwestern side of the Square, which is to retain its Maltese Cross configuration.

There are to be "precincts" for everything. A "health precinct" near the hospital, an "innovation precinct", a "performing arts precinct", even a "justice and emergency services precinct".

There is to be a "retail precinct", which the planners sensibly put exactly where private enterprise has already established the "Restart Mall" of shops and coffee bars artfully accommodated in shipping containers.

There we met the man the Government hired to make all this happen. Roger Sutton projects himself as a supremely calm, laid-back sort of character, qualities ideal in a crisis. As the head of the city's power supply company he quickly got the lights back on after the earthquakes. But he struck me as a little too laid-back for the recovery.

After all this time we shouldn't be hearing, "what we have to do ..."; we should see him doing it.

If property owners need anchor projects to entice them to rebuild in the city centre, they probably need more than a site designation.

As soon as the plan was published this week, reporters asked who would pay for the work. Somebody quickly worked out that the City Council could raise the seed capital by selling some assets, especially shares in its airport, recently and splendidly renovated.

All this assumes the big shakes are over. It has been seven months since the last magnitude 6. If insurers are willing, the city is ready. Let's see what happens.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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