Jim Hopkins on current issues

Jim Hopkins is a Herald columnist

Jim Hopkins: Tale of two cities where opportunities were lost

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Well, they've had their opening and we've got our plan. Or, more precisely, London's had its opening and Christchurch has its plan but you get the drift. We're trying to link two disparate things here which may not, on the face of it, have much in common.

But maybe they do. It's only an assertion, mind, but maybe, in each case, what matters is what's missing.

Maybe, the opening of the Olympics and the launching of the Christchurch Plan are both notable more as opportunities lost than opportunities taken. And maybe, that's what really counts.

Take the opening. Created, like the Plan, by an expert. If you're doing a Plan, you've got to have planners, 'cos you can't leave important stuff like that to commoners. And if you're doing an opening, you've got to have an expert opener. So the Poms got Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, gave him £27 million ($52 million) and left him to it.

We were warned in advance it was going to be "quirky" - billpayer-speak for, "OMG, we've had a sneak preview and we don't understand it and we're not sure we like it but it's too late to change so let's hope for the best."

Namely, an opening the New York Times reporter called "a wild jumble" of belching chimneys and dark satanic mills, "some rustic hovels tended by rustic peasants" (the English version of the noble savage) and various other "noisy, busy, witty, dizzying" elements in a spectacle that was "neither a nostalgic sweep through the past nor a bold vision of a brave new future".

Yet, when all's said and paid for, that's what Olympic openings should be. Like it or not, they're advertisements, a chance for folk to sell their sizzle and lure more visitors to their particular sceptred isle.

Not this time. Belching chimneys won't put bums on seats on planes. People don't go to places to get smoked at. They go for icons, excitements, wonders and novelties. Of which there were few in Mr Boyle's extravaganza, unless you think iron bedsteads are the bee's knees.

Consider what was missing: no castles, no Camelot, no Stonehenge rising out of the arena , no quarter-scale, radio-controlled Spitfire whizzing through its ancient portals then looping over a lake from which appears King Arthur's legendary sword, Excalibur, to morph into a torch. No Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings, not even a single ring becoming five. No Tardis landing with Dickens and Darwin and Shakespeare and Elisabeth the 1st and Ena Sharples emerging to play bowls with Sir Francis Drake. No Robin Hood shooting arrows at rotten sheriffs or, possibly, Captain Hook - but not Peter Pan, who'd be swooping over Noddy's car or Toad's hall or the Hundred Acre Wood or all of the above. No Big Ben as a rocket, no busbies, no Celts, no long and winding road.

Nothing to pull the punters in, nothing vulgar or corny, nothing cheesy or chintzy or glitzy or glam. What London got was a dollop of post-enlightenment, eco-romanticism, the religion of the age, guaranteed to delight the chattering classes. What London didn't get was any bang for their 27 million quid buck. That's what was missing.

And so to the Christchurch Plan. Plans are for planners and planners are very nice folk, but irredeemably beige. They like recessive colours and native vegetation. They never go to conferences dressed as Pearly Kings and Queens. They don't visit malls or shop at The Warehouse.

Planners dream of birds and trees. They don't like neon or faux architecture evoking a bygone age. They disapprove of vulgar places like Disneyland or the Gold Coast. And they're convinced that ordinary people will shake off their untutored appetite for theme parks and McDonald's if only they can be exposed to open spaces and cycleways and such.

All of which the new Christchurch plan has; heaps of walkways, lashings of open space, lovely plantings and tastefully segregated precincts - a planning word if ever there was one.

It's the planner's version of a Playboy centrefold, really, tidy, well-mannered, wonderfully tasteful in the House & Garden style, a perfect 21st-century iteration of Cadbury's old garden city.

All conceived, like the London opening, by the experts, working in splendid isolation, drawing lines on a map, defining use and controlling space in a cone of brilliance untouched by common folk.

Like the developer who discovered when the new Plan was launched that he couldn't build 12 new buildings for which he already had consent - and tenants - because it had been decreed that something else would happen on his sites.

No one had bothered to talk to him, obviously. Perhaps, if they had, they'd have changed their Plan and built it around the seeds he'd already planted. But you don't need to listen when you're an expert. The Plan proves that. So did the opening. In both cases, it's listening that's missing. And that's what matters most.

- NZ Herald

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