Christchurch . Christchurch has become the uncontested capital of "transitional" or "ephemeral" urbanism – Image: Michelle Tabet

It’s been over four years and the rest of the world seems to have moved on. The near-complete destruction of Christchurch’s city centre in 2011 was a hot topic in the months following the 2011 earthquakes but the newsworthiness of these events has worn off as reconstruction plans and efforts have started.

It’s almost like the world expects a city like Christchurch to have the resources and the know-how to rebuild a city from the rubble. But a closer look at the progress made in the intervening years suggests that rebuilding a city and a place that people love, is much more than a feat of engineering.

Having had the privilege to work on a number of “anchor projects” supported by a combination of Crown and council funding and insurance payouts, the story of the reconstruction of Christchurch is one that is still taking many unexpected twists and turns. It’s true, Christchurch is in a much better position than, say, Nepal to plan and execute on a reconstruction plan, and will benefit from all the first world expertise that comes from being one of the largest construction sites in the southern hemisphere.

But the economic opportunity of reconstruction seems to have subordinated itself to much more primordial questions: what future do Cantabrians want for Christchurch? What path must be followed in this massive, city-scale reconstruction? How do we create new places that people identify with, not rebuild what was there before?

Many Cantabrians seem to express frustration at the sluggish pace of the reconstruction process. A quick scan of the local newspapers will give you a flavour for the content of local debates and discussions.

The original Blueprint (now called the City Centre Reconstruction Plan or CCRP) that was created as a result of an open community consultation process called “Share an Idea” is now coming under close scrutiny. As projects obtain funding and enter the early stages of design, the city-scale thinking gives way to project scale considerations. What started as well-conceived placeholders in a metropolitan plan are now fully-fledged infrastructure projects that are, one by one, obtaining Council and Crown approval.

Whilst, intellectually, it would appear sensible to create a city-wide framework and then move on to the next level of detail to result each project individually, the time I have spent on the field in Christchurch has proven that the “waterfall” diagram of project management just isn’t responsive enough to a city that is continuously evolving and reimagining its future.

What Christchurch is and what it could become as a city has evolved a lot over the past four years. Pre-earthquakes, Christchurch was known as a “garden city”, that popular turn-of-the-20th century ideal that perfectly blended a sense of urban life with manicured English landscapes.

People “like” or “dislike” proposals, they assess them based on tastes and preferences as well as facts. Image: Michelle Tabet

The earthquakes not only challenged that model (that had already been challenged the world over), but recent years have shown that Christchurch was in fact becoming known for a different kind of urbanism. Christchurch has indeed become the uncontested capital of “transitional” or “ephemeral” urbanism, an opportunistic approach to city building that combines the large supply of unutilised land with the energy and identity of a local community seeking to shape the future of its city.

Examples of this abound such as GapFiller, Scape and Green the Rubble and all have met critical acclaim locally and internationally.

Many Cantabrians have grown weary of being known for this type of urbanism. Whilst this has novelty appeal, it’s not hard to see that this doesn’t really lay the foundations for a lasting urban fabric or a functional city. But it does offer an alternative narrative than the garden city story, one that doesn’t harp back to a pre-earthquake identity, but is shaped by the adversity and resilience that has emerged from this traumatic episode in the city’s history.

My second observation is that the frustration expressed through the media regarding the pace of the rebuild is symptomatic of a city that is still dealing with emotional trauma.

The need to see a speedy recovery, a herculean effort to restore normality, is both natural and unrealistic at the same time. Cities are built over decades and centuries and what takes time is not the construction side of things, it is the strategising and planning of cities. Deciding what we want to the city to be, how it can be different, better, more reflective of a contemporary identity are all questions worth dwelling on.

The worst possible outcome would be to rebuild like for like, without taking the time to ask: who is the city for? How does it best serve the people of Canterbury and New Zealand?

The third point I’d like to make is that reconstruction efforts are being led jointly by the Council and the Crown, with engagement by the private sector where appropriate and possible. Not only does this dual system of governance pose logistical and reporting issues for Crown and Council, this scale of reconstruction work would be difficult to tackle for any other government.

Christchurch – “The process that needs to be studied and reported on as much as the built outcomes” – Image: Michelle Tabet

City-scaled urban reconstruction projects in Berlin and Beirut, which I’ve studied as a student, were not only flawed in their conception but also led by special authorities and a command and control approach that stretched democracy and participatory processes to the limit. Given the enormity of the task and the expectations set by the blueprint, the Crown and Council are punching above their weight in my view.

Finally, I think it is important to acknowledge the emotional dimension that envelops this whole exercise. City making is part art, part science, but it is also an emotional process.

People “like” or “dislike” proposals, they assess them based on tastes and preferences as well as facts. Therefore, in a city where recovery still affects every person, is it impractical to acknowledge the emotional dimensions to reconstruction? Could we ask people how they want their places to make them feel rather than how they should look?

As a design professional with a privileged insight into the reconstruction effort, I share and empathise with the frustrations expressed by locals. But I can also see that there is a much broader discourse about city making and identity at play in Christchurch.

This direction will emerge through democratic processes, but also through the acknowledgement by those involved in the reconstruction effort that city

Michelle Tabet

making is an iterative process, that plans adapt and improve over time. This is a prime example where the logic of policy-making and design intersect.

While I remain excited, optimistic and eager to see the outcomes of this process, I maintain that it is the process that needs to be studied and reported on as much as the built outcomes.

Michelle Tabet is an independent strategy director

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