Christchurch As A Modern 21st Century Lab

When the fence cordoning off Christchurch's earthquake ravaged CBD is taken down, who is going to move back in?
When the fence cordoning off Christchurch’s earthquake ravaged CBD is taken down, who is going to move back in?


Following the disastrous earthquakes that have rendered the city centre of Christchurch, New Zealand uninhabitable, the city council has developed a masterplan for its redevelopment. But I believe the central business district (CBD) needs a new reason to exist. Why not develop Christchurch CBD as a living lab for 21st century building and infrastructure technology?

Like any city, Christchurch has redefined and reinvented itself over time – it has been a market town, commercial hub, manufacturing centre, entrepôt. Over recent decades, the economic vitality of the CBD has been challenged by development of big box suburban malls that have sprung up in places like Papanui, Riccarton and Shirley. Over time, the CBD’s thought leadership role has been eroded, with the University of Canterbury relocating in the mid 1970s to suburban Ilam.

In the wake of the earthquakes, businesses fled to whichever suburban locations they could find and found themselves locked into long-term leases. Since the first earthquake, the city has re-fashioned itself and adjusted to the chain link fence around the city’s former commercial hub. People who live on the Canterbury plains are a resilient lot, so life goes on.

So when the fence cordoning off the CBD is taken down, who is going to move back in? What demand would a building developer be looking to meet? Who will move first? What appetite will building owners, who through the effects of the earthquake find themselves to be building developers, have for redeveloping their land? These questions call for innovative answers.

The University of Canterbury is already a world leader in timber-framed buildings – indeed a test structure survived the earthquakes perfectly well – and what better test bed for this technology than a CBD needing reconstruction? Large parts of Christchurch’s infrastructure need to be replaced; imagine if the city could be used to test the effectiveness of 21st century distributed infrastructure solutions instead of the linear systems of the past.

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Imagine what Christchurch CBD could become in ten years’ time. It could be a living lab of modern technology, developed through a partnership of local universities and local manufacturing, using home-grown resources.

Imagine a city that embraced emerging IT and connectivity solutions from the outset. Imagine if the city’s governance structure was built around the precepts of Gov 2.0. Imagine the interest, activity, energy and wealth such a city would attract and the export potential it could generate. But how might such an outcome be delivered?

Right now the CBD is in multiple ownership and the chances of the coordinated action required to achieve this vision are small indeed. I have a suggestion – how about following the example of Beirut in the 1990s?

The city had to plan a reconstruction in the face of apparently unresolvable conflicts of interest and lack of money. Beirut convinced stakeholders to convert their interests into shares in a reconstruction authority. At a stroke, conflicting interests became shared and the process of reconstruction was able to move forward. By associating owners, tenants and investors, a private company was created with nearly 100,000 shareholders able to address urban and financial problems in a comprehensive way, allowing Beirut to flourish again.

Why not try something similar in Christchurch?

All of this would require boldness and vision. New Zealanders are famed for both. If it could happen anywhere, it could happen there.


This feature originally appeared in Arup and Bruce Sterling.

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