Last night, Gretchen and I organised a meeting for concerned Christchurch residents who want to Save Christchurch Historic Buildings. It was a great turnout, and lots of people shared their ideas through a loosely structured session. We’re planning to meet again, same time, same place next week, this time with a proper agenda! I will keep you posted on any updates on that front. It was particularly encouraging to have a group of stonemasons and slate tilers (who may have just been there for a beer after a hard days work) who told the meeting that Christchurch definitely had the skills to make sure our key heritage buildings are repaired – if they are given the money, and perhaps more importantly, the time. This meeting, as well as the council one, are mentioned in this article from the Press.

I then went across to the meeting organised by the council, which as I mentioned in a previous post, was aimed mainly at building owners, property developers, the insurance industry, architects, engineers and heritage groups. There was certainly a much higher percentage of suits at this meeting! Bob Parker managed to find the most dry council staffer to talk about building issues, who made Bob seem even slicker than he usually does. With his black turtleneck and jeans, he seemed to be going for the grey-haired Steve Jobs look (disappointingly, I can’t find a picture), though his propaganda isn’t quite up to Apple levels yet: his key catchphrase at the moment – “Christchurch was struck by a spear into it’s heart from the West” – is not half as poetic as his repeated use of it would suggest he thinks it is. At the end of almost every question, he would remind the crowd just how significant this event was. We get it Bob, we were here too. It does seem to be a play straight from the Guiliani handbook, and it will be interesting to see how long he continues to fall back on it.

Also on stage was Councillor Sue Wells, who, rather preposterously, was wearing a pink high-vis vest. Maybe she just hadn’t had time to, um, take it off? Well, no – at another media conference today, she was still wearing it. We get it Sue, you’re important, you do stuff. I would rather that you let your words and your voting record do the talking, not your hi-vis pink vest.

There were some interesting things to come out of the meeting last night  – though it was a crowd of the propertied, and Bob really played to them. One landlord did express concern that there was a large gulf between what was being said and what was actually being done. Bob announced that an architectural ‘think-tank’ will be formed, headed by Ian Athfield (who some of my more educated friends tell me is a very good choice.) I’m comfortable with the concept of a think-tank, and I agree with Hamish Keith, who suggested to me via twitter that community input is not necessarily the best thing for a process like this. For example, I don’t think that the new art gallery would have been approved, for either cost or design reasons, if it had been open to public debate.

What I am less comfortable about is the direction – or lack of. I think it would be appropriate for the public to have a discussion about the direction we would like the rebuild of Christchurch to head. I don’t think it is unreasonable for us to define some parameters, which could then influence the decisions made by Athfield’s group. What worries me is that there has been a complete lack of people asking the big questions, those that could frame this debate. While these don’t pertain directly to heritage and historic buildings, they need to be asked.

  • What are we going to do with the malls? Continue to let them grow unchecked, the single biggest reason why the central city is dying? What about future greenfields developments?
  • Do we need to find more land within the Christchurch City boundaries, to stop further expansion in Rolleston and Waimakariri, or can we work on brownfields developments in the south and east of the city?
  • How many people do we want to live in four avenues? 8,000, 30,000, 100,000, 250,000?
  • How high should buildings be?
  • What should the carbon footprint of each new building be?
  • What sort of standards should we aim for with regards to insulation and heating?

I’m sure many people will have others, and will think some are more or less important than others. But the point is that we are only setting ourselves up for an epic failure if we are asking this think-tank, and the planners at the council, to come up with a solution for a problem that we haven’t really defined yet. These are problems that have been around since well before the earthquake, but there will be no better time for us to address them. Let’s not waste that chance.