Re-imagining a city: 21st Century Landscape Architecture

Mike Thomas

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT, JASMAX

 

Cities are, and will continue to be, a defining feature of our civilisation.1 There are not many cities that have the opportunity to re-establish themselves; to wipe a slate clean and start-over. Christchurch has had this opportunity forced upon it and whilst it is implausible that a nation would ever willingly choose to do so, it is now a reality that ignites an enthusiasm for the visionary re-making of a city. 

The story of the Christchurch re-build to date is well-publicised, well-researched and well-debated; where there has been so much loss, so much sorrow and suffering, establishing how to start again will inevitably (rightly so) invoke a passionate discussion as to what is ‘the best foot forward’. It is the outcome from 100,000 voices that has prompted just that. The CCC’s (Christchurch City Council) award winning ‘Share an Idea’ initiative identified that Cantabrians wanted “a greener, more accessible city with a compact core and a stronger built identity”, where the cyclist, pedestrian and public utility is prioritised over the motorist and city-sprawling development.

In formulation of the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, CERA, CCC, Ngāi Tahu and industry specialists established Anchor Projects and precincts within the city’s core that are essential to creating a social, economic and cultural capital; with their aim to attract people permanently back to the city centre. Recognising that the recovery of a modern city centre is reliant upon 21st century landscape architecture and a high level of collaboration between these specialist skills and stakeholders, one of the first above ground infrastructure projects commissioned was Phase 1 of An Accessible City; a project to reinstate a transportation network with streetscapes that change the way people move through and occupy their central city.

Projections in growth indicate that unless travel is shared across modes, the city centre will become gridlocked. Christchurch is historically a car city, with most people living outside the centre in low density sprawl that continues to spread to new, more seismically stable sites. The car is more than taken for granted; it is central to existence in Christchurch. The effects of traffic in the city centre prior to the quakes was a barrier to the delivery of active transport infrastructure, as well as the prosperity of streets blighted by the one-way system, resulting in the rise of Christchurch’s doughnut ring of malls, and subsequently the decline of the city centre. Thankfully, Christchurch is also a cycle city, with high commuter and recreational cyclist volumes; if more cycle infrastructure was offered, it would be taken up. While the bus continues to be perceived by many as the ‘low quality travel option’, patronages are high. It is not difficult to imagine demand increasing as the central city is rebuilt and repopulated with businesses and residents. 

An Accessible City Phase 1 developed by the City*Sense team (AECOM, Aurecon, Jasmax and specialist consultants), consists of three streetscape packages for the development of Hospital Corner, Cambridge Terrace/Durham Street and Manchester Street. This is both a public realm project and a transportation project that will enable a three-fold increase in public transport and cycle movements by 2041, as well as making Christchurch’s city centre more walkable and easier to cycle within a new 30km/hr zone. It will also provide developer and investor confidence that will fuel the rebuild, especially on Manchester Street; of which 90% has been demolished. 

Elements of a ‘complete street’ approach have been adopted for these packages, which portion the road corridor between all transportation modes, favouring walking and cycling as well as efficient bus movements, over other vehicles. Their intended purpose is to create a safer, more convenient and accessible travel corridor for all. In utilising this approach, the planning has enabled Manchester Street to be widened, allowing the addition of three lines of trees, and putting distance and objects (such as parked cars, rain gardens, tree and bus stops) between transit lanes and pedestrian pathways. The packages include a mix of separated cycle lanes and shared cycle-pedestrian surfaces, and improved bus infrastructure has seen the addition of architecturally iconic ‘super stops’ at Manchester and Tuam Streets, dedicated bus lanes and signalisation that ‘gate’ the buses ahead of other traffic.

‘Complete streets’ have been successfully adopted across the US, with the integration of environmental design, in particular, addressing negative environmental impacts associated with both stormwater quality and quantity, seen typically in traditional streets. With Te Papa Otakaro, the Avon River nearby and precious ground water never far from the surface, all three packages have incorporated passive storm water treatment as a key feature. This strategy was implemented through providing ecosystem services as well as opportunities to green the city, 225 street trees and 4000sqm of rain gardens will be indiscernible from garden bed plantings, to subsequently achieve a high level of nutrient cycling detention and visual amenity. 

The adoption and intuitive use of these complete streets will be the measure of their success. With their intended purpose to create a safer and more attractive transportation environment for pedestrians and cyclists and encourage the use of public transport, they respond to the demands of the Recovery Plan. The test in the long term however, will be in determining how effectively they will respond to greater challenges faced by established cities around the world; congestion, crime and vandalism, lifestyle amenity, ease of use for young, ageing and disabled users, and addressing the rich-poor divide. 

Where An Accessible City Phase 1 was the first landscape-driven project for above ground infrastructure, Te Papa Otakaro, the Avon River Park was the first Anchor Project; also landscape-driven. Incorporating the Margaret Mahy Family Playground, Victoria Square and the East Frame public realm, these projects have the ability to reinforce landscape as a highly valued part of the rebuild. Underway in conjunction with the South Frame, the General Hospital, Burwood Hospital, the Criminal Justice and Emergency Precinct, Metro Sports Centre, the new Conference Centre, Performing Arts Precinct, the Earthquake Memorial and Cathedral Square. Along with the Retail Precinct and many other commercial developments such as The Terrave and Stranges Lane; these projects will stand apart as a dense collection of some of New Zealand’s most innovative urban landscape projects. They will have been designed and built within a short 5 year window. These projects will inform a completely new public realm that will be the image of the city’s heritage, and its cultural and physical landscape, and like Napier, willmark an important period in the evolution of the city. Whereas Napier is all about a discernable architectural style, Christchurch will be about its urban landscape.

The continuation of this momentum, and aspiration to achieve ‘a brighter, better’ city however, will be the measure of how influential 21st century landscape architecture practice has been for the success of Christchurch’s reimagining.