Design and Democracy

By Barnaby Bennett

The essay below is from the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch (2014 Freerange Press)

It might seem strange to suggest that there is an important relationship between how we are governed and how we imagine and make buildings. By drawing these two things together I am not calling for designers to enter into representative politics (although there are some notable examples of this such as the young architect mayor who transformed Curitiba in Brazil), or, more frighteningly, for politicians to become more involved in the design of buildings and public spaces (which rarely ends well). Rather this article will suggest that there is a common glue that is frequently misunderstood – and all too often feared – by both designers and law makers that translates between design and democracy: the public. It is this misunderstanding and fear that has, I suggest, led to the need to sell the plan to the public, rather than it being something collaboratively developed with the people of Christchurch.

In the 1920s the great American philosopher John Dewey and a bright young journalist Walter Lippmann engaged in an extended argument about how democracy might work in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.[1] More than ten years of discussion led them to a shared belief that the public is composed of many smaller publics that emerge (and dissolve) in response to issues and problems that relate to them. We don’t need to look far in Christchurch to see this, as groups and publics have formed in response to the many problems of EQC (Earthquake Commission), affordable housing, rock fall, red zoning, asbestos, demolitions, elections and of course the various plans developed for the central city.

While it is easy to see each of these issues as a failing of government, it is unrealistic to expect our institutions to seamlessly recover from such a vast and devastating event. After disaster publics form to supplement a government no longer able to deliver the normal services that make our cities, like roads, water, sewerage and schools.

This counter movement might explain the feeling of temporary utopia that developed after the quakes – the freedom, support and care shown for each other in the absence of the systems we normally depend upon. This mirrors a comment from Dorothy Day about people in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake: ‘While crisis lasted, people loved each other.’[2] In these moments of localised governance, design and democracy collapse into specific and necessary actions such as removing a chimney or closing a road. Naturally there is a freedom in this response, but this also involves the separation of immediate needs from unwanted consequences (sewerage in the river is temporarily okay; personal property becomes less important than human safety; polluting fires are allowed). It’s a state that can’t continue and would become destructive if it did without consideration of these and other unknown consequences.

To be an effective designer or politician requires the management of unknowable consequences; a decision is made (often forced) and because we can’t anticipate all the things in the world (earthquakes, storms, economic and social movements) it creates new issues and new problems, and subsequent new publics are produced. After the quakes publics in Christchurch formed in response to the issues that concerned them and demonstrated extraordinary capacity for care, inventiveness and intelligence in regards to these issues. This reflects Dewey and Lippmanns’ conception of the public as not just one homogenous unit whose consent is needed to progress, but rather as a series of interested, vested and increasingly expert groups. In the Christchurch recovery, how then did the government make use of these publics and how did they work with the extensive knowledge embedded within them when developing its plans for the recovery process?

In the months after the quake the Christchurch City Council (CCC) was asked by Minister Brownlee to prepare a plan for the central city. They embarked on a process that started with the Share an Idea campaign, and finished later that year with the submission of the Draft Central City Plan (CCP) to the Minister. The CCP was far from perfect: there wasn’t enough consultation with specific user groups; there was insufficient detail in the final document; and there wasn’t enough knowledge of the financial risks and costs of the plan to see if it was feasible. It did however engage in a meaningful, respectful, and ongoing manner with the people of Christchurch, who were suffering from a continuing swarm of earthquakes with further damage to their homes and city at the time.

In early 2012 the Minister announced that he thought the Council’s plans were good in principle but the specifics needed reconsidering, which led to the rapid development of the 100-day plan or Christchurch Central Recovery Plan (CCRP). Soon after the launch of this new plan I went to a public ‘information session’ presented by staff from Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) and the designer Don Miskell. It was during a weekday so the majority of the audience was elderly. It was telling that the session was treated by the government staff as an opportunity to explain the plan, not to take any information back from the extensive knowledge of the people who had lived in and created the city for decades previously.

These sessions could easily have been reframed, and at the end of the two hours CERA could have had a series of meaningful notes giving feedback on their ideas, and the people could have felt like they were been included and listened to. Instead questions were met with defensive answers and contributions offered by citizens seemingly ignored. At the end of the session I asked two questions. Firstly, given the scale of the suggested projects, I asked if there would be any international peer review of the plan. My second question was ‘Would there be any opportunities in the future for citizens of Christchurch to engage with the new Blueprint?’ The answer to both questions was no. True to their word, by mid-2014 there has been no further public consultation on the plan and no external peer review.

Given the response of the public during the major quakes, and the enthusiasm for engagement shown during CCC consultation procedures, it is odd that the government decided that they would lead the development of the central city by removing the public from an ongoing say in the issues developing and emerging from the city rebuilds. The Minister has, on a number of occasions, strongly rejected the notion that the design of the Blueprint and its implementation are the result of processes that did not, and do not engage with the community. The CCC’s 2011 Share an Idea campaign is cited as the consultation, and we have no good reason to question the Minister or CEO Roger Sutton when they say the principles developed from the Share an Idea campaign lead the formation of the CCRP.

The question is not whether the plan is based on the needs and wishes of people in Christchurch, but whether the public is being given the opportunity to participate and engage with the city plan as it inevitably develops in response to the changing urban environment and with the emergence of new, unanticipated consequences of other actions.

It’s easy to misunderstand public engagement as a symbolic obligation best bypassed when urgency requires it, and certainly it is reasonable to revise the methods and modes of engagement in the unusual and unpredictable circumstances after disaster. There are many new forms of citizen engagement being created around the world at the moment: online tools such as Loomio are enabling people to converse about complex issues without needing to be in the same place; there is an international movement in citizen-led placemaking; in Auckland the large scale Unitary Plan is developing with significant involvement of citizens.

There is an obvious political temptation to ‘show leadership’ and to ‘take control of a situation’, but personally I don’t see much leadership in using the extraordinary power of government to take decision making away from the local council, and to decide not to engage with the people of the city about the plans you then develop – particularly when these plans involve using the full force of the government’s power to forcefully purchase large amounts of the central city, and to bypass normal procedures to demolish scores of buildings. There is an unfortunate tendency to think that we need to choose between benevolent dictatorship and complete consensus, when there is a rich spectrum of options between these two poles.

This removal of the public from the procedures of planning and design can only be understood as being based on either a fear and distrust of what that engagement might produce, or an ignorance of how these procedures can be done meaningfully and quickly (especially with new digital technologies). Whether based on distrust or ignorance the effect is the same and I believe this removal has had negative impacts on three particularly important aspects of the rebuild: the psychology of the people post-quake, the trust in the political processes and the quality of the resulting places.

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman wrote a letter in May 2011, soon after the quakes. He acknowledged the very real tension between the need to show progress and the complexity of making planning decisions: ‘In every disaster there is an inevitable tension between the desire for an immediate response and the need for planning (by multiple layers of authority) and risk reduction.’ But he was quite clear about the psychosocial risks of excluding the people from the decision-making processes saying ‘the key issue is a psychological sense of empowerment’. While council procedures like Share an Idea, campaigns like All Right? and the rare pieces of CERA-led consultation such as with the large playground are to be celebrated, they do not mitigate the very real consequences of denying the populace their say in the ongoing recreation of their city. ‘It follows that, from the psychosocial perspective, those involved in directing the recovery should create governance structures that understand and actively include community participation and enhance individual and community resilience.’[3]

There are also political consequences of excluding the public that I think reveals a naivety about city governance and urban issues. The CCRP is a huge document with consequences that span decades and will cost billions of dollars. Rightly, this level of consequence was examined and approved by Cabinet with advice from Treasury and other high levels of government. Yet the inability of people and interested parties in the city to participate and comment on specific details and particular projects leads to a unproductive binary of either supporting the plan or outright rejecting it. This escalates the discussion from very specific and productive feedback on particular projects to a simplistic political narrative of either supporting or not supporting the Minister and the Government.

I am not asking for anything unusual; it’s not radical to suggest that excluding people is disempowering. The Local Government Act that the CERA legislation overrules is quite clear about the obligation to consult: ‘persons who will or may be affected by, or have an interest in, the decision or matter should be provided by the local authority with reasonable access to relevant information in a manner and format that is appropriate to the preferences and needs of those persons’, and ‘the views presented to the local authority should be received by the local authority with an open mind and should be given by the local authority, in making a decision, due consideration’.[4]

The government funds the ‘Quality Planning Website’, which was developed to assist quality and timely developments. It clearly states ‘While early consultation is important, councils should approach consultation as an ongoing iterative process through all stages of a plan development exercise. Make sure this is not a one-off event or series of disjointed encounters, and not perceived as a token effort.[5] It is this ongoing, iterative, and multiple event form of consultation that has been notably lacking in the recreation of the central city.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for the long-term health of Christchurch and its people, the removal of public input into the designs of the city, and the anchor projects, risks having negative effects on the quality of these projects. In some cases, like the Avon-Otakaro Project, this is quite obvious – $100 million of public money for a huge new park that spreads through the city 30 metres either side of the Avon with almost no consultation. At mid-2014 work has begun on this project and after the original British firm was removed and a redesign initiated, the public still have no idea what it is going to look like. This is quite unbelievable, and makes a joke of the Minister’s claim that the CCRP is based on ‘international best practice’.

In other instances, the scale and type of projects chosen seem at odds with expert and public opinion. The light rail proposed in the CCC plan was judged by the Minister to be a luxury and dropped from the Blueprint and subsequent transport plan, yet a large inner city covered stadium costing a similar amount to the light rail was included. This isn’t to say we need to poll the residents to see which project they favour, rather it is to acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of people that live in this place probably have some thoughts on these projects that might be helpful, and that a meaningful discussion of the issues involved is only enabled when a public is able to form around the issues that concern it.

We live in a democracy based on a principle of political representation; we elect politicians to represent us. This is complicated in Christchurch because the politicians making the big decisions are elected to represent all of New Zealand and there’s a risk that they make decisions that favour this constituency over the people of Christchurch, as the two things are not always synonymous. For example it might be important to push the rebuild along to keep the national economy going even if it risks making rushed decisions, or making the rebuild look like its in better shape than it is for an upcoming election. These things may or may not be happening, but they are mechanisms that are enabled by the particular political setup. The fact is a politician wouldn’t be doing her job properly if he/she wasn’t prioritising the national economy or the success of her party. It’s a set up that means for a minister to do his/her job properly (short term goal), he/she might have to make decisions that are not in the best interests of Christchurch (long term goal). If the agencies making the large decisions in Christchurch were both more independent from central government, and had a stronger public representation, this wouldn’t be a problem.

But perhaps the most dangerous risk is much more subtle than this. In any big building or urban project it is critical to identify who the project is for, the client. A client is the person or organisation paying for the project but also the people that will use it. In the case of the CCRP the client is clearly the public of Christchurch (and other organisations such as the CCC and Ngai Tahu). If the public is the main client, who then represents the public when important design decisions are being made? In the procedures and processes that have followed the launch of the 100-day plan it really isn’t clear who is representing the public. If the public is denied access to these processes, and information is blocked, then how do we know parties are not being captured by other political or economic interests? It makes it much harder for the designers to make long-term and innovative moves in favour of the public good if the public is not there to defend these interests.

A system has been setup that enables this sort of capture to happen. Allowing the public an ongoing and iterative role in the design process (as the CCC does with its projects such as the Central Library and Town Hall) not only allows for the articulation and expression of difficult issues, it also keeps the needs of the public in the foreground of the design process. The removal of the public puts designers in a difficult situation; if they don’t toe the line on a particular issue they risk losing the job or not getting future projects. I think the larger grouping of architecture and design firms in Christchurch have failed to realise the collective threat of this, and rather than approaching these issues as a profession, and lobbying for more public engagement and more transparency, they have instead chosen to prioritise their own firms by keeping their heads below the parapet. This strategy is counterproductive and does little to improve the design quality of the city.

With this article I don’t mean to suggest that there are groups consciously developing plans fundamentally at odds with the mood of the public, or that engagement with the public is ever a tidy or easy process. Rather I worry New Zealand has developed political and design cultures that misunderstand the powerful role that publics play in extrapolating the complex issues involved in a project and the deeper values and motives that lie underneath big decisions that are revealed through public discussion. If the quakes taught us anything surely it is that dormant within the public is an extraordinary capacity for hard work, imagination, ingenuity, and care for each other. It is sad that these characteristics that were so recently expressed here in Christchurch have not been allowed to continue into the ongoing planning of the new city. Most worryingly it also suggests an erosion of the trust that is needed between the public and its representatives for democracy to function. Our cities are not going to grow into the great places we all want them to be without it.

After the quakes we saw what an extraordinary resource the public is, so it’s curious that these same groups are considered of little value to the major projects developed by the government and designers in their plans. The CCDU’s Blueprint required selling; a large planning document like this is pointless if it doesn’t convince the many important clients, local business, international investors, arts groups, local councils, and iwi that it is worth supporting and committing to. With the benefit of hindsight it now seems obvious that rather than facilitating a rapid recovery, the exclusion of the public from the ongoing development of the plan has hindered the recovery. Luckily cities are never finished and there is time to learn from our mistakes.

[1] Noortje Marres, “Issues Spark a Public into Being: A Key but Often Forgotten Point of the Lippmann-Dewey Debate,” in Making Things Public, ed. Bruno Latour (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

[3]Prof. Sir Peter Gluckman, “The Psychosocial Consequences of the Canterbury Earthquakes” (letter from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientific Advisor, May 10, 2011),

[4] Local Government Act 2002, New Zealand Legislation, last modified April 1, 2014,

[5] “The RMA Quality Planning Resource,” Quality Planning, date accessed May 23, 2014,