A few people have asked what I think about the new proposals for Cathedral Sq in Christchurch, so here are my thoughts. All the information from Regenerate Christchurch is here.
My primary comment is that it’s important to realise how this is a completely different process to the Blueprint (launched five years ago this week). This is a proposal, its a set of ideas that interlock, but that can be shifted, shifted, tweaked, or radically altered. It’s not all or nothing, and it needs the views of people in the city to make it flourish. So the first and main thought is for everyone to get in there and make comments, even if its just one thing you particularly like or don’t like about what you’ve seen. We all worked so hard to get this kind of engagement happening again, so lets use it! Feedback can be made here.
I’ve got 9 thoughts, and the two concerns are last.
Note: This scheme assumes that the Cathedral will be restored, but this decision isn’t made by the church until September.
One: The current Square is too big, and a really strange shape. It’s not quite one big amazing place and the smaller parts all bleed into each other. The only part of the square that really works at the moment is in front of the Cathedral, and thats a tiny part of all that public space. It’s the Square that really isn’t a square.
The new design quite cleverly inverts that problem by creating 3 or 4 new areas, each with their own boundaries and unique identity or sense of being in a particular place. Each of them could almost be called outside public rooms. As a singular bold move, I think this is an important one and whatever the particulars of the particular public spaces and what happens in each of them, I think this is a strong starting point.
Two: This move is also convenient in terms of being able to stage the development, so the easy and obvious can start soon and the more expensive, difficult, uncertain, or contentious parts can be worked out and don’t hold up the whole project. This the kind of sequential and staged thinking missing from so much of the Blueprint process.
Three: Removing car traffic from the Square is a great move. Simple. No brainer. But it needs each of the new rooms to be really strong and successful.
Four: Greening of the Square — or perhaps the blueing of the Square as water and streams are returned. In principle this is brilliant. It turns what will often be a dark and quite cold part of the Square into a place for plants and ecology. Possibly something like the transitional Nature Play Park that DOC and Greening the Rubble built in 2013. It’d be great if this idea was treated ambitiously. Not just a green landscaping of the Square, but something more adventurous and engaged. Can it provided educational opportunities like Nature Play park did? Can it be part of a university and provide data and information back to the public about what is growing and present. Can the public grow food and plants there? Lighting at night could use UV and reveal different patterns and forms in the plants? Maybe DOC puts a small office there and people can ask for advice and support for native planting in the rest of the city? or Greening the Rubble’s Plant Exchange project continues there?
Five: A new library plaza is created by removing the road and (perhaps controversially) rotating the current memorial 90 degrees so it faces north towards the library. This space will apparently accommodate up to 5000 people for events, and also provide usable, friendly space for day to day use next to the library. Probably not too dis similar to Civic Square in Wellington but with more activity and stronger edges.
Six: The post office square is a great idea. This becomes the main event space for the Square for concerts and other big public activities. I reckon they should do a quick once over on this and start using it for public activities ASAP. Test it for concerts, test the gear, where the staging should be, etc. Then in a year or so (after ten or so events) get into building the ‘final’ version. Test it with the public, then build it properly.
Seven: The covered market is another strong idea. Although I think the design of this needs a lot more consideration. Should the stalls be semi-permanent like Melbourne’s Victoria markets? How do stall holders get their goods in if we don’t want cars in there (this is a major problem for markets), is it a lockable space? What is the relationship between the markets and the adjacent buildings? These are criticisms, I just think its a major project that needs careful consideration. But again, test it, test it, then build an amazing ‘permanent’ version.
The last two points are the concerning parts of the proposal.
Eight: The project proposes the construction of two or three new buildings on the north west edge of the square. The positive aspect of this is it turns what is currently road into usable space. It also shrinks the area of the Square that is currently too big while creating a new smaller internal courtyard. This also means building on existing public space, which is a dangerous precedent. I understand this is the bit that requires the special regenerate powers. I don’t have a huge problem with this in principle, but strongly feel that the building needs to be retained in public ownership and include a strong obligation for public and civic activity on the ground plane. The second story and internal area’s might be leased to pay for the public activity, but its essential this doesn’t become a privatisation of public space. This might be a chance for some new collective, civic, or commons form of ownership and governance.
Nine: The main problem I have with the new proposal is that it doesn’t respect the presence of the Cathedral well enough, the view shaft looking east from west is impacted by the proposed new buildings. The new corner building feels too close to the Cathedral and would obscure views of the tower. I’d suggest stepping that building back a bit and in doing this would crate a better space in front of the Cathedral itself.