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A long way from home

By Ruth Slavid
What is it like to work in an earthquake-devastated city on the other side of the world? It is exciting, challenging and fulfilling, a landscape team from BDP learnt when it was appointed to one of the first teams of consultants after the Christchurch earthquake.

The Landscape team from BDP, which has its headquarters in London, has just completed its work on a project about as far away from its home base as it is possible to get, in an environment which is both familiar and unfamiliar, and which poses challenges and opportunities that, we hope, we will never encounter in the UK.

The team has been working in Christchurch, New Zealand, addressing the area around the Avon River, following the devastating earthquake that the city suffered on 22 February 2011. The Avon River loops through the city centre, the worst-affected part of the city. More than half of its buildings were wrecked, as well as thousands of residential properties and numerous underground services.

The restoration of the CBD therefore will be key to the regeneration of the city, and what is exciting is that it will not be returned to the way that it was before – instead the aim is to make it better. Christchurch, which is the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, was seen as the most European of cities as epitomised by its cathedral, destroyed in the earthquake – and of course the name of its river. But it was not perfect, and there was an aspiration to have the kind of sweeping improvements that can only be made after a catastrophe. These included making the city greener, making it easier to get around and less car-dependent, and improving the quality of buildings in the CBD and make it more compact – while there were some well-loved buildings, there were also many later examples that were indifferent.

Andrew Tindsley, who is a landscape architect and main board director at BDP, explained, ‘It was evident that the community of Christchurch sought change and wished to see a rejuvenated city that was greener, easier to get around, and with a more compact centre with a stronger built identity. Together these suggestions helped to provide a direction for the Blueprint, the first stage of the City’s wider recovery plan. Completed within just 100 days, the Blueprint defined a new spatial plan for the city centre, proposing zones of development activity, a network of green spaces and a number of anchor regeneration projects’

The Avon River Precinct was the first of these. It covers a 3.2 km stretch of the river travelling through the CBD, including not just the river but the land on either side. For the British working there this was disconcertingly familiar. Christchurch is known as the ‘Garden City’, and the trees on its banks included weeping willows, chestnuts and limes – all common trees of the British landscape but, of course, imported exotics in New Zealand.

BDP was appointed as part of a team led by Opus, a large and successful engineering practice in New Zealand. Also including in the team were two local landscape practices, Boffa Miskell and Land Lab, and EOS, an ecology practice with expertise in aquatic ecology and river systems. BDP brought its expertise in running major projects as well as its overall understanding of landscape architecture.

The project was complex, but the principles were straightforward. They were: to re-establish the river as a vital corridor in the city, for recreation and for pedestrian and bike transport; to reintroduce some native planting alongside the imported species; and to improve the health of the river, which became severely silted as a result of the earthquake – in places the banks had also shifted by 0.5m. The aim however was to make it healthier than it was before by narrowing it in places so that the flow will be faster. This involved a delicate balancing act in terms of the vegetation. While vegetation stabilises banks, it also makes them ‘rougher’, tending to slow the flow.  This is particularly important because the river has to carry away the water from a one in a hundred year flood – something that was experienced soon after the team started on the project. The work of the expert ecologists was vital. One of the aims is to allow inaka fish to re-establish. These tiny fish – a native equivalent of whitebait – are a good indicator of the health of rivers.

The ‘English garden’ approach of the river largely ignored or superseded the original vegetation – plants which ironically have found their way into English gardens as exotic imports. After all, the climate is not all that different. These plants included cordylines and phormium tenax, both fibrous plants. The Maori used both of them for their fibre content and as part of a wider natural system which provided them with food. At the time when Christchurch was developing, little attention was paid to this cultural history, but this is changing now, with an opportunity to redress some past actions.

In addition to the English, Andrew explained, Christchurch was home to ‘Ngai Tuahuariri, the local iwi of Ngai Tahu. They were the first inhabitants of this part of New Zealand and the land now occupied by the central city had traditionally been their food gathering place. Over the last 150 years much of their culture has been lost or hidden by the development of European settlers and the post earthquake rebuild provides a unique opportunity to celebrate both cultures and weave their futures more closely together.’

The formality of the park-like environs of the river over time will give way to much more informal planting along the riverbank itself, and it is here that the native planting will be restored. The edges of the river will be as informal as possible. ‘We want people to be able to get right down to the water’s edge,’ Andrew said.

Beyond this edge there will be gardens, public spaces and in one place ‘the best’ new family playground in New Zealand, with the pedestrian and cycling routes beyond them. And beyond these there will be riverside facilities – bars and restaurants etc. This linear zoning has been worked out carefully in a way that should make the use of space easily legible without creating artificial striations – it should work on a subliminal level. In addition, the team has contributed to the masterplan for the East Frame, previously an urban mixed use city quarter just beyond the CBD. It has now been designated for redevelopment as a residential area, but one that will be denser and connect better with the city centre. The residents will be ideally placed to enjoy the newly defined Avon River – a place that has always played a vital part in the city and now will be even better equipped to do so.

The earthquake
We talk about ‘the Christchurch earthquake’ of 22 February 2011, but in fact it was one of a series, with some even arguing that it was an aftershock of an earlier quake. The 22 February quake measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, whereas on 4 September 2010 there had been a quake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale in Canterbury, the region in which Christchurch sits. That earlier quake had caused considerable damage in the city, whereas the February quake was much nearer and more devastating.

Just 10km southeast of the city centre, and 2km from the port town of Lyttleton, it killed 185 people, More than half of these died when the Canterbury Television Station building collapsed and caught fire. The government declared a state of emergency.

One of the reasons that the earthquake was so damaging was that it was very close to the surface and led to a lot of liquefaction (literally becoming liquid and losing all strength) of the ground – not only contributing to the collapse of buildings, but also silting up the river.

In addition, there was a series of severe aftershocks in the area, some classified as ‘very strong’ and at least one as ‘destructive’. These both caused some further damage and made people nervous – a reason why there was some migration out of the city, although people are returning now.
After the quake
In response to the severity of the event, the New Zealand government set up a dedicated organisation called CERA, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. This was a government agency with a cabinet minister overseeing the process of regeneration and renewal. CERA works in partnership with Christchurch City Council and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu which represents the local Maori community. Re-planning started quickly, with the community participating in an initiative called ‘Share an Idea’, which generated more than 100,000 contributions.
Working across the world
Landscape architects work in a variety of offices, both their own and those of clients and collaborators. None, however, have probably operated before from a bright red former secondhand car warehouse. This was where BDP found itself operating – an indication of the very special challenges and opportunities for the team.

These were twofold. Firstly, there was the fact that there is almost nowhere that is further from northwest Europe than New Zealand. Working from the UK was never going to be an option. The team was appointed in December 2012 and flew out to start work the next month. Given the degree of devastation, accommodation was not easily available – and was expensive. As the workers realised that they were going to be there for a while, they needed houses rather than to stay in hotels. They all found places to stay – helped by Andrew Tinsley’s wife who, having taken early retirement, set herself up as an unofficial accommodation officer.

Office space was not readily available either. Opus picked up the first arrivals and took them to their new workspace – quickly christened the Red Shed. The main change that the team made, Andrew said, was to have all the partitions taken down so that the lots of people could work together. It became such a vibrant place that even those working for other consultants nearby who didn’t need to co-locate chose to do so.

‘We were in a temporary office building,’ Andrew explained, ‘with a lot of people we didn’t know, on the other side of the world.’ Even the BDP people weren’t all used to being together, coming from different offices in the UK and the Netherlands. ‘Alongside all the others, we built a really good team out of all those disciplines. Everybody wanted a piece of space in the Red Shed.’

For the first few weeks the newly coalescing team ‘never touched a computer’. Instead they were walking, talking, sketching and even kayaking along the river to survey the situation from there. At weekends many of the BDP team went away to explore the country, aware that this was an opportunity that might not come again. The team both within and beyond BDP has evidently developed a great strength. Younger members have learnt self-reliance, and Tindsley as a senior member of staff had the opportunity to concentrate almost entirely on a single project – a rare opportunity for somebody in his position.

Working a long way from home can be tough, but it has great advantages as well. Whilst the BDP team have now returned to the UK, their New Zealand consultancy colleagues  continue with the tough challenge of taking the project through construction.

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