5 Jul 2016

Be bold and turn the crisis of February 2011 into an opportunity.

That is the message to Christchurch from a visiting global expert on healthy, vibrant cities.

Gil Penalosa, the founder of internationally renowned organisation 8 80 Cities, has spent the last three days exploring the city and talking with leaders about how to reshape Christchurch.

Mr Penalosa believes Christchurch should base future development and decision making on the 8 80 concept - that if you create a great city for an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old - you will create a successful city for all people.

“There are challenges (in Christchurch) but there are also magnificent opportunities. From what I’ve seen and heard so far, people seem to be open to innovations.

“Right now, you have an opportunity to change mind sets. To make this a more walkable, bikeable, liveable city. 

“When you look at the red zone area, it’s bigger than Central Park in New York. The question is, how can we use it? This is an amazing opportunity.”

Gil Penalosa in Christchurch's Cashel Street.

Gil Penalosa in Christchurch's Cashel Street.

Penalosa said successful cities like Copenhagen had made tough, sometimes unpopular, decisions but had continually strived for improvement.

“Change is not unanimous. You need to do what is right, not what is easy.”

He saw three vital steps needed to change the city for the better.

“Firstly, you need to make this the most walkable city in the world. Be bold, be ambitious and turn the crisis of the earthquake into an opportunity. You need to put everything that people are wanting within walking distance.

“Secondly, work on the concept of 8 80. If the city is great for eight year olds, and great for 80 year olds, it will be great for everyone in Christchurch – that just naturally follows.

“Thirdly, this could be a great cycling city but you need to create a network of protected cycleways, again with the 8 80 concept in mind.

“Painted lines to mark a cycle lane amid traffic – that’s not enough. You need to have physical separation from cars. You would not send your eight year old son or daughter, or your 80 year old parent, to cycle one of those cycle lanes. Make it safe. Put up some barriers, and make the network connect.”

Mr Penalosa said he was impressed by the attitude of leaders he had met, but said Christchurch needed to make change now in order to deal with a looming population increase.

“There is an opportunity now but to make the change you need to create a sense of urgency. The earthquake in itself should have been enough, but if that isn’t enough, the population is growing by 25 to 30 percent in the next 20 years. If we don’t change, the city might collapse.

“We need political leaders, school leaders, community leaders backing change, and we need citizen engagement at every step – before, during and after.”

Over the next 20 years, Christchurch’s over-65 year old population would double from 52,000 to 105,000, creating an exciting challenge for the region, he said.

“All over the world cities are grappling with this aging population, and they are worried. They see it as a negative. That’s the wrong approach. See it as a challenge – these older people are fantastic assets – they can be great resources for the city.”

Mr Penalosa encouraged leaders to focus on the design and use of parks and streets as great public places, as well as sustainable mobility: walking, riding bikes and using public transport.

Find out more on 8 80 Cities.