Thursday, 13 December 2012

NOT PJ: One Chance

This week, Bernard Darnton is taking his chances. But not on shopping for handbags.

image“We’ve got one chance to get this right,” is the catch-cry of the Christchurch rebuild. Based on this one sentence it’s easy to conclude: we’re fucked.

If we’ve only got one chance to get it right, the plan needs to be perfect. No person, mayor, or czar, no committee, council, or cabinet can possibly know enough to synthesize the needs and hopes of hundred of thousands of citizens into the perfect city plan. Therefore, the plan won’t be perfect. Therefore, we’re fucked.

A city isn’t a set of drawing, or a spreadsheet. It is an organism. It can’t be planned from the top down; it has to be built from the bottom up, evolving as the result of a million experiments. Much like the robust and varied natural world, a city is the result of generations of trial and error, of failure and improvement. One problem with grand plans is that planners double down on bad bets whereas evolution clears them away and tries something else.

The idea that we’ve only got one chance to get this right is a self-fulfilling prophecy. CERA, the City Council, the Central City Development Unit, don’t have the ability to get it right in one go—no one does. But the plan must be conformed to and if we can’t get it right then, damn it, we’ll just have to get it wrong.

To get an idea of how wrong, you just have to listen to the cheerleaders. Apparently the key to Christchurch’s future economic success is “high-end retail”. Someone has gone round the great cities of the world and decided that what they all have in common are traffic problems and fancy handbag shops, perhaps failing to notice that these are symptoms of economic success, not causes. So Christchurch is going to get narrow, 30 km/h streets and shops selling shiny, brand-named tat.

The plan is to grass over half the city and build small amounts of expensive office space on the rest. The theory is that Christchurch was failing economically before the earthquakes and so if we triple the cost of office space, that will attract “high end tenants.”

For the record, “high end tenants” means outfits like Inland Revenue, which gives you a good idea of where the planners think that money comes from. Never mind, also, that Inland Revenue has signed a nine-year lease on an office out near the airport.

The ground floors of these expensive office buildings will be filled with “high end retail.” Louis Vuitton has been name-dropped. I have no idea if Louis Vuitton has been informed of their critical role in the rebuild. So the fool-proof “one chance” plan for Christchurch’s economic success revolves around Inland Revenue call centre staff spending their lunchtimes buying Louis Vuitton handbags.

Artist’s impression of central Christchurch. (Inland Revenue employees on their lunch hour not shown.)

The citizens of Christchurch would like to thank, in advance, New Zealand’s taxpayers for their unstinting support.

A rare insight into the planner’s mind came to me at a recent party. I suggested that Christchurch’s rebuilding would be clipping along much better if people were allowed to build whatever they liked on their own land. This was unacceptable said the planner because so much time has been put into the planning. If people just did what they wanted to, they might not conform to the plan (!) and then all that effort would be wasted!!

Even armies, who can shoot people who get in the way, understand that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

When I suggested that maybe they could save all that effort by not doing the unwanted planning in the first place, all I got was sputtering. Many good arguments evoke sputtering. “B … B … But … but … then everyone would die of typhoid!!!”

I bowed to my audience and took the win. To be fair, that response probably owed more to excessive alcohol consumption that to departmental policy, but it provides insight. It’s not that far from in vino veritas to in vino dumb-ass.

The planners know that planning is valuable. What they don’t understand is that the plans themselves are useless. The value comes from thinking about the possibilities, not from the mindless execution of the plans (and those who get in the way).

If Christchurch is only given one chance to get to get it right, the city will die.

If the plan is to build a “high-end” cargo cult and hope that wealth appears magically over the horizon, we will be miserably disappointed.

Christchurch doesn’t need one chance, it needs a thousand chances. It needs CERA and the CCDU, who have suffocated the city for two years, to make way for the thousands of individuals who will experiment, and iterate, and evolve the city into something marvellous._BernardDarnton

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Bernard Darnton is Not PJ O’Rourke, but you can’t blame him for that.
Read his other posts here.


  1. I may have misread your post but I think you are saying:

    1) IRD workers should be sacked for showing such poor taste in accessories

    2) We should shoot all the planners.

    Sounds like a plan.

  2. Yes - hundreds of thousands of people making their small decisions is the way to go, I think. Not a few "planners" making a handful of large decisions.

  3. Planners! they need to be concentrating on putting enough bathrooms and places to sit to make the people happy. Garbage cans in the right place, proper seating, and restroom access make for a well thought out structure. Victoria's secret knows more than one. That shop is one of the few places I can stand to "shop" with my wife. Because they ALWAYS have seating. Because they know if they provide the husband with seating, the wife gets to shop longer. That's planning.


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