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Planning of New Chch Pt 2: Wrong Structures, Wrong People

The Planning of New Christchurch
Part Two: Wrong Structures, Wrong People

by Barnaby Bennett
March 10, 2014

In the first part of this series I argued that the National Government has party-politicised the process of the rebuild by keeping the authority and decision-making to the responsibility of one Minister and Cabinet. This has not only led to an ongoing series of bad planning and management decisions (lack of heritage plan, endless delays to transport plan, overlapping governance structures with council), it has also put the government in the vulnerable position of not being able to change course as the situation has evolved. This reveals firstly a naïve political decision, and secondly creates a very dangerous situation for the city as post-disaster situations are defined by their uncertainty, and the idea that mistakes can’t be honestly admitted and acknowledged is problematic.

In this second part, I will look at how this poorly planned structure has in turn led to the appointed of the wrong type of people, and the wrong individuals in key positions.

From all reports CERA was full of amazing people doing amazing things for the first year after the quake. The immediate need to hire the best people, and the good will of the population to drop their normal jobs and commit to Christchurch assured an influx of talented people who – at the beginning – had the freedom to do their jobs well. I would put appointments like Roger Sutton into this category.

While it can only be expected that the nature of the jobs would change over the first few years after a disaster, what we see is a change from the appointment of the best possible people for the job to the appointment of managers that will follow orders and keep ‘things on track’. While competent management and project management skills are essential, they are not the only skills needed. The best example of this misguided approach to appointment is putting Warwick Isaacs in charge of the Christchurch City Development Unit (CCDU).

Warwick Isaac’s previous experience is 14 years at local government at the Timaru District Council and the Buller District Councils. When CERA announced his decision they said “Warwick will now use all of the experience and knowledge he has gleaned during his challenging year as CERA’s operations leader, to forge a new future for Christchurch.” So the experience Isaacs has gained from leading the demolition of around 1200 buildings is considered adequate to lead the most complex urban project in NZ History? Really? CERA has failed in its appointment here, and the mismanagement of the past 18 months is evidence of this. The government should have appointed a designer or project leader with design knowledge, who also had extensive experience in governance and senior management. These people exist and they are highly skilled – and it is Christchurch’s loss that Isaacs has instead been leading the CCDU. This isn’t meant as a personal slight on Isaacs; it is a bit like employing a commercial fisherman to run the America’s Cup campaign. I’m sure Isaacs did a great job during the difficult Civil Defence and demolition stages, but leading an urban design authority is a highly complex task that requires experience and knowledge of how urban environments are constructed.

The lack of dynamic thinking, imagination, and adaptability within the CCDU is becoming increasingly evident. I think part of this is because of the stagnant mono-directional nature of how the government is running the process and the exclusion of the public and all our ideas.

I need to briefly address an issue of the public here before continuing to critique the nature of the appointments. Many of us have been criticising the lack of real public engagement in the planning processes. Minister Brownlee has directly responded to this criticism on a number of occasions, and in his defence, he does seem genuinely miffed by it. He asserts that the plan is based on the “Share an Idea” campaign and was honestly and genuinely based on this process. There are two big faults with this, and again it points to the fact that Gerry is a minister in a National Government – not someone with any serious experience with urban development or post-disaster planning.

The first is that engagement, like design, is about it iterations. It involves a movement of information back and forth between parties, and the information is steadily transformed and improved in this process. There are hundreds of ways of doing these processes. The Share an Idea campaign was one of them. One of the things that makes me most angry is when people assume that there are only two choices in these situations: dictatorship or consensus. This is bullshit and reveals a remarkable lack of imagination. We only need to look around our own lives with our family, loved ones, pets, gardens, and crafts to know that the world unfolds through careful negotiations, sacrifices and small moments of trust. The consensus or dictatorship threat is created by those in power as a way to keep power. An authority can consult and it not be binding – we do this all the time with parliament and it works very well. We can delegate small amounts of power to local boards and people and still keep control of the main infrastructure, as with happens with councils all the time. We can work with community experts and stake holders – this is normal (and to CERA’s defence they do operate like this in some occasions).

The second fault with the thought that the Share an Idea campaign is enough is because they didn’t even look at the ideas that came out of that process. I OIA’d CERA and asked what was the methodology they used to interpret the data gathered from citizens during this process (the 100,000 ideas). Roger Sutton replied and said the CCDU Plan is based on the Council’s interpretation, and that they took this at face value. Yet they rejected this plan, took out key elements of it, and added a number of projects not mentioned in the Council scheme. So to summarise, CERA’s notion of community engagement is:

1. Get another organisation to gather information from citizens.
2. Never look at that data themselves.
3. Reject the plan they come up with that is based on that data.
4. Keep some suggestions, throw some out, and introduce some new ones without ever explaining the criteria for all this.
5. Don’t check the new plan with the citizens.
6. Don’t check the new plan with international experts.
7. Claim this is meaningful consultation.

Minister Brownlee – this is why we argue that you’ve never consulted with us about the plans for a new city, and why we get so frustrated when you claim you have.

But back to the lack of innovation in the plan. This is, I think, a direct result of the inclination to rely on project managers to run the rebuild process. Project management is a strange beast. At its best it provides people with great skills to achieve complex projects on time, within budget, and everyone is happy. At its worst it puts people who don’t understand the real values and priorities of projects, and who continually put things into boxes and gantt charts in an attempt to control the complexity of the world, and in doing so ruins all the subtlety involved in such a project.

Most project managers are taught and practice a thing called PMBOK, which is the Project Management Body of Knowledge. (You can pick when you are around project managers by the two things; 1. Dress shirts with vertical stripes, and 2. The ugly use of endless acronyms which they seem to use in an attempt turn project management into some time of medieval guild.)

PMBOK is a series of tools for delivering projects around the world. Given that the world revolves around project managers and their projects it obviously does its job pretty well and allows large and expensive projects to be delivered. However, there are a number of important criticisms of PMBOK, one being that it was designed during the Cold War. The world was a different place during the Cold War, and the project management system developed during this time was based on assumptions and values not always applicable now. PMBOK works in stable environments with a clear goal, a known budget and a desired time frame – and it works very well in these situations. This is why it is useful to pulling of projects like stadiums, corporate buildings, and Olympics. But it is not designed to function in an unstable environment where the stakeholders and users are not known, where budgets change, where the environment is dynamic, and where the goal is not always known. Basically, it is not particularly suited for post-disaster or complex urban environments.

By using project managers to lead the rebuild we are risking the future quality of this city and so many opportunities are being passed up because of the current desire to stick to plans that are already out of date. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the obviously hard working and talented project managers in Christchurch, but simply they are the wrong discipline to be leading this process. We need high level designers with experience in this type of thing to be leading with support from politicians who have the skill and public support to pull of brave and interesting decisions.

I’ve been consistently and almost obsessively attending public discussions, exhibitions, events, and activities on architecture and urbanism since arriving at the beginning of 2012, and I think it is telling that on not one single occasion have I seen either the head of the main urban design authority or its main designer at any of these events. There is a movement in this city that is gaining an international reputation for its creativity and innovation, and yet it is being almost totally ignored by those in charge of the rebuild.


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