Why Auckland needs a red zone.
An artists impression of the proposed hotel
Earthquake resistant urban design is just as important as earthquake resistant buildings, suggests Tony Watkins.
Beyond questions about the design of buildings there are other lessons to be learnt from the Christchurch earthquakes. Early geological maps of Christchurch identified swamplands which should not be built on. Of course this knowledge was ignored, for economic gain, and now it is possible to overlay the residential red-zone of places to be abandoned and the early geological surveys to find an almost perfect match.
Our political and planning processes however have never been good at protecting us from either the obvious or human greed.
Fast forward to the Wynyard Quarter, which is just another reclaimed swamp. The area is ideal for public open space or the fishing fleet, and was even suitable for lightweight temporary buildings for the now almost forgotten America’s Cup. However the proposal to build a seven story, three hundred bed, five star hotel raises different questions.
It may be possible to pile down through the swamp to find a foundation for the building itself, but one of the lessons from Christchurch is that when the ground turns to slush there is also a complete loss of infrastructure. Even if the hotel survives, the sewers, the water mains and the roads servicing the hotel would all need to be replaced, at considerable cost.
Abandoning the America’s Cup base after an earthquake would not be an issue, as that was going to happen anyway. Abandoning a large hotel raises a different set of questions. It is probable that the investment would be deemed too large to sacrifice. The ratepayers would then be expected to carry the cost of restoring the hotel infrastructure.
Meanwhile, as presumably happened in Christchurch, those making big profits from the hotel would have retired to some overseas resort before everything turned to custard.
The debate needs to take place now, while Christchurch is still fresh in our minds. The recent Mission Bay earthquake was just another gentle reminder that it could all happen to Auckland.
It is just a distraction to worry about the vulnerability of a few existing masonry buildings. Pretending that we would not make mistakes like those foolish people in the past who did not think about earthquakes does not mean that we will avoid making new mistakes. We can act now to ensure that future generations are not left wondering why we were foolish enough to build on a swamp.
A great deal of heartache, anguish and cost could be avoided by declaring the Wynyard Quarter to be a red zone now, before the inevitable Auckland earthquake. After Christchurch any thoughtful insurance company would recognise a pre-existing condition in the red zone and refuse to cover the hotel.
The political problem in declaring a red zone is that the public have no access to Council Controlled Organisations. Decisions are made beyond the public arena by people who have been appointed rather than elected. We have public relations releases rather than debate. Ratepayers meet the cost but are not part of the process.
Short-term profit can easily override common-sense, long-term urban design. The obvious can be ignored. Economists can easily leave earthquakes out of the equation in the same way that they can easily leave all the environmental costs of development out of the equation. Economists have always ignored interdependence. It is an easy way to transfer hidden costs.
Who will make the initial profits from the hotel and who will carry the costs is an important first question. Beyond that ratepayers need to question whether the development of the Wynyard Quarter is being future-proofed against ongoing ratepayer exposure to significant liability.
We live in a dynamic world and static plans are little more than freeze-frame illusions. The smiling faces of the paste-on people in architectural sketches offer a promise that nirvana will arrive soon and then the world will stop turning. In contrast contemplating the ruins of Troy or Ephesus should teach us that architectural sketches may be forgiving but nature is not.
The best time to deal with any problem is before it has happened.
Tony Watkins is an architect and urban designer with a particular interest in designing for earthquakes.
First published in the New Zealand Herald 27 July 2011