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The Avon River Precinct for a new city waterfront in Christchurch

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  • Project initiator: Ōtākaro Ltd., a Crown-owned organization created to execute anchor projects within the rebuild of Christchurch after the earthquakes 2010/11.
  • Partners: the local authorities, the local Maōri tribes and their organizations, media, the people of Christchurch.
  • Duration of project: 5 years (2013-2018), with tangible results since 2015
  • Cost of the project: C. NZ$ 120 million (around EUR 70 million)

Context of how the project emerged:

The project was launched after the Canterbury Earthquakes 2010/11, which practically destroyed the entire central city of Christchurch, New Zealand’s then second largest city.  It is related to the Avon river which crosses the central city with the adjacent urban areas.


Strategy and objectives

Nature is resilient to the mechanical destruction of quakes. The river still flows and the trees are green. The buildings are gone, but more importantly, the people suffer. Christchurch still has by far the highest suicide rate of the country.

The strategy is to embrace Maōri culture, which acknowledges the healing powers of the river, and make the urban area permeated by the Avon River a place to heal the people from their traumata, to circumvent the central city with a strip of lush green and running water.

A new city waterfront is being created along the Avon River (Ōtākaro in the language of  Ngāi Tūāhuriri, the indigenous people of Christchurch), in the central city to make it easier to access river front businesses and green spaces.

A key feature is the new City Promenade (opened November 2018) extending two kilometres through the heart of the precinct on the eastern side of the river, replacing Oxford Terrace. The western side of the river has become a green space with walking and cycling paths.

In large parts, the Avon River Precinct is completed and is a huge success. We cannot change that catastrophes happen, but we can direct the way a community evolves from it. Thus, the areas adjacent to the river were integrated in the reconstruction. Streets were either pedestrianized or dedicated as shared spaces, where motor vehicles are only permitted to drive 10km/h. New urban furniture and lighting was sourced. Sculptures and other pieces of art celebrate the reborn city. The two predominant Maōri tribes of the Christchurch area have been deeply involved in sourcing artists and supplying works. After 150 years of silence the original people of the region now got a voice to articulate their cultural values through art.

In a planning environment that previously was compartmentalized in silos, the river recovery project was a major exercise to pursue an integrated approach. This didn’t always run smoothly though. Residual resistance within authorities sometimes stroke back. However, the applause of the people, travelling from their suburban dwellings particularly to the river precinct, just to experience its new life, was a tremendous support for the integrated planning approach.

The project’s innovative characteristics


40 stakeholder groups were consulted during the development of the design.

This project has also been designeg in the respect of  the Ngāi Tahu values, customs and traditions relevant to the Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct area.



Results and perspectives

The short-term benefits of this projects are:

  • Improving both the morale and the mental health of the traumatized people.
  • Reconnecting the west bank of the river with the central city by rebuilding destroyed bridges.
  • Upgrading riverside roads in a pedestrian/cyclist-centered manner.
  • Urban wellbeing during lunch breaks of office staff working in new office buildings west of the river.
  • Making the river visible by creating a destination.

It brings another benefits for the future:

  • An unprecedented urban design quality that kind of compensates for the loss of the historic architecture for which Christchurch was famed.
  • Having an urban spaced focused on a natural feature rather than a traffic corridor.
  • Considering the central city as a cohesive slow network of green spaces for walking and biking.

There are plans to expand this scheme further downstream, where the earthquakes made the land subside by a meter, have been made. These were supposed to incorporate ecosystem-based measures for flood resilience. However, commercial interest of certain historically privileged parties has been interfering. It will require another wave of enthusiasm to make it happen.


How can this project be duplicated on other rivers?

Principally it could, the cultural narrative must of course be linked to the roots of other places. It would be great to see projects like this emerge without a disaster or commercial “green city-branding” as trigger though.


Solution follow-up

Seven years later


How the project will be carried out

The most recent steps in the government’s regeneration program are the establishment of a playground and the construction of a pedestrian bridge. City development in connection with the Avon River continues. Nevertheless, the deployment of the project is constrained by the differences in vision between the New Zealand government – which initiated the project -; the city council – which took over the project in 2019 – and private companies.

Despite these difficulties, the project is a success on several points.


The Avon River district has become a major attraction and symbol of Christchurch’s revival. According to a 2019 City Council survey, 20% of respondents cited this area as the most representative of the city. Furthermore, the number of people visiting the downtown area 2-4 times a week was 20% in 2019, 7 points higher than in 2018. These figures show that the inhabitants are taking ownership of this space and that they feel comfortable there. The project has therefore well met its objectives of producing urban well-being.

This success has been rewarded with numerous awards:

  • Malcolm Award 2019, NZ’s highest award for landscaping projects;
  • ACE Award 2020, given by the Association of Consulting Engineers;
  • Finalist of the World Architecture Award 2019.
  • Resene Kiwi’s Choice award for Best Public Spot in New Zealand 2018;
  • NZILA (NZ Institute of Landscape Architects) Award of Excellence/Parks 2017;
  • NZILA Pride of Place Award 2017;
  • IPWEA (Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia) Award 2019;
  • IPWEA NZ Excellence Award/Best Public Works Project over $5 million 2017.


This project is very specific to the context and the city, nevertheless its success could inspire other organizations and other urban development work.

#City #Riverbank #Restoration  #Urbanrenewal

To know more

Crédit photo : Ōtākaro Ltd

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