Christchurch – the garden city rising from the rubble

Following the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, four years on from the biggest ones, the city is starting to rebuild itself.  Many novel pop up and creative businesses emerged, such as the RE-Start mall which is still a shopping highlight of the inner city. What we’re also seeing emerge from this context is a resilient urban food system. Throughout the city are pop up garden spaces, often temporary as the sites are set to be developed on eventually. This of course leads to uncertainty for gardeners, and often modular systems tend to be the best. On a recent trip to Christchurch I visited Agropolis, right in the heart of the former restaurant area. A great example of local businesses working together, they plan to use food waste from those restaurants, collect it and then make it into compost for the gardens, which the restaurants in turn can visit to collect produce. Nicely closing the loop of the food system.

The facade of a fenced off building shows the dire state of the sites yet to be demolished.
A chairful site!


Walking around the Agropolis (Agriculture + Metropolis) garden I felt like I was back in Havana where I undertook my masters thesis research on seed systems in city gardens. Set amongst cracked buildings and a backdrop of infrastructure from the late 50s, the Cuban gardens shine like gems in the grey sand. Colourful marigolds demark the end of rows of raised beds of organic produce, thriving in the warm growing conditions and supplying every barrio (neighbourhood) throughout the country with healthy locally grown produce. Agropolis and other greening the city pop up installations light up Christchurch in a similar vein. Where cranes mark the sky line and big boys toys dig through 5 storeys of rubble, constantly clearing, demolishing and trying now to rebuild, at a grass roots and ground level, there is a sign of something stronger: resilience in the city.

The impressive and modular gardens of Agropolis, ready to be removed if the site gets developed. This creates uncertainty for the gardeners.
Compost is a priority

Throughout our urban history this has been a constant story: Gardens and survival, necessity spawning resilience. In the second world war were survival mechanisms across Europe, Berlin’s allotments saved many a hungry tummy until the wall fell, Cuba’s city gardens a top down requirement from the central government after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to its oil supply being cut off and no petrochemicals available for agricultural use, with supply of fertiliser and petrol for machinery gone over night. And natural disasters – Haiti’s earthquake, Christchurch’s earthquake, all show us that in times of need gardens grow.

Produce grown in the box outside the popular C1 cafe in the heart of the rebuild, the funky cafe a mecca and hang out spot for all
A sign illustrates the intention for the innovation precinct. Still a way to go.

I think the key is ensuring that in between those times of crisis, or in an absence of crisis, we continually assess and transfer knowledge on gardens, seeds, and growing and making our own food to ensure that generational knowledge or socio-ecological knowledge is not lost. Moreover, what is required is strong direction from governance on the importance of enhancing and maintaining this knowledge. Inter-generational knowledge sharing on gardens  is a good example of this, where elders share gardening time with children. Enviroschools across Aotearoa are running great education programmes on gardening for kids. But what is also needed is a city-regional approach to the food system in times of prosperity or out of crisis (such as now) to ensure that we have the knowledge, tools, skills and seeds to ensure that resilience.  With the recent Food Resilience Network Action Plan from Christchurch City Council and Edible Canterbury. we are starting to see some new direction in New Zealand on city planning for food systems. Others can follow and learn from the dire circumstances that forged that direction, without having to repeat it, but with the benefits of those learnings.

This blog was written today for Jessica, a great gardener and seed saver and for Benji who survived the Christchurch earthquake.

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