City Ecologies – why small stuff matters
This piece is about Christchurch/Ōtautahi, New Zealand/Aotearoa, a city and country that are far away from most places. It’s a city in transition. Christchurch has its roots as an agricultural service town, begun in the late 19th Century, and is now in the process of rebuilding 80% of its central-city area. This is as a result of a number of earthquakes that devastated the city in 2010 and 2011, the most serious of which claiming the lives of 185 people. The rebuild of Christchurch is expected to take at least 20 years. Thousands of homes been abandoned and then demolished (seldom re-located) along the banks of the River Avon/Ōtakaro due to land slumping and damage. Businesses have had to relocate, adapt, close or move online. Schools have closed or merged, families have left, thousands have moved here for work as part of the rebuild, the city is dusty and bumpy. Whole city blocks are vacant and the occasional new building is springing up amidst the emptiness. The rebuild is underway now though, it would seem, four years on.
It’s been a time of upheaval, change, heartache and optimism for this place. Things are not simple. Everything takes longer than you imagine. And why has the recovery been so slow you might ask? Why is it only after four years things are getting underway in earnest? In a word: insurance. You have no idea how complicated insurance payouts, assessments and arguing with the Earth Quake Commission is…
Christchurch has changed irrevocably in the last four or so years and creative people and practices have been at the forefront of the revival of the city in this time. We’re four years on from the most serious quake and the mood of 2015 is divided. In some parts it is one of excitement that things are finally happening, and in others, resignation to where things are currently at. And fatigue. People are tired. In some ways it s a tale of two cities: those making a tonne of money from the rebuild and those living in stasis as they wait for those insurance payouts, repairs, decisions and action.
It’s been interesting over the last four years to observe the responses to the disaster and the state of the city by the established arts community and others. I personally felt rather disappointed by how many established artists and, I guess I should say, visual artists, weren’t doing anything much in the city. Granted the loss of studios and galleries was a blow but I think I realised how tied these people, who I respect as creative forces, were to the art-making systems that had been utterly disrupted by the quakes. But there’s been an abundance of socially engaged projects that are responding to the post-disaster context in Christchurch.
My own organisation (Gap Filler), is a creative urban regeneration initiative and led the creative charge in the early days post-quake, with projects like temporary garden/gathering spaces for music and outdoor films, a dance floor, artworks, book exchange, a large pavilion and so on. The projects we undertook then were about replacing lost amenity but then adding something more. Amenity PLUS. In the first, I’d say, three years after the quakes, the role we were playing was offering people the opportunity to participate in shaping their post-quake city to create connectedness, a sense of empowerment and to help people deal with recovery from the trauma they had experienced. As time has passed, Gap Filler has become more assured of its role in contributing to the ecology of the city and our work has become about what is lacking, or what do we need to draw attention to.
The future city that the people of Christchurch, and indeed the country, are being sold is the one championed by the national government (the National Party––conservative, right-wing). There is a master plan, or blueprint, for the central city rebuild comprising a number of ‘anchor projects’––a library, convention centre, children’s playground, health and emergency services precinct, justice precinct, performing arts precincts, covered stadium and river parkway. These are multi-million dollar projects in a four billion dollar rebuild. With a government like this, it feels like the role of ‘the arts’ is to entertain and ’pretty things up’ if there’s money left over from doing the ‘real stuff’, the stuff for the good of the economy. New Zealand as a young post-colonial country founded on pioneering, farming, and bloody hard work has a somewhat difficult relationship with the arts and artists.
But amidst all the blueprints, big plans and renders on billboards of imminent flash, new apartment buildings for middle class pākeha (non-Māori) to occupy and help repopulate the city, there has been an abundance of creative activity making use of some of the hundreds of vacant lots that abound in the city, the product of countless demolitions. There is what’s been called the transitional movement in the city, comprising a range of organisations and people, some of them artists who have been getting busy doing projects since mid 2011. The momentum really picked up in 2013 thanks to the creation of a vacant-space broker organisation by Gap Filler called Life in Vacant Spaces to respond to the demand for vacant sites. The use of vacant spaces had become a movement. In the face of nothing much that was visibly happening in the city: temporary activity was thriving. The power of many small things to have an impact was evident.
The idea behind the temporary activities was and still is to bring people into the city, to allow people to participate in its recovery and in shaping the urban environment. It is about bringing life, energy and people back to the empty city landscape to support and contribute to the recovery. Key projects have included The Social––an artist collective championing socially engaged art practices. They have held events, run an artist residency using a small caravan situated on empty sites and supported art projects in the city. Raw, cheaply done and utterly engaged, it has been a vehicle for a number of the city’s more alternative and performative artists to contribute to the post-quake landscape.
Then there’s been street art (sanctioned and unsanctioned), which was frustratingly slow to get going (in my opinion) but has now become a loved and important part of the landscape. One of my favourite unsanctioned artworks was a sculpture playing on one of those distance-marker signs (Sydney 2000 kilometres, London 10908 kilometres– know what I mean?) that was installed on a vacant lot and pointed out all the car parks that were, like a virus, taking over the vacant lots as buildings came down. Cardensity was the artwork’s name, a play on the Garden City moniker given to Christchurch by a previous council. The artwork has now gone but it remains anonymous.
Gap Filler was one of the first organisations to undertake large-scale, wall-based projects here (just think about how many walls have been exposed here due to demolitions of neighbouring buildings!). Collaborating in late 2011 with the Christchurch Art Gallery which was closed (and still is, four years on as repairs are undertaken), we undertook what has become New Zealand’s largest painting by artist Wayne Youle called I seem to have temporarily have misplaced my sense of humour. And later in 2012, we worked with local artist Michaela Cox on the Faux Arcadia project and in 2013, with Ash Keating (Melbourne) on Concrete Propositions (pictured at top).
At the end of 2013 and across that Summer into 2014, the RISE Street Festival began bringing big names in street art to the city for some fantastic big wall mural projects. The festival included a Banksy exhibition housed in the city’s museum, which had dedicated its large exhibition space to a celebration of street art. No big deal? Well, for a small provincial town like Christchurch, the museum hosting street art is kind of big deal. And it was their most successful exhibition ever, which is saying something. Since there’s so much street art going on now here, Gap Filler no longer undertakes such projects as part of our aim is to lead by example to reflect the context of the city. Lots of street art going on? Great, we don’t need to keep doing it. But what else is missing? What can be done to draw attention to that newly articulated lack?
And us, what have we done? Well, Gap Filler has realised more than 60 projects in four years, ranging in scale and style. We’re a registered charity (NGO), so we’ve been able to attract funding to do these projects and pay the fantastic project coordinators who make them happen. As I alluded to just before, we’re about testing new ideas, leading by example, fostering collaboration, resourcefulness, creativity and experimentation. We’re a values-driven organisation. We began as a purely voluntary project that has morphed into an awesome little paid team of 8 (4.3 full-time equivalent). We’ve become part of the fabric of the city, supported by our city council and we’re in part responsible for the creative re-birth and re-branding of this city post quake with coverage in the New York Times, Lonely Planet 2013 City Guide, the Guardian and more. We sometimes get referred to as the ‘militant arm of council’ (by an ex-city council urban planner) which is interesting.
Gap Filler’s projects, to name just a few include:
– The Dance-O-Mat: a coin-operated dance floor powered by an adapted ex-laundromat washing machine.
– The Pallet Pavilion: a community venue for music and events made from 3000 blue wooden pallets and built, activated (18 month duration) and then deconstructed by a total of 600+ volunteers
– Gap Golf: a central city, post-disaster mini-golf course
– a Cycle-Powered Cinema
– Sound Garden: musical instruments made from recycled materials and junk located on a vacant site within a garden space for people to jam
– RAD (Recycle A Dunger) Bikes: a relocatable, architecturally designed, volunteer-built bike shed for learning bike repairs and for up-cycling old ‘dunger’ bikes for gifting on to those who need them
– The Grandstandium: a mini, relocatable grandstand for creating impromptu public spaces and supporting the watching of the city’s demolition and rebuild.
– We have also facilitated and hosted many, many more projects, lending support, tools, volunteer power, publicity and more.
One of the interesting challenges for those involved in temporary projects in Christchurch as the years between the quake and the present increase, is how the outpouring of temporary creative activity continues to be a part, and indeed a valued part of the city long term. There is a lack of understanding here about the role this activity plays in the health of the city. Temporary projects are seen as a post-quake, feel-good phenomenon and, for some, their relevance is now questionable. While this attitude is understandable, within the global context, the decline of city centres due to a set of shared circumstances is a hot topic and talk of meanwhile or temporary uses to breathe new life into cities, support urban design processes and enable social change is increasingly being given air time by municipalities and governments. Last year we organised the Congress of Adaptive Urbanism here in Christchurch, which brought 70 people from a broad range of disciplines from around the world to our city to talk about this term, adaptive urbanism. Issues and experiences are shared world-wide and creative solutions are increasingly also being shared and adapted in this global context. But back to Christchurch, where we are struggling to change the understanding from quake response, to healthy city.
Another challenge is from the established arts community. At seeing the strong support and interest in temporary projects, coupled with the lack of progress on any permanent arts facilities (for established theatre, orchestra and music school), there’s been a lashing out at temporary creative projects. “We need proper art!!” they cry, “enough with the temporary candy.” I get it. The city’s Art Gallery has not been a priority for restoration when the stadium had (we had a temporary rugby stadium built in 100 days. Lack of rugby facilities is an emergency here, it would seem). But it’s not an either/or. Surely we need all kinds of art-making and art practices here? And for Gap Filler, projects in the city occupying vacant spaces be they lots or vacant buildings are more than just art projects, they’re acts of DIY urban design and urban intervention.
In our view, the role of creative people and indeed creative activists to create a culture of engaged citizenship and actually contribute to physically shaping the city by creating opportunities for a wider-than-usual modes of participation has never been more possible than it is right now. We can see in Christchurch how the building of a city normally rolls out. There’s a standard way of doing things. And it doesn’t involve most people. It involves developers, designers, councils and a range of construction workers. Through temporary projects, we have the chance to continue to allow a wider range of people to participate. We’ve had four years of trial and error from which to learn, and here and now in this fourth year since the quakes, we’re starting to try to embed some of our long-term learning in a range of ways. We’re working with the City Council to adapt the regulatory and funding framework to continue to create a fertile ground from which creative interventions and responses can spring. We’re working with schools and kids to engage them in the city they will inherit. We want to challenge the way people think about the ownership and ‘user-ship’ of their urban environment.
It’s been an exciting, exhausting and challenging time in this city these last four years. But the role that creative people have played has been instrumental in Christchurch’s recovery. It will be fascinating to see how things will play out and what kind of city will emerge and whether our vision of a city, in which creative temporary use embeds as a way to test, nurture and engage, continues.
About the contributor: Coralie Winn has a mixed and varied background. Before the existence of Gap Filler, she has been involved in the arts scene in Christchurch, New Zealand; running the University of Canterbury’s SOFA Gallery at the Arts Centre, performing and collaborating with Free Theatre Christchurch, working for festivals and in 2009/2010 running and developing the Arts Centre’s public programmes, including the Artist in Residence Programme. After being made redundant from this role as a result of the September 4, 2010 earthquake, Coralie and two others created a post-quake urban regeneration initiative called Gap Filler to bring creativity and life to Christchurch’s vacant spaces. Revised and expanded in light of the more destructive February 2011 quake, Coralie now runs Gap Filler full-time as its Director. Gap Filler has completed more than 60 projects to date in Christchurch gaps or empty shops and has facilitated and inspired many more.
Coralie started off her tertiary education in Public Health and Sociology, with a degree in Health Science from the University of Adelaide, Australia. She also holds a degree with Honours in Theatre and Film Studies from the University of Canterbury, specifically working in the discipline of Performance Studies. Coralie grew up in Australia, spent some time in her twenties travelling around Europe and living in Japan and has resided in New Zealand since 2005. gapfiller.org.nz