Lessons abound in artful quake city

By Nicola Young

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FROM RUINS: The Agropolis urban farm sits alongside the restoration of Christchurch.
FROM RUINS: The Agropolis urban farm sits alongside the restoration of Christchurch.

I lived in Christchurch for a year when I studied journalism at Canterbury University.

It was a year it snowed in town. My impression of Christchurch at the time was conservative with a hint of the arts pushing through a crisp exterior.

Now Christchurch is synonymous with earthquake. Everything is pre and post-earthquake as a way of identifying recent history.

We lived in Perth when the big one struck on February 22 2011. I remember workmates who knew I was Kiwi telling me of the news, but I thought they must have the city wrong - Christchurch wasn't in my, or anyone's, consciousness as a high earthquake risk.

Then when the news came through of the numbers of lives lost, I still thought it can't be true. I was sure lots of people would be pulled from the wreckage alive, because I thought that's the way stories end in New Zealand. But it wasn't to be - the final death toll was 185.

Visiting Christchurch for the first time after the earthquakes, I couldn't believe the physical evidence as we flew over the city - you see great empty areas from the air.

On the ground, it is so much more extreme, and perhaps has become even more so as the years pass and there remain major parts of the city looking like a bomb has struck, still cordoned off.

On a positive note, the rebuild has been a chance to let an inventive Christchurch emerge, while still hanging on to its surviving heritage, although precarious in places.

The arts centre as it used to be may be gone, but art has a strong presence in the recovery. In the central city, murals and installations are around every corner. Christchurch's creativity - and sense of community - has been unleashed.

I've been lucky to be part of a community-led project in the heart of the city. Known as Agropolis, this urban farm pilot takes organic waste from local cafes and restaurants, composts it on an empty site where a building used to stand, and then grows vegetables and herbs to sell back.

Located next to the popular C1 cafe, this down-to-earth project involves some inspiring people. It is led by Bailey Peryman, a 2013 Vodafone Foundation World of Difference winner, whose passion is healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. The partnership involves the Life in Vacant Spaces trust, the Festival of Transitional Architecture, Soil and Health Association (Canterbury) as the host organisation, and volunteers and funders from organisations including my own workplace AECOM. Check out a short video of the project on YouTube, with the bonus feature being my dulcet tones providing the commentary.

Alongside this project, I was pleased to learn the Christchurch City Council has been doing kerbside collection of household green waste for compost for at least four years - my taxi driver said the wheelie bins arrived pre-earthquake.

I was back in Christchurch this week visiting the project and am confident of further success. It is part of a worldwide movement strengthening the connections between urban people and food production - when most of us buy our food wrapped in plastic in fluorescent-lit warehouses, we naturally become disconnected. There is a profile growing around alternate approaches like food forests and other localised sustainable solutions - a shift away from intensifying mass production with their often-negative environmental impacts.

In the face of climate change, one word keeps coming up in the conversations about how cities respond - resilience. Being resilient means survival and food is a fundamental to that.

This is more than having your earthquake survival kit prepared. It's about thinking how we operate in our little part of society. What would happen in Whanganui if we were the site of the next big one? What happens if our supermarkets are damaged or supplies can't get in? How would we rally together? What can we learn from Christchurch's successes and challenges?

We already have community gardens and sometimes veges appear in our council plantings. We have a strong network of community groups. How do we build on this to make us more resilient?

Nicola Young is a former Department of Conservation manager who now works for global consultancy AECOM. Educated at Wanganui Girls' College, she has a science degree and is the mother of two boys.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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