Otakaro Orchard shows a community-led city is possible

An artist's impression of the Otakaro Orchard, a design to which more than 200 people contributed in 2015.

An artist's impression of the Otakaro Orchard, a design to which more than 200 people contributed in 2015.

OPINION: This year I've had the privilege and challenge of working at the heart of what I consider to be one of the most exciting projects happening in the Christchurch city centre. The Otakaro Orchard – Christchurch's first edible park and urban food hub – is a fundamentally different development to most happening in the city.

It's different in that it's happening in a mode of development where government and corporates are enablers and supporters of community-led creation.

What does this look like? In 2015, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) had the idea to put a community garden in the North Frame of the city. They invited community groups to submit proposals and ran workshops to build shared understanding about what could be created here. They encouraged these groups to collaborate instead of compete. The Food Resilience Network mobilised behind this opportunity, involving close to 200 people from more than 30 organisations in developing the proposal.

Painting the names of donors to the Otakaro Orchard on a shed at the site.

Painting the names of donors to the Otakaro Orchard on a shed at the site.

READ MORE: Orchard to bloom in Christchurch city centre

What emerged in this design process was that a community garden wasn't actually what the community needed. There are already many in the city. What we envisaged instead for this high-profile site along the Avon River was a destination that would serve as the public face for the whole local food movement: a place that both locals and visitors alike could visit to gain inspiration about sustainable food systems in practice. A beacon for the Edible Garden City.

In February 2016, a five-year lease was signed with the Crown for this mass collaboration to develop the $3 million site. Since then we've been working with a fury to bring this ambitious vision to a reality. It's not easy. That lease didn't come with any funding from the Government. But in a way this is the point. We want to create something that our local community need and value enough to invest in themselves.

In the past three months a Givealittle page has been launched to open up investment to everyone; we've presented to Council to get them on board; we've built partnerships with professional firms and construction companies to become in-kind sponsors. We've spoken at events inviting people and organisations to contribute to the project, and talked to hundreds of people at an expo at the Botanic Gardens. This is a $2 million barn-raising and we need everyone involved.

My motivation and determination to bring this project to reality comes from a conviction that citizens being able to invest their initiative, creativity and money in public projects (not just their own private property) is vital for the wellbeing of our cities. While I was studying landscape architecture and urban culture, it became clear that so many of the issues I saw in cities — of hyper-consumption, pollution, mental illness, crime — were all symptoms of disconnection of people from place and from each other.

This is the status quo of the majority of cities around the world. But I'm investing my initiative in the belief that if we can break down these disconnections, cities can actually regenerate both social cohesion and the natural environment.

I've been in Christchurch for 18 months now pursuing this dream. In the aftermath of the quakes I observed a rediscovery of community interconnectedness and the resulting grassroots creative explosion that Christchurch has become world-famous for. The opportunity to harness this creativity in the rebuild of the city was immense. And yet mostly what's being built is leaving this community creativity behind as something only "temporary". We're rebuilding a disconnected system.

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The Otakaro Orchard is one relatively small project. Yet the Food Resilience Network hopes that it can be more: that it can be a precedent for more collaborative developments. We hope that through this project what government, Council, corporates and citizens see as possible becomes bigger. Could this precedent inform how the Residential Red Zone gets developed, for example? Imagine if that process was led by the people who want to invest their initiative there?

Although the Otakaro Orchard can be seen as a construction project, what is actually being built is a community. Every week, new people are creating something together in a way that is empowering for everyone involved. In my years working in community development I've learned that nothing creates stronger bonds than acting together to bring something new into the world, and then taking care of it. Project by project, this creates a cultural shift towards the interconnectedness that could heal our city. Wouldn't that be the greatest legacy we could wish for from the earthquakes?

Chloe Waretini is a Coordinator with the Food Resilience Network leading the Otakaro Orchard project. She is an entrepreneur and designer with a passion for community-led urban development and mass collaboration.

 - Stuff


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