Visions of Avon's future

01:13, Jul 03 2011
Red zoned Bexley alongside the Avon River - the call has gone out to hand it back to nature.
Red zoned Bexley alongside the Avon River - the call has gone out to hand it back to nature.

It didn't take long for the daydreams to start - daydreams in which something good might be salvaged from bad news.

The Government's news about the residential red zone was both expected and devastating for residents of more than 5000 homes in Christchurch's eastern suburbs, most of which are a short distance from the winding Avon River. Within nine months, homeowners will have chosen between two options, both of which involve clearing out.

But some have begun looking further ahead. What follows the evacuation and demolition of those long-cherished neighbourhoods? What will happen to all that riverside land?

What if that red zone land, estimated to be about 350 hectares, could support a park? It could be the east side's version of Hagley.

Great minds started to think alike. In Auckland, Ashley Campbell may have been the first to give the new idea a name: Avon River Park.

Campbell says she grew up near the Avon. Her family home, "loved by three generations", was on the corner of Orari and Wairoa streets in Bexley, facing the river. Her parents lived there for 48 years until February 22 forced them out.

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Campbell is a freelance writer, editor and scriptwriter, and her line of work naturally took her to Auckland. But she would fly south a few times a year and had been impressed by the progressive improvements to the estuary end of the river: "Over the years, I've been stunned by the transformation."

Her walks would take her south along the riverbank, through the Bexley Wetland, as far as the New Brighton bridge, where the river widens into the estuary. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, the area was "a bit of a boggy mess". There was a dump, there were rusting cars. But it is surprising how quickly a new state of nature came back.

On the evening of the Government's big announcement about green, orange, white and red zones, she looked at the map and thought: "What a stunning opportunity."

"I started getting very excited."

She put the idea up on Facebook, launching an Avon River page.

Really, this is a story about social media. On Twitter, she directed a few people to her page. They directed others. By the following Monday morning, more than 700 people had "liked" the Avon River Park page on Facebook. Two days later, that figure had climbed to more than a thousand.

It probably helped that, as a professional writer, Campbell was able to put the idea persuasively. "Many people right now are mourning the loss of their much- loved homes in Christchurch's residential red zone," the text said.

"The loss is dreadfully sad, but we also have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a magnificent place for Christchurch; a place where Christchurch comes to terms with and revels in her environment, rather than trying to fight it; a magnificent park in which the wetlands and natural river environments are restored and celebrated, where wildlife can return and flourish, and people can really enjoy the natural beauty of this place."

She went on: "Imagine a park running the length of the red zone, with river walks, bird sanctuaries, BMX and horse-riding tracks, sports fields, picnic grounds, natural swamps and marshes . . . estuarine near the Estuary, with changing native flora as it goes further inland and the geography changes. A park that returns a bit of Christchurch to what it was like, and what it can be."

By that, Campbell means pre- European Christchurch. Besides the regeneration of the Bexley wetland, the other influence was some of Auckland's areas of native bush.

She lives in Birkenhead on Auckland's North Shore, surrounded by native flora. It is not uncommon for kereru, tui and fantails to make appearances and - she adds with real excitement - last year, while outside pruning, she even saw a native gecko in the wild.

On Facebook, she added: "People who live in Christchurch, and people who love Christchurch, have an opportunity to let the Government and the council know that out of this disaster, they want something truly magnificent to be built - an Avon River Park [but probably with a much more melodic Maori name] that turns the red zone into a thing of beauty, reconnects the broken city with the river that is at its heart, brings wildlife back into urban areas, and creates an asset that sets Christchurch apart as a city at peace with its environment."

It sounds plausible, and others quickly chipped in with ideas. Someone suggested that crockery broken during the earthquake could form mosaic paving. Bicycle trails seemed popular. Christchurch's infamous native trees versus exotics debate briefly threatened to raise its head.

Some thought that specific features could be named after soon-to-be vanished streets. Perhaps a park could be included that memorialises the earthquake, and those who lost their homes or even their lives. Someone else suggested community gardens. And on it went. People were starting to picture the park in cyberspace, willing it into existence.

Another approach came from Christchurch landscape architect Di Lucas, who has been thinking about the indigenous ecosystems of the Christchurch area for some time. It was Lucas who recently unearthed a 1850s map of the city that showed long-forgotten streams that eerily matched some of the worst damage and liquefaction.

"We've treated the river like a drain for a century or more," Lucas says. "It's rebelling. This has taught us that we should have respect for the natural system."

Indeed, the European history of Christchurch has seen the rivers used for transport, then industry, and only recently has there been an attempt to return them to something closer to their original states.

For Lucas, the renewal of the Avon should be a natural part of the renewal of the city, and the Avon River Park vision seems appropriate to her, particularly in terms of how the liquefaction map sits with the flood management map of the city.

But she suggests we could go even further, proposing an Avon lake or even two, across the widest areas of the river-abutting red zone. Rowers have also supported a lake idea. Lucas has been working on plans and concept drawings of lakes and wetlands.

In this scenario, with much of the eastern suburbs gone, New Brighton returns to its former life as a seaside village.

In some ways, the open discussions about the Avon River Park and associated ideas are reminiscent of the brainstorming that followed the February earthquake.

It seemed then that despair was being channelled into bold new ideas about a green city, a technological city or a creative city.

Those visions were a way of coping. So are the ideas that come out of the grim news about the clearances of the residential red zone. Those cracked, silty streets and abandoned-looking houses may be transformed into something green and new, and with it our feelings of grief or loss.

So you can understand the widespread sense of disappointment when Earthquake Recovery minister Gerry Brownlee quickly crushed the Avon River Park plans, even when they were supported in principle by Christchurch Green MP Kennedy Graham and New Zealand Institute of Architects Canterbury chairman Jasper van der Linden, among others.

Brownlee told The Press that the land would be remediated eventually and engineered for residential sections once again.

The prospect of the land being sold to developers by the Government has horrified supporters of the park idea, some of whom are among those being cleared off.

On Campbell's Facebook page, Bill Parks, who lives near the Avon Loop, wrote: "Right now, there is talk that this land could be completely bulldozed and potentially redeveloped. Our job first and foremost is to make sure we 'Christchurchers' have a place at any discussion."

"I'm alarmed to see the Government is saying that," Lucas adds. "It's a shocking proposal."

Campbell says she can understand the Government's position, but remediation and rebuilding should not be the end goal. Some red zone residents have told her they feel insulted at the notion of their sections being resold. Others want to buy them back. Mostly, they tell her that they couldn't bear to see someone else living there, given the sad circumstances in which they left.

Her conclusion? "The main priority is to say to the Government that we don't want to rebuild on the land."

The Press