Green dreams for river red zone

Last updated 10:00 30/03/2013
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TRANQUIL MEMORIAL: Flowers are placed in the Avon River on the second anniversary of the February 22, 2011 quake.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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A network of citizen groups have a thousand dreams for the residential red zone along the Avon River. WILL HARVIE walks the zone to see what it might look like if Cera and the Government permit the dreamers to act.

'Dynamic things are happening in these gardens," says Glenn Stewart, professor of urban ecology at Lincoln University.

He's standing in the residential red zone, that vast swathe of condemned land in Christchurch's eastern suburbs. This land is about to become a park of some variety and size, but nature isn't waiting for humans to act. Nature is already at work: "We didn't realise how fast the changes would be," says Stewart.

The good news: "The regeneration of native species was initially rapid and in some situations prolific," he says. The bad news: "In the last six months there's been a rapid upsurge in exotic woody seedlings". In other words, the old enemies are back - gorse and broom primarily, but also lupin, garden-variety robinia and others.

When red-zoned homeowners move on, lawns aren't mowed, shrubs and trees aren't pruned, gardens aren't watered. Some vegetation flourishes, some dies. When houses are demolished, fresh soil is exposed. Birds, insects and wind spread seeds.

Left to its devices, the residential red zone (RRZ) along the Avon River could revert of natural forest within a short 100 years, Stewart says. But nobody is planning to leave these many hectares alone. No, they'll be managed and shaped by humans to make a new kind of park and recreation area. The dreaming is underway, the plans afoot.

Journey has begun

Tuesday is the deadline for red zone homeowners to accept the Government buy-out. Some will hold out, but the vast majority of the 7000 or so offers will be accepted. That means the RRZ will almost entirely become the property of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority on July 31, the final settlement date. What will it do with these lands?

So far Cera isn't saying. In December, Cera chief executive Roger Sutton told a parliamentary select committee that "little work" had been done. In the 21 months since the first red zones were declared, dreamers with high ideals and firm ideas have filled the official absence. It should become a park, a wetland, a recreational paradise crisscrossed with walking and cycling trails. There should be market gardens, heritage gardens, cafes, floating cafes, boatsheds, a world-class rowing facility, a yacht club.

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Most of these dreams soar high with idealism, some are designed to earn profit, many are earnest, a few wide-eyed and unlikely. All seem genuine. These people want to make a better Christchurch, to "work tirelessly to make something wonderful in the future", in the words of Avon- Otakaro Network co-chair Mark Gibson. "It's not a race, it's a journey and an experience."

And some official things have happened. Environment Canterbury has recently released a Lurp (Land Use Recovery Plan) and a Nerp (Natural Environment Recovery Programme), both of which touch on RRZ lands. Christchurch City Council is consulting on its Three-Year Plan, which proposes spending $6.4 million on an "Avon River Park". Late last year, Cera itself quietly released a plan that recommends what RRZ vegetation will be stripped and what allowed to remain. More on that later.

Memorial park

Since so little has been announced, last Saturday I joined some of the most passionate dreamers for a walk along the Avon River - from a little upstream of the Estuary to Madras St in central Christchurch. It was about 20,000 steps or 15km and was organised by the Avon-Otakaro Network, the umbrella group that has lobbied hard and effectively to green the RRZ, to make it a park and reserve. Other dreamers joined the walk at strategic points, so I got to hear their stories and gauge their passions. I got to see what was once on these lands, what's there now and what might be.

Avon-Otakaro's other co-chair is Evan Smith. He's volunteering about 60 hours a week for the network and his other post-quake effort, Cancern. A one-time Richmond resident, he lost somewhere between $60,000 and $100,00 by accepting the Cera buy- out offer and he's not prepared to see his former section sold for redevelopment, as has been suggested by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. "Our house and property will one day be a park", he says quietly and firmly, "and not sold to a developer who would make a profit on our loss".

There were many communities along the river, he says. They had potluck meals, the kids played together and they'll soon be gone, if they're not already. "A park would be a memorial for these communities . . . a permanent memorial with signs and benches and contemplative points," Smith says.

And he wants the whole Avon River RRZ to be parkland - a "broad natural corridor of indigenous ecosystem". "It's all flood plain and it makes no sense to build on it," he says.

Eco-sanctuary

Evans' dream dovetails neatly with people like Colin Meurk, of the Travis Wetland Trust, and Bryan Jenkins, the former Environment Canterbury chief executive now at the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management. Water is their thing and they give me and the walkers a quick rundown of their ideas on the banks of the Avon across from New Brighton.

Meurk dreams of a 150-hectare eco-sanctuary stretching from the existing Travis Wetlands south across Queen Elizabeth Dr to the RRZ along Anzac Dr and on to the river. Much of it would be wetland and some ringed by predator-proof fencing and double-gate systems.

Christchurch is the only major city without ready access to endangered wildlife, he says. "Let's have kiwi and takahe out there -- and eventually kakapo?" The Landcare Research staffer insists his sanctuary would be open - "people would still have access and be able to walk through it" - and eventually become an eco- tourist attraction.

Jenkins also wants plenty of water in the RRZ, but for filtering contaminants. Under the current system, stormwater collects contaminants from urban areas and then is piped directly into the river. Meanwhile, even pre-quakes there were on average six to 10 discharges of raw sewage into the river each year and "that's clearly unacceptable", he says.

Far better to send dirty water and sewage into wetlands, which can naturally cleanse contaminants and sewage, and only then direct the water into the river. The biggest constraint for this type of system in Christchurch was lack of land, but the RRZ will soon have more than adequate land. As for cost, Jenkins notes storm and wastewater systems have to be repaired anyway and wetland treatment is likely to be cost competitive.

Later on the walk, I catch up with vegetation expert Alan Leckie, a research scientist at Scion, once known as as the New Zealand Forest Research Institute. He points out weeds running amok: mellow, wireweed, dock and convolvulus (sometimes known as "mile a minute"). A real problem is canadian fleabane, a tall and thin annual that's growing taller than almost everything else on empty sections in the RRZ. Leckie also points out well growing cabbage trees and the success of many benign exotics.

Leckie dreams of an urban forest that could cover much of the RRZ. It would provide fleshy and dry fruit for birds and insects year round, and wouldn't be entirely native. Others have mentioned fruit forests of apple, peach or apricot that Cantabrians could pick at will. Leckie wants research done early to determine which soils would suit which aspects of the forest, and insists the types of trees would be determined by consultation. He endorses a central tenet of the the Avon- Otakaro Network: Everything that happens must be "community driven and science informed".

Vegetation plan

A little later, the walkers are taking a break along River Rd, Richmond, and I'm asking about about what happens to the RRZ vegetation. "Oh, Cera's got a vegetation plan," says a walker. It's on the website but hard to find. Indeed Cera does have such a document, the Vegetation Retention Methodology Version 2.0, released on November 14 last year without a crumb of publicity. Written by Boffa Miskell - the same consulting firm that created the Central City Development Plan in 100 days - it's couched as recommendations for Cera to consider, but firm in tone.

For example, the methodology argues it's not possible to remove buildings but leave gardens intact. They would need to be maintained - mowed, weeded, pruned. An average section of 650 square metres would need about 16 maintenance visits a year. Each visit would cost about $300. Annual cost per section would be about $4800. There are about 7250 RRZ sections (not including the Port Hills). Boffa Miskell doesn't do the math ($34.8m), but allows of economies of scale and predicts annual costs of "tens of millions".

"Based on the indicative cost alone, there needs to be some clearing of vegetation," the methodology concludes. Add the hundreds of workers needed for maintenance, fire risks and the safety and security of remaining residents and the job is too much.

The methodology then sets out standards for what vegetation ought to be kept and which killed. First, all pest species go. These are drawn from city council's Canterbury Weed Calendar and among the 45 listed species are the usual suspects - gorse, broom, boneseed, spindleberry and so forth. Second, if it's native and on Cera's approved list, it stays. Think cabbage trees, lemonwood, matagouri. Third, if a tree is listed or protected, it stays.

The vegetation plan then divides the Avon RRZ into west and east zones, with the border being Avondale Rd. West gardens are typically old, tall and well established - like their neighbourhoods of Avonside, Richmond, Dallington. East gardens "have been in place for a shorter time and there are less significant and tall trees", according to the methodology. Think: parts of Burwood and Bexley. Trees in west gardens must be over 6m high to be retained. Trees in east gardens must be over 4m to be retained. There are rules, too, around trunk diameter. There's a third zone - private gardens bordering waterways - which are treated differently. "All vegetation within a 5m setback . . . shall be retained except for weed species," declares the methodology.

No mention, then, of the understory or roses or that favoured little ground cover? No, it's pretty much about retaining trees.

However, the methodology invites community, academic, research and professional groups to submit ideas on other vegetation that could be retained - trees under the 6m and 4m heights that are special in some way, "groups of significant vegetation" and gardens with heritage or historic value.

The clearances

So how will the Avon RRZ be cleared of houses and then vegetation? The methodology sets it out. The current phase is site-by-site demolitions of homes and garages. To date, about 1700 homes have been demolished by private insurers; Cera has not knocked down a single home.

Demolishers are allowed to remove any vegetation that impedes demolition, but leave vegetation around the perimeter of sections. This can be seen all over the residential red zone - U-shaped vegetation on three sides of now-empty sections and open frontages. All garden beds and most trees that once hugged a home are gone.

In the next phase, Cera will sell red-zone vegetation to approved contractors for onward sale and transplanting. After that, community groups and not- for-profits will be allowed to transplant vegetation, at no cost. And then come the bulldozers. The methodology calls it "land clearance treatment" and it sees "contractors removing all remaining vegetation not noted for retention".

In some areas of the RRZ, the result might look something like the Courtenay Dr land clearance in Kaiapoi. Every tree, bush and shrub was moved, the land contoured and grass planted. In places like Richmond and Avonside, where tall-tree density is quite high, the result might look like the Hagley Park golf course.

Food, bikes et al

Back on the walk, we've come to St Mary's Stream, near the Barbadoes St bridge. It's a place significant to Maori, who once used its water for ceremonial purposes. Ngai Tahu's Robin Wybrow isn't on the walk but has written of the Mahinga Kai Project, which is a Maori "management concept, a way of thinking that involves and understands the simul- taneous protection and use of resources". As Ngai Tahu is a statutory partner in quake recovery, Wybrow writes, mahinga kai remains paramount to local hapu. Protecting, rehabilitating, enhancing and maintaining such sites and resources, and the rights of Ngai tahu to access these, is critical.

Nigel Rushton introduces himself as a spokesman for Spokes, the cycling lobby group. Naturally cyclists are thrilled with the idea of bike tracks all through the RRZ park. But there will have to be rules. "Pedestrians can be frightened by fast cyclists," he says, and proposes a maximum bike speed of 10kmh. "We have problems now with cars versus bikes and the last thing we need is bikes versus pedestrians."

Another big issue is path width. Too narrow and there will be conflict; too wide costs too much. Rushton's answer is: "what is appropriate for the area. High-use areas would need to be wider than in areas with less traffic."

About four hours after setting out, the walkers reach the central business district and the end of the RRZ. I consider a conversation with Lianne Dalziel , the Labour MP whose Christchurch East electorate includes much of the RRZ. "These people are taken seriously," she said, meaning the Avon-Otakaro Network. Leaders like Evan Smith are consulted and heard by the Government, Cera, by Ngai Tahu, city council, she said. They have influence.

You have to suspect not every project dreamed for the RRZ along the Avon will come to fruition, but the larger project of creating a park seems beyond controversy. Read the Vegetation Retention Methodology.

Whether all parts of the RRZ will remain park in perpetuity is less clear.

Outside the square dreams:

 

Pleasant Point Yacht Club

This estuary sailing club lost its buildings on the wonderfully named Rat Island Reserve near South Brighton bridge in the quakes and can't rebuild on the site because the land has slumped.

The club is plentifully insured and wants to build a new clubhouse on council- owned land in South Brighton Reserve, beside the existing jetty and ramps.

As Rat Island was council land, reasons former commodore Craig Tomlinson, it should be straight forward. But council has deferred a decision until a revised management plan for the domain is released in 2014.

Flat Water Sports Facility

Rowing and other paddling sports are re-established at Kerrs Reach and Porritt Park, but the river isn't up to international-standard rowing competitions. The river bends - not allowed - and isn't wide enough. There's sometimes conflict between different water codes.

The Avon River Users Group proposes a flat water facility adjacent to the river that could be as long as 2.5km, with associated facilities. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee is said to be especially keen on this idea.

Lost Civilisation

Indiana Jones fan Colin Meurk dreams leaving some buildings in the RRZ and letting the jungle claim them. The buildings would be stripped of hazardous and reusable materials and left to "decompose and submerge". Visitors, who might be charged a fee to get through anti-vandal fences, would find a "past civilisation that once existed here", he says.

Barkerton Park

Long-time mayoral candidate Blair Anderson wants to transform Porritt Park into a 24/7 dog park. Hockey don't want the facility anymore, so bang in solar panels to power the lights and it's a fit-for purpose dog park. The facility is owned by council, so doesn't need to wait on Cera's permission. Meanwhile, the social and health benefits of dog walking are proven, he says: "This is not about dogs, but what's at the other end of the leash".

The professional dog trainer also argues that the wider rebuild must take account of dogs. "If it's not good for dogs, it's not good for people," Anderson says.

Garden City 2.0

Bailey Peryman wants to "revisit the idea of a garden city in the 21st century urban environment" and create a local-food industry in Christchurch. Land in the RRZ would be farmed by small and medium-scale operators, who would sell their mostly organic produce outside of traditional food- supply chains. Known internationally as "urban agriculture" it's an antidote to industrialised farming and supply. "It's a community food initiative that's holistic and integrated," Peryman says. The American city of Detroit, ravaged by the collapse of car manufacturing rather than earthquake, is the leading example of a local food industry.

Boatshed Cafes for Avon

From the mind of Linda Stewart comes the ideas of cafes in garages. She wants to start with three in the RRZ, which will provide community focus and serve passersby.

They could run on LPG and sunlight and sit on lightweight poles. Why garages: because they are there. One day, there could be a floating cafe, moving about the river and on to the estuary.

Lower Avon Heritage Trail

Protect heritage gardens and Ngai Tahu food gathering places along the RRZ. "Sites are selected to demonstrate the development of gardens, both Maori and Pakeha, and each site would have an information panel recording local provence and significance of the site."

Riverside Heritage Garden Park

A society's been formed to protect heritage gardens near Shirley Boys High. Bounded by Banks Ave, River Rd, Medway St and Woodchester Ave, the proposed garden would have over 450 high value shrubs and trees. About a third are native, a third fruit trees and the remainder mature exotics.

There are also heritage gardens.

 

GONE

Home demolition by neighbourhood along the Avon River

Aranui 4

Avondale 273

Avonside 164

Bexley 293

Burwood 545

ChCh Central 19

Dallington 261

New Brighton (includes South New Brighton) 131

Wainoni 16

TOTAL: 1706 Source: Cera, as of March 26

- The Press

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