When the founders of the Canterbury settlement put aside an uninspiring swathe of tussock land on the outskirts of tiny Christchurch they might have been laughed at. But they were not, because they and their fellow settlers took it for granted that open spaces available to all were part of their English heritage.
The Common - acres where the landless peasant could graze his flocks without charge and wander freely - had been established even before feudal times and were fought for when the gentry tried to curtail their boundaries.
At the time when the Canterbury settlers were growing up, the reinvention of open space in the cities contaminated by the Industrial Revolution was popular. It signalled the right of even the most dispossessed to walk and play and thereby to share something with their otherwise divided community.
The city park and the botanical gardens had arrived and Canterbury was not going to deny itself their pleasures. Hagley Park and the Gardens were the great outcomes of that determination.
In colonial terms, their creation was ambitious. Their area was extensive and their costs noticeable, but the necessity of them was little questioned - an attitude that remains today. With it goes a great pride in what has been created and a fierce determination to maintain the park and gardens intact.
That is understandable because many of the great Canterbury moments have been enacted on Hagley's turf, to the extent that citizens regard it as the province's marae. It sheltered those driven from the city centre on February 22 last year, and has been the scene of the two moving ceremonies commemorating the terrible day.
It is fitting, then, that one of the most inspiring proposals to emerge from the earthquakes has been the creation of a park, from the city to the sea, along the fractured banks of the Avon.
The plan is logical. The area involved is a spectacular setting, with river and hill views, copious wildlife and plants. It is also unsuitable for building in the earthquakes' wake.
The plan is also popular, as the 18,647-signature petition, gathered in difficult circumstances, shows. Evidently, the only thing standing against the river park's creation is the Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee. He is almost forthright in his opposition, saying the Government's intention is to remediate the land and sell it for housing.
The minister's caution is understandable, in that the park proposal has not been considered in detail and he is obliged to extract what money is available from the compensation deal offered to red-zoned residents. But Brownlee is likely to find he will have to moderate his opposition.
It stands in the face of Christchurch people's entrenched and growing liking for an open-space city - a sentiment underscored by their impressive support in submissions on the rebuild plan for better use of the Avon's banks and an environmentally enhanced Christchurch.
As the proponents of the city- to-sea park get a better hearing, as they will when citizens can turn more attention to things other than their present precarious circumstances, the clamour not to return all the Avon's banks to housing will grow.
It will be bolstered by the cost of remediating the land sufficient to support buildings, and the disinclination of people to buy such land even when remediated.
A park, in those circumstances, may be the cheaper option.
A compromise, with a continous park from the CBD to Brighton and the Estuary but some of the presently red-zoned land returned to housing, is possible. The park does not need to extend far from the banks, and river-view land will command high prices. The mix could suit everyone.
What is needed is a commitment from the city council - it has Bob Parker's support - and the Government to consider the proposal, not to reject it out of hand. Scrutiny is reasonable, given its popularity and feasibility - and its potential to inspire Christchurch.
- The Press
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