Time to loosen Christchurch's Victorian corset

The Queen Victoria statue in Victoria Square getting a little make over in 2014. Is it time to topple her sensibility ...

The Queen Victoria statue in Victoria Square getting a little make over in 2014. Is it time to topple her sensibility entirely?

OPINION: When our European forebears crested the summit of the Bridle Path, they looked down upon a swampy, scrubby plain "ripe for development". 

An alien "unproductive wasteland" that needed to be tamed, cleared, drained, and re-worked to meet the Victorian sensibility for order, industry and mastery over nature: a land of opportunity.

Below in their kāinga, our Māori forebears eyed the new comers warily but welcomed them with hospitality for this was a land of plenty: a mahinga kai, a place that provided all the resources for a rich and sustaining life.

But one culture's mahinga kai was the other's rude unruly wilderness and over the course of the next decades the Victorian corset was applied and tightly secured into place.

The waterways were progressively confined to narrow conduits and all the disease-bearing waste and storm waters channelled into them – the quickest route out to sea. 

There was no room for indigenous values that stood in the way of the industrial revolution but there was room for the new aesthetic.

Land was set aside in the middle of the emerging city for a grand park in the Victorian English style of vast manicured lawns, gardens and "noble" trees.

Some of the lands were used to produce food for the growing populace.  Our Chinese forebears, many descendants from the gold rush days, were key in establishing family market gardens.

And so we became the Garden City, a multicultural society, but dominated still by a 19th Century colonial English mentality.   A mind-set that no longer meets the needs of a post-disaster city as it strives to regenerate itself fit-for-purpose in the 21st Century.

It is time to loosen the bindings, cast off the corset and give ourselves room to evolve a new aesthetic that embraces all of our rich heritage.

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We need to allow our rivers the space to be, especially with the added dynamic of future sea level rise. 

We need to recognise the value in using the red zone lands to work with nature in mitigating flooding by returning the bulk of them to naturally restored flood plain. 

This is more valuable than a dubious real estate 'investment' gain to balance Treasury's books, which simply re-applies the corset and invites further disaster.

We also need to shed the corset that constrains our natural aesthetic: our propensity for manicured lawns and our fixation with tidiness, sanitised landscape, plastic experience and the Victorian quest for mastery of nature.

Nature is wild, free, organic, dynamic, biodiverse, self-maintaining and self-regenerating when allowed to reach a sustainable equilibrium.  When treated well it provides for us and protects us.

Yet in the rebuild to date we find the ground-zeroing of the red zones to large tracts of lawn – a huge urban Canada goose farm.

At a recent international conference in Stockholm, Large Parks in Large Cities, it was universally recognised that the most sustainable urban parks were those that had discarded the Victorian English tradition for a return to self-regenerating native wetlands and forests.

Among the rebuild authorities, there is also an aversion to good husbandry practice that allows under planting of orchards and distaste for untidy organic community gardens.

And the kids' playgrounds are not spared the corset either: plastic, sanitised play where no one is liable for injury is the order of the day. 

There is a growing call for natural playgrounds where kids have opportunity to explore, invent, imagine and yes, take risks and sometimes get a bit injured: that's how they learn.

So in 100 years when your great grandchildren stand atop the Bridle Path what do you want them to look down on?

A city strangled by an outdated colonial ethos and Dickensian economics?

Or a relaxed, multicultural, lush-green sustainable city that invites innovation and an open mind: in short, the best place on earth?

Evan Smith is the co-chair of the Avon-Ōtākaro Network.

 - Stuff


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