Building places to soothe the spirit

21:10, Aug 12 2014
Places of Tranquility
CALMING DESIGNS: Designs for a Maori and Pacific people's garden, at the top of the graphic, and a southeast Asian garden at the bottom, form part of a Places of Tranquility project for Christchurch.

More than three years after the big quakes, people are still not keen to go back into town. Some have never returned.

Overseas visitors have expressed surprise and dismay that the city still looks such a mess.

Out-of-towners, both businesses and bureaucrats, have little understanding of the stress that many in Christchurch are under. Some don't seem to care. They just reel off statistics.

How do you lift people's spirits? Proposed mega projects, like a convention centre and a covered sports stadium, have so far failed to generate public enthusiasm. Getting houses fixed or rebuilt, and finding somewhere comfortable and affordable to live, remain top priorities for many.

Nonetheless, volunteer groups such as Greening the Rubble, Life in Vacant Spaces, and Ministry of Awesome have brought much-needed colour to the city through transitional architecture projects.

For Mayor Lianne Dalziel, one challenge is trying to ensure that everybody shares the energy and enthusiasm of those working to rebuild communities. Stronger communities make the city more resilient.


Another small-scale project that aims to make a big difference is Places of Tranquility. Community development worker Michelle Whitaker came up with the idea back in 2011, to create a place in the city for people "that's welcoming, feels safe, to reflect and heal."

Greening the Rubble and Lincoln University landscape architecture students partnered to create garden designs. The six designs chosen are based on different cultures: Maori and Pacific peoples; southeast Asia; northwest Asia; Euro-Slavic; Africa; and Latin America.

Whitaker approached Cera to find a suitable site. The first two gardens, Maori and Pacific peoples and southeast Asian, will be built on the corner of Manchester St and Cambridge Tce.

The empty site borders the North and East Frame in the city Blueprint, close to the Avon River Precinct and proposed Margaret Mahy playground.

The southeast Asian garden will feature a quiet area with seating, open gathering areas, bamboo fencing, flowering cherries, maples, and jasmine- covered pergolas.

The Maori and Pacific peoples' garden is shaped like a koru, or spiral. It will include a "Whare Fale" (a combination of Maori and Samoan), a gazebo-like structure with tuku tuku panels designed and made by Jonathan Hall, from Greening the Rubble.

The four posts will be carved by the Lyttelton Carving School to symbolise family, spirituality, physical health, and mental health - all elements important for tranquility and healing.

"Fonofale" is a Pacific model of health based on the Maori Te Whare Tapa Wha. Both are holistic and family rather than individual oriented, says Whitaker.

Ngai Tahu and cultural community leaders will bless the site in a dawn ceremony this week.

Many cultures appreciate the healing role of gardens. In Japanese and other Buddhist cultures, gardens express calmness and serenity. Harmony and balance are paramount.

When I visited Japan last year to find out about recovery work after the tsunami and earthquake of March, 2011, I found that both large and small buildings had a garden space, somewhere for contemplation.

Surely, we need this calm, centred approach in our often fractious, competitive, cluttered world more than ever. Oases of calm in a chaotic city, even if they are tiny, provide respite and relief.

In the western world, cathedrals were built to awe the population through their soaring grandeur (and to reinforce the supremacy of the Church). The natural world, too, can be uplifting - and perhaps connects us more closely to ancient spiritual values.

Technology sometimes insulates us too much from the outside world: In a connected world, we end up being somehow disconnected.

Nature can inspire architecture. Canadian architect Tye Farrow talks about "salutogenic architecture" - literally, architecture that causes health.

For some landscape architects, landscaping and the built environment are inseparable. It is why Christchurch has a great opportunity to design neighbourhoods in a holistic way, rather than piecemeal as is often the case.

Throughout Christchurch, community gardens have flourished, reconnecting and strengthening areas and people left scarred by the earthquakes. They serve both a practical and a social role.

For Places of Tranquility creator Whitaker, what matters is wellbeing. She also invented The Wellbeing Game, which she gifted to the Mental Health Foundation. (See

Most of us think of success in terms of purely economic success. According to Whitaker, the five elements that help foster wellbeing, based on work by Britain's New Economic Foundation, are: give, take notice, connect, be active, and keep learning. That's not a bad philosophy.

While big-scale projects will have a profound influence on the future shape of our city, reflecting on what really matters to each of us can make a difference, too.

As a mild winter gives way, we hope, to spring, we could all use an opportunity to feel happier and more relaxed.

The Press