Rough roads, red-zone land reverting back to nature, a fractured community: It seems incredible to imagine that the earthquake-devastated east side of Christchurch could become an ecological treasure, a local food source and even an international tourist attraction.
OPINION: Yet that is precisely what a determined band of locals hopes to achieve. Eastern Vision and the Avon-Otakaro network have bold plans for the land - and, more than that, they have got their spades out and started planting.
One plan is for a Riverside Heritage Garden Park that could include community gardens, orchards, allotments, recreational areas and an outdoor cafe.
A plan called Ki Uta Ki Tai - From the Mountains to the Sea, The Big Idea for Regenerating the Red Zone - envisages creating an Eden Project, based on the successful Eden Project in Cornwall.
To find out more, I'm taken on a tour by Eastern Vision programme manager Evan Smith and former city councillor and Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Peter Beck.
It's a large area to cover - about 450 hectares, over two-and-a-half times the size of Hagley Park - a swathe surrounding the lower Avon River as it curves through Avonside, Richmond, and Dallington, past Burwood and Aranui to Bexley and New Brighton.
All were suburbs hard hit by the quakes, parts of them subject to extreme liquefaction as the ground bubbled up and turned to slush, and, in the case of Bexley, wiped out as a residential neighbourhood.
As we bounce along in Smith's old Toyota, the devastation is evident. Most roads in Christchurch are rough, but the east side is the worst. Smith says his car has been through three sets of suspension. It isn't worth owning a new car here.
Now many houses have gone and empty sites remain like a gap-toothed grin covered with grass. In Bexley we watch remaining houses being torn down. Further round in Avonside, specimen plants flourish in empty sections, unadmired and untended: flowering cherries and beautiful scarlet rhododendrons in full bloom.
If you drive down New Brighton Rd, you will have spotted immaculate parkland next to a sign proclaiming that the Government still has not decided what to do with this land. It is actually a local man, not the council, who mows the grass, turning it into a mini Hagley Park.
Without intervention, after a disaster, land returns quickly to a wild state. That does not mean original. Debate continues on whether to keep exotic plants or plant only New Zealand natives. Wilding sycamores are pests but, in my view, beautiful old heritage trees could and should be saved. Flowering plants should be encouraged, too. One reason: to attract bees, essential for eco-systems but declining worldwide.
Native plantings are well suited for wetlands and red zone land. Volunteers have planted flaxes, grasses and trees. Land has slumped and water levels have risen. This habitat encourages birdlife to return but predator-proof fencing may be needed in some places.
Bike and walking trails following the river would be a marvellous way to explore the area. It is unlikely much of this red zone land will be built on again, although clever engineering solutions could permit some special structures to be built. A freshwater water sports lake is another proposal. The Christchurch City Council has announced it will rebuild a pool and sports centre at the nearby QE II site, on TC-3 land.
Food foraging and community gardens - mahinga kai - are popular. We visit Matariki Gardens, created together with Ngai Tahu, where 150 volunteers turned out to plant native trees and a vegetable plot. A poem by Teoti Jardine, entitled Re-Zoned, expresses hope for the future.
Back near town I meet other supporters of east-side red zone revitalisation. Lincoln University tourism professor David Simmons believes an Eden Project could attract visitors from around the country and overseas.
The original Eden Project in Cornwall encompasses spaceship-like structures promoting environmental education. Plans are under way to build more Edens in China, Canada, and Europe. British Eden Project founder Sir Tim Smit says the Christchurch proposal is exciting and pledges his support.
Singapore's Gardens by the Bay have proved a hit.
Could an Eden Project work here? Representatives from Beca, Fletcher, Lincoln University, NgaiTahu/ Ihutai Ahu Whenua Trust, The Tourism and Leisure Group, and architects Warren and Mahoney are on the Christchurch project team. A colourful brochure has been produced. The next step is a feasibility study.
"There's a real opportunity to build something hopeful, something innovative," says Simmons. "The reason I am passionate about it is that we can build something that speaks to the heart of who we are as New Zealanders."
It will be the local community who will determine the project's viability. It looks great. I hope it succeeds.
- The Press