Alpine Living Issue VII. New Zealand. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ©


Story by Thomas Joa

How Christchurch's open spaces

became places of refuge and community

Photos by Mary Kathryn Carpenter + Jonathan Norris

Woven within the Avon River Corridor are the many parks and heritage sites of the city—the Christchurch Botanic Gardens the most significant among them.


The Christchurch Botanic Gardens, founded in 1863, is the main garden and heritage park in a city that has more than 740 parks and gardens. The 21-hectare (51-acre) garden is located on the west side of Hagley Park and is bordered on three sides by the Avon River. The botanic garden is a major landmark in Christchurch and it has become even more important to the city’s residents in the aftermath of the earthquakes that occurred on September 4, 2010 and February 22, 2011.


“For months we were getting hammered with aftershocks, some of them really significant,” Andrew Rutledge, Christchurch City Council Head of Parks, explained. “A lot of the parks became anchors for their lives.”


Though many of the parks were damaged, they became an important spot for people to congregate after the earthquakes. According to Rutledge, much of the damage was caused by liquefaction and cleaning it up was one of the first steps in repairing the damage.


“We pretty quickly went into a basic first response of making things look presentable again,” Rutledge said. “Within the last two years a lot of the buildings and structures that are in the parks, most of them being heritage and historic, are going through a repair and recover and reopening process.”  


Rebuilding is a slow process, and Rutledge said there is a lot of discussion about what should be done in the Red Zone—the area most damaged by the earthquake, deemed off limits by government officials. Regenerate, a group set up by the Christchurch City Council and the central government of New Zealand, has been tasked with coming up with a plan to redevelop Christchurch’s residential Red Zone in an effective and timely manner. By working with the city council and the people of Christchurch, they hope to return the Red Zone to the vibrant community it was before the earthquake.  


Many have proposed several different ideas for what should be done in the zone. These ideas include building a flat-water lake or turning the area into a native woodland forest.


“If we do a water park, I think there’s some really significant opportunities on the fringe of that to create a unique environment, which would be a positive thing for Christchurch, particularly on that side of town,” Rutledge said. “They’re still trying to get over those first hurdles of recovery.”


Bede Nottingham, the Hagley Park and Botanic Gardens Operations team leader, said most of the work done in the garden post-earthquake centered around bringing its building up to the new standards.


“They [Christchurch City Council] tested our buildings and pretty much all of them came in around 33 percent,” Nottingham said. “They [the buildings] were closed for about a year and we had to have engineering assessments for what we had to do to bring them up to code.”  


According to Nottingham, all the buildings in the garden have been brought up to at least the 74 percent minimum standard for public buildings built pre-earthquake. The gardens’ visitor center, which was the first public structure built after the earthquake, entirely meets the new standard. He also noted that a positive result of the earthquake was that it allowed the city council to renovate many of the heritage buildings.  


After the first earthquake, the number of visitors to the gardens was the highest it had ever been. Nottingham said that people came to the gardens because they saw it as a safe place. After the second earthquake visitor numbers dropped sharply, he explained. Even though the garden was intact, the number of park visitors was the lowest it had ever been. He said that this happened for two reasons; the first being that the city’s central business district (CBD) was completely shut down. He recalled that they had the army and tanks right at their gates. The other reason was that even though it could be accessed from the other side, people still considered it to be part of the Red Zone, so they stayed away.

More stories of resilience

The Canterbury Earthquake Memorial opened on February 22, 2017, the sixth anniversary of the earthquake that killed 185 people. The memorial wall, located on the Avon River corridor by the Montreal Street Bridge, contains both the given and preferred names of the victims. A reflection area faces the wall from the opposite side of the river. The area is surrounded by deciduous trees—the changing with the seasons meant to signify the change in people’s lives.  


“It will take 20-odd years before [the city] recolonizes itself,” Rutledge said. “A lot of people think that it should be done and dusted already. Six years is not a very long time for a city to develop. Probably the one that’s of a similar magnitude is New Orleans and the destruction that was caused by the disaster they had.”


While it may take a long time for the city to completely rebuild, Rutledge said he believes that it may soon be better off than it was pre-earthquake. The streets of the city are changing, being rebuilt and improved. The buildings are being updated to new earthquake standards. Heritage buildings are getting a facelift. As the city changes, one thing remains a constant. Parks will remain a major part of the city and the lives of its citizens. As the city works to rebuild, its people will continue to support their parks and voice their concerns over what should be done with them.


“Parks seem to be really important to Christchurch people,” Rutledge said. “If something is not going the way they think it should be going, they’ll let you know.”

The Avon River winds through Christchurch, flowing amongst the buildings like the people who walk its streets.

"A lot of the parks became anchors for their lives."

-Andrew Rutledge