Scoop Review of Books

Radiating Promise and Possibility

Christchurch: The Transitional City Pt IV 2012 by FESTA Festival of Transition Architecture Published by Free range Press, Wellington.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Hayward


On first impression, Christchurch: the Transitional City Pt IV seems more like an artefact than book.

It is a solid object of delight in an era of eBook and twitter. There is something wonderfully permanent about this small, heavy (394 pages) full colour volume, bound in thick, smooth manila cardboard with a double fold.

Christchurch: The Transition City is also an important project, one which documents a significant period of rupture in New Zealand’s political and economic landscape through the lens of the Christchurch earthquakes.

The Festival of Transitional Architecture team who drove the project set out to capture and record 155 attempts to re-establish urban community amidst the confusion and chaos that accompanied the 56 earthquakes at magnitude 5 or more which have followed Christchurch’s first quake on 4th September 2010.

While there have been many photo essays of Christchurch’s earthquakes, this book is different. Its focus is the urban environment and the uncertain struggles of a small provincial community to recover, and to assert something new in the face of a relentless, reinvigorated neoliberal economy. From small moments of comic defiance, like the portaloo with Marilyn Munroe posters or the giant rosette awarded anonymously on a cordon fence, ‘Voted CHCH’s best demo2012’ to the large 16 installation Luxcity architectural event which involved 350 architecture students, Christchurch The Transitional City is a visual testament to what philosopher Hannah Arendt calls, ‘natality , or the remarkable capacity of individuals to generate new hope, merely by taking action.

From entrepreneurial public-private partnership start ups like EPIC (a shared space for IT companies) to local timebanks and youth volunteer projects, this text radiates with uncertain promise and possibility. In documenting the variety of projects and responses to the earthquakes, the book is also an invitation to think more deeply about what it is we do. If these are snap shots of a city in transition, what are we transitioning towards? If urban regeneration is not a predetermined outcome, but a process of recovery, what pathways are we choosing and what difference might it make to our common future?

The projects are not set out with a narrative; they are merely recorded alphabetically, capturing the unsettling way a natural disaster throws together a series of disturbing, sometimes exciting random connections. Small ventures, like the second hand book exchange established in a disused refrigerator which exhorts my whole neighbourhood to ‘think differently” have become signature projects of groups like GapFiller. Such projects are juxtaposed with images of the heavy handed central planning approach of CERA, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority with its plan for a city of rigid ‘precincts’ created in 100 days.

As I sifted through the images and stories in this book I was reminded of the way these earthquakes have revealed deep tensions in New Zealand’s social, political and economic landscape. Deepening fault lines in our political-economy are not unique to this city or country. While the speed of land clearances and the formal marshalling of urban authority into planned precincts is ominous, New Zealand is not the only economy where governments have used command and control style decision-making to force through decisions on the grounds of efficiency or where local communities have become isolated in their suffering by growing social inequality. Yet voices of dissent or caution that might offer alterative visions for our future are routinely silenced now by a triumphant roar of resilience and by the casual conversation of a self-described ‘urban oligarchy’. In this context, Christchurch: Transition City offers a refreshing invitation to pause, and reflect on a complex disaster and a range of alternative possible responses.

As the authors note, ‘it is profoundly unsettling to see …streets buildings and memories shaken into small parts by the twin forces of natural earthquakes and manmade economics…'(p 4).This book captures some innovative alternative visions for the inner city, New Brighton or Lyttleton, although the struggles to reground community in poorer suburbs of Christchurch East, Darlington, or Aranui remain to be told in another book.

Secondly Christchurch: Transition City Plan raises challenging questions about what it means to be a ‘good’ urban citizen. Philosopher Michael Sandel reminds us that public spaces matter for the cultivation of a common citizenship. After disaster, all communities need moments to come together to recreate citizenship, to extend compassion, express defiance and acknowledge mutual vulnerability. Yet when local people are largely shut out of city replanning, or denied access to common spaces either because of cordons, or the occupation for example of public libraries by an army of hard hat wearing Wellington bureaucrats setting up provincial offices, how are we to respond as ‘good’ local citizens? Traffic safety cones litter our broken city streets, and filling these cones with flowers has become a spontaneous way residents remember earthquake victims. Yet beyond a simple expression of human compassion, such small spontaneous gestures of beauty documented in this book also reflect an element of quiet rebellion against the political authority of central government.

Viewed in this light, The Transition City project also responds to the wider ‘…need for the creation of festal places on the ground of everyday dwellings, places where individuals come together and affirm themselves as members of the community, as they join in public re-enactments of the essential: celebrations of those central aspects of our life that maintain and give meaning to existence’ (p21).

Finally I was struck by the way in Christchurch: Transition City has captured the seeds of an alternative everyday economy, one which is work rich, and lower in carbon. A kind of ‘Cinderella economy’ described in Tim Jackson’s reflective discussion, Prosperity without Growth [i] which emphasises the potential for growing employment in care work (nursing, teaching, and service work for example), craft industries (or skilled manufacturing) and creative sectors. Globally, young citizens face unprecedented youth unemployment and New Zealand is no exception, with young people accounting for a very high proportion of all those not in work, employment or training. Yet New Zealand’s unemployed cannot all become builders or decorators for Christchurch’s rebuild. Christchurch: Transition City captures the way many young citizens are striving to make a difference, by creating a range of meaningful projects that generate high social returns.

Yet if the transitions captured in this book are to signal new economic pathways toward sustainable youth employment, projects like Gapfiller or Greening the Rubble may need to challenge current models of corporate sponsorship. Many of the projects documented here risk being reduced to decorative inner city events that merely prop up land values for real estate investors. As I read through the book I was reminded of a meeting with a land investor and city planner who were asked if young artists could have access to micro financing to support transitional projects. The immediate reply was, “Oh no we can’t go down that route because we don’t want to encourage a dependency culture”. Witnessing the extent to which a local real estate industry is now beholden to the creative ingenuity of youthful citizens to increase vital inner city foot traffic in otherwise empty spaces, I am left wondering: who exactly is dependent on whom in our current economy?

Experimental projects that set out alternative visions for the future have always been marginal, precarious and ephemeral. Christchurch Transition City Pt IV captures a creative energy that beats beneath a notoriously conservative city. The Christchurch community is frequently characterised as a smug, insular suburban gentry living in leafy suburbs, but Christchurch is also a city with 1000 years of indigenous history. It is a community which has been home to many rebellious thinkers from Suffragette Kate Sheppard to Professor Bickerton and the experimental intellectual, creative and social space he created in Wainoni. It is a city that proud of the archaic imagination of Margaret Mahey and Elsie Locke, and the diverse visions of Gavin Bishop or singer songwriter Scribe.

Christchurch: Transition City Plan is a book that documents small moments of connection, rebellion and resistance. It’s an artefact saved from a confused time, it’s a beautiful book. Buy it, or better yet, in the spirit of transition, borrow it from your local library, talk about it with your friends, and help rekindle new, alternative responses to our current crisis, responses that might help us flourish with more imagination as a community, and as a nation.

[i] Jackson, Tim 2009 Prosperity Without growth: Economics for a Finite Planet Earthscan, London.

Bronwyn Hayward is a resident of Christchurch, a senior Lecturer in the school of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Canterbury and author of Children, Citizenship And Environment: Nurturing A Democratic Imagination In A Changing World, 2012 Earthscan, London