Future Perfect Creativity in a quake-torn city

many people of different age groups at a social event
© CC BY-NC-ND

In the wake of Christchurch’s massive earthquake, a series of social and creative projects bring new life to the battered streets.

On an early summer’s day in 2010 a narrow site in an inner city street in Christchurch fluttered into life. The building that had stood there was one of several brought to its knees by a large 7.1 earthquake that had ripped through the city two months earlier. Now, where once a restaurant stood, a strip of fake grass, potted plants and a coffee stall set the fragile scene for a two-week programme of music, poetry, outdoor cinema and petanque.

“The idea was a series of temporary occupations,” explains Ryan Reynolds, co-founder and strategic director of urban regeneration initiative Gap Filler, “turning fallow private land into temporary public spaces.”

It was to be a one-off project, an articulation of a wider conversation unfolding around political theatre and socially engaged art work. Six years later Gap Filler continues to leave an indelible mark on the city’s social and cultural environment.

Reactivating the city

On 22 February 2011, five months after the first earthquake, a smaller but far more damaging tremor shattered the inner city. Close to 80% of the buildings fell or were demolished; 185 people lost their lives. The inner city looked like a war zone. Cordons roped off whole streets, windows gaped, aftershocks rattled the remaining brickwork, curtains breezed prettily above mounting rubble.

Once more Gap Filler took to the streets and the now plentiful supply of empty sites. Over the following months, then years, a series of temporary events and activities brought new energy, new hope and resourcefulness into the city streets: a book exchange in a double-doored commercial fridge on an empty corner site, a mini-golf course, sports days, a cycle-powered cinema, public piano shelters, a bowling alley, a community pizza oven, street art.

It was playful, guerrilla-esque, experimental; drawing together community groups, artists, architects, landowners, designers and a swathe of volunteers in a peripatetic calendar of events aimed at building social capital and resilience, stimulating economic development and creating a much-needed sense of connectedness. New energy seeped into the battered streets: Life in Vacant Spaces brokered the use of empty sites, the FESTA Festival of Transitional Architecture, directed by architectural historian Jessica Halliday, transformed the inner city streets into a carnival of light, music and temporary structures. The Greening the Rubble urban ecology initiative, chaired by urban studies lecturer Suzanne Vallance, established pocket parks and community gardens. Still in 2011, Reynolds and his five fellow Gap Filler founders architect Andrew Just, accountant Lance Edmonds, mental health promoter Ciaran Fox, actor and gallerist Coralie Winn and Martin Trusttum, formerly of the Christchurch Polytechnic’s, now Ara Institute of Canterbury’s,established the Gap Filler Trust with the express purpose of generating creative activity, public interest and participation through the temporary use of vacant or under-utilised land.

  • Ash Keating artwork for © CC BY-NC-ND: Gap Filler
    Ash Keating artwork for "Concrete Propositions".
  • No electricity necessary: the Book Exchange 1. electricity necessary: the Book Exchange 1. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Ross Becker
    No electricity necessary: the Book Exchange 1. electricity necessary: the Book Exchange 1.
  • No electricity necessary: the Book Exchange 2. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Ross Becker
    No electricity necessary: the Book Exchange 2.
  • Not a lot of space needed for a lot of fun: The Dance-O-Mat. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Gap Filler
    Not a lot of space needed for a lot of fun: The Dance-O-Mat.
  • The Superhero Dance Squad at the Dance-O-Mat. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Gap Filler
    The Superhero Dance Squad at the Dance-O-Mat.
  • Better than stairs: Fairway to Heaven Version 2. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Gap Filler
    Better than stairs: Fairway to Heaven Version 2.
  • The Gap Filler team. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Gap Filler
    The Gap Filler team.
  • Retro Sports on The Commons. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Raewyn Murray
    Retro Sports on The Commons.
  • Move! At Gap Filler's Sound Garden. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Erica Austin
    Move! At Gap Filler's Sound Garden.
  • Old street signs make sounds, too. At Sound Garden. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Trent Hiles
    Old street signs make sounds, too. At Sound Garden.
  • Freshly laid grass on The Commons. © (CC BY-NC-ND): Kirsten Wilson
    Freshly laid grass on The Commons.
The city responds

In 2012 designers, businesses and volunteers planned, funded and built Gap Filler’s Pallet Pavilion, a temporary arena made from 3000 borrowed pallets on a central corner site left vacant by the demolition of a hotel. A large, blue soundshell, it became a popular meeting place, a venue for performances, pop-up cafes and markets.

That year too the Dance-o-Mat, comprising a timber floor, string of lights and set of speakers linked to a coin-operated washing machine with an iPod connection, became an open invitation for people to dance within an outdoor arena of shattered buildings. As well as restoring much needed life to the desolate streetscape, such initiatives triggered a growing interest in the city-making process about to unfold.

“Talking about politics is possibly the worst way to have a political influence because it tends to reinforce people’s existing biases or assumptions,” says Reynolds. “So how do you have a political impact without saying the word ‘politics’? Through acting small and locally and specifically, we found you can do a better job engaging with some of the bigger issues.”

The art of change

Reynolds compares Gap Filler’s role in the emerging city to that of a trickster, bringing humour and energy into a changing environment while also nudging participants towards a more critical perspective.

“In an urban or political context Dance-O-Mat does the same thing. It passes itself off as something superficial, a bit of light entertainment, but actually it is curating an experience of urban life where you have social interactions you wouldn’t otherwise have, where you behave in ways you wouldn't otherwise behave, and where there is a deeper social or political agenda. It is not to be disruptive in a jarring sense but it challenges and expands behavourial conventions.”

It also challenges assumptions around the impact of the short-term or small-scale, Reynolds elaborates. “What does temporary mean? The book fridge was going to be there for a month - it has been there for five years. A city we thought of as permanent – 80% of it is gone. Notions of temporality and temporariness are a means to an end – it is about lowering risk and creating the appetite for experimentation.”

Building community into a new city

Now, as the city rebuild replaces empty sites with the struts and scaffolds of new developments, that appetite continues to grow. And while Gap Filler continues to initiate small-scale community projects – a lengthy process requiring a careful alignment of ideas, resources and social objectives – it also runs outreach programmes for schools. It advises other groups and cities on more participatory city-building processes, and it undertakes advocacy work, lobbying for regulatory reform to allow the continuation of public use of private land for community projects. Increasingly too, it has a place at the planning table of some of larger-scale permanent developments.

“We can help influence those developments using those same principles around participatory processes so people feel those developments reflect a bit of them, their identity, their desires.”

As the new city of Christchurch emerges out of the rubble, as planning processes threaten to stifle that sense of experimentation and inclusivity, such engagement is becoming increasingly important, agrees Coralie Winn. “Otherwise we risk a city that is quite one-dimensional, that is not for a wide group of people. People do want to retain some of that energy and what that energy represents. Our aim is that Gap Filler does have a long-term impact on what people want and expect from the city.”