A few days ago, the New Zealand city of Christchurch experienced its 11,000th aftershock from two earthquakes, in September 2010 and February 2011, that killed 185 people and damaged the nation’s second city, home to 360,000 Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves.
It also severely damaged the city, causing grave concern over its future, with €9 billion of destruction, including the hospital, government offices and the TV station leaving thousands of buildings which either collapsed or had to be demolished.
There were also around 10,000 private homes that were scheduled for demolition and some parts of the city couldn’t be rebuilt because of liquefaction.
The most visible signs of the disaster, once the rubble had been taken away were the gaps, where homes, shops and businesses used to be.
It is these gaps that are being used by the city in innovative ways, to try to keep a sense of community.
Gap Filler is a regeneration initiative will take over vacant sites temporarily for creative and community projects. By taking care of the legal and insurance side, small ideas can quickly grow and take root, usually at minimal cost.
One such idea was putting the many pallet cases used to bring in supplies to good use, by making a bar and venue, the Pallet Pavilion where the Crowne Plaza used to stand. This is an open space that has hosted local musicians, opera concerts as well as board game nights and a bicycle repair day.
Other uses of the gaps, which are often only available for a short time, include a bike powered cinema, murals and artworks, including turning one small lot into a Monopoly board square.
There’s even a golf course coming together on a variety of gaps in the city.
One star attraction is the Dance-O-Mat ‘a dance floor on a vacant site with coin operated lighting and sound courtesy of a converted washing machine.’ Basically, plug in an mp3 player, put in a coin and instant dancefloor!
The first version attracted the attention of Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, who cut a rug during their visit in November last year.
Gap Filler is not a gimmick. 80% of the city’s central business district was demolished by the quake and the authorities see the project of keeping the devastated city connected with its citizens, who are being encouraged to develop ideas, and the cultural community in order to keep the spirit of the city alive.
There are tremendous challenges, not least with so many businesses being wiped out. There are still far too many without homes or secure employment and the city’s future is not guaranteed, despite the best efforts of many folk.
Coralie Winn, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Gap Filler told New Europe that the project’s success had been a pleasant surprise, “The public‘s appetite for what we‘re doing and willingness to get involved and volunteer. There is huge symbolic value in activating vacant spaces that until the earthquakes used to be buildings. People really want a chance to experiment and get involved directly in shaping their city,” she said.
This is one of the lessons for everyone; if you really involve the community, people will get involved.
Can Gap Filler be used in other regeneration/renewal situations? “Totally. Absolutely,” says Winn, adding, “There are many vacant-space projects already in existence around the world now but most use vacant buildings. Renew Newcastle in Australia is a big inspiration and its creator has offered us lots of support and advice. Meanwhile Space in the UK is another. Most cities don‘t have so many vacant lots, more so vacant shops. Vacant shops are a common sight in cities post-Global Financial Crisis and in the Internet age.”
The creative Kiwi notes, “Gap Filler isn‘t unique at all in terms of the idea. Perhaps our post-disaster situation is.”
She does have some advice for those who would like to fill the gaps in their own towns or cities, “Check out the GET INVOLVED page of our website to see how we do what we do and hopefully you can apply it to your city.”
And Winn does have a final thought, “Never underestimate the value of collaboration and community! Temporarily using vacant spaces should be a part of any city! It’s just a matter of dealing with red-tape to get going.”
Any glimmer of a silver lining is a welcome sight in post-earthquake Christchurch. Catching even my distant Wellington eye, Gap Filler is one such bright spot – celebrating the sense of possibility which emerges from the future’s uncertainty. Borrowing urban spaces left vacant by the earthquakes, Gap Filler transforms each into a small community space. Immediate disaster responses attend to elemental human needs such as food, shelter, and clean water. Gap Filler belongs to the next wave of responses, with attention turning to less tangible needs – emotional, social, and creative. Successes include cycle powered cinemas, coin operated dance floors, art installations, and temporary architecture projects. For those of us looking on from the stable ground of other New Zealand cities, the novelty of these leisure spaces is captivating with their playful spark even rousing some urban-envy.
Further north the Art Deco excess of Napier is celebrated, this wealth of Deco style being the product of extensive reconstruction after the 1931 earthquake. What will a reconstructed Christchurch look like? How would we characterise a city ‘of our time’? Beyond the fun to be had watching-a-bicycle-themed-movie-while-cycling-to-power-said-film, Gap Filler encourages us to consider these questions and speculate as to how New Zealand cities might take shape in the decades ahead. Vacant lots function as a type of design research, prototyping small models of new urban spaces and exploring what may (or may not) constitute an ideal city.
This exploration’s strength is its involvement of individuals and communities in developing and using these spaces. Often constructed from recycled or donated materials and made by volunteers, they have a casual, makeshift quality – inviting their users to contribute additions, or to create projects of their own. At the popular ‘Lytttelton Petanque Club’ mismatched chairs and tables scatter and huddle around a lime chipped petanque terrain. The result is a friendly community space which is flexible and continually evolving. Style is abandoned as a preoccupation and the low-fi, DIY aesthetic opens these vacant spaces up as arenas for creative play. These type of projects attract a diverse range of people who take on the roles of both maker and user. Recently a group of students constructed a woodfired pizza oven near Gap Filler’s ‘Pallet Pavilion’, hosting pizza making events as a supplement to activity at the pavilion.
Design research here is carried out through participation and collective action. Residents are invited to partake in this exploration of ‘the ideal city’ one small space and one small idea at a time. This grassroots engagement scales down the enormity of what lies ahead – transforming the idea of ‘the rebuild’ into one in which individuals might hold some sway over the redevelopment of the places around them. An example of leading via action, the Lyttelton Petanque Club site was recently purchased by the council in recognition of the space’s value as a new type of civic square. Through these projects design becomes a social process, facilitating cooperative ‘thinking aloud’. While the projects themselves are temporary, they trigger engagement and debate which continues to unfold long after the duration of each initiative.
The human scale of this engagement is empowering, setting Gap Filler’s list of completed projects as a counterpoint to the slower progress of other earthquake responses. Against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with insurance companies, local council, and government agencies, the tangibility of Gap Filler and the physicality of its projects is refreshing.Gap Filler offers not only concrete evidence of positive change, but the opportunity for Christchurch residents to make this change happen for themselves. Through their involvement in these projects, their role shifts from consumers of ‘urban design solutions’ to producers of public space and culture.
Forced to explore and try things out, some gap fillers are more successful than others. This is one of the great qualities of the project – done on small budgets, temporary, and in unused spaces, there is little risk in failure. Some projects are unexpectedly successful, and more rarely others are a flop. The spaces are incomplete without human relationships, and this social component presents an unknown factor. At a book exchange site the books have been stolen twice. On the other hand, these spaces are a stage for unexpected interactions of a different kind – recently at the ‘Dance-O-Mat’ a bemused Prince Charles was invited to dance by a Christchurch resident, and enjoyed a turn about the floor with the audacious member of the public. Disappointment and success are equally built into the project; freedom and failure two sides of the experimental coin. Whether heads or tails, the coin offers a starting point for thinking aloud about the city and the relationships it hosts.
In many cases, Gap Filler’s risks have been rewarded. But risk can generate its own buzz, its inherent tension sustaining an atmosphere of vitality and innovation. There is a widespread, strong desire for a new sense of urban community, as evidenced by the increasing number of pop-up initiatives and stimulating public programmes in cities around New Zealand. What Gap Filler in Christchurch offers those of us who live elsewhere is an example of how this desire can be translated into action. This refreshed urbanism can be initiated ‘on the ground’, often without the need for complex planning permissions. International influences can feed into projects which are specifically local – adapted and prototyped to suit our needs. This is community-led urbanism which works to extract as much as possible from risk and transience, motivated by a desire to create silver linings rather than hope to find them.
Gotta love the Newcastle Herald’s crappy mock-ups of what will happen now that the CBD rail line will be ripped up. If I know one thing it’s…never trust a sketchup of how a proposal will look. Anyway, I’ve used their pic of the Store. I think that Con Constantine will be pleased that it will be redeveloped into apartments one day.
But seriously. I’ve not been a fan of the rail line removal proposal…but after YEARS of sclerotic debate I’m think that having a decision, having ANY decision is better than nothing.
A lot has been said about what removal of the rail line will do for the city. You people who have proposed it… O Herald, McCloy, State Government, Infrastructure NSW, Nick Greiner, Barry O’Farrell, GPT, Landcom and ye others. It is your time now. This is YOUR plan. Make it work. It is your responsibility to do something SPECTACULAR for Newcastle.
If the major landlords of Hunter Street continue to whine and complain and sit on their hands and keep their wallets shut and their properties under-maintained, well…shame. Now’s the time to put your money where your mouth is.