Amending the map

WE ALMOST FORGOT. The manicured gardens, the orderly course of the Avon River, the neat grid of streets – the very structure of this Church of England settlement built on the founding principles of faith and learning encouraged a form of environmental amnesia. Despite earlier experiences of flooding and tectonic movement, the city, we thought, was solid. Solid as a rock.

But Christchurch, the Garden City, the city on the Plains, an Antipodean outpost, some still say, of nineteenth century England, is a place of wetlands, of flax and fern, grassland and swamp forest, bulrush and bird life; a watery terrain of springs and waterways draining into the Ōtākaro (Avon) and Ōpawaho (Heathcote) rivers.

The reminder of this landscape, long buried under the city’s paved footprint, was sudden and brutal. On an early September morning in 2010 a 7.1 magnitude earthquake ripped open pastureland, kinked country roads, and toppled buildings. Remarkably no one was killed. Five months later, on 22 February, 185 people lost their lives in a smaller but more violent quake close to the inner city. Buildings crumbled, vehicles were crushed, hilltop homes teetered on eroded cliffs. Throughout the city, but particularly along the river corridor, liquefied silt bubbled up into backyards, springs appeared under carparks, riverbanks slumped, underground waterways collapsed, roads buckled into ribbons of broken seal, burst pipes and twisted bridges. Swathes of land, especially in the eastern suburbs, were assigned to the newly designated ‘red zone’: areas deemed too damaged, too vulnerable, for ‘practical and timely repair’.

Over that single sunny lunch hour old place names acquired renewed relevance: Avonside, Avonhead, Springfield Rd, Wetlands Grove. In the city centre the landmark Christchurch Art Gallery, opened in 2003, has as its Māori name Te Puna o Waiwhetu, referring to the spring, te puna, nearby.

We have the language, but it is a language that speaks to an older landscape.

‘There are about eight thousand springs under the city,’ says landscape architect and inner city resident Di Lucas. ‘We have all these wonderful meandering streams and wetlands. But people had forgotten that this is where the springs emerge in the [Canterbury] Plains and feed the Avon.’

These features, teeming with food and rich in natural resources, attracted the first peoples to this southern region. Long before the first Europeans nosed their whaleboat into the shallows of the Avon River in 1840 three waves of Māori iwi (tribes) from the North Island – Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe, then, in the mid-1700s, Ngāi Tahu – were drawn to this area to catch eels, whitebait, trout and ducks, to gather fernroot and bulrush and to harvest the harakeke (flax) used to make clothing, ropes, mats and mōkihi (rafts). By 1800 an estimated five thousand Māori lived in central Canterbury, mostly in the higher, drier regions of Kaiapoi and smaller settlements on Banks Peninsula, using the land that is now Christchurch as travel routes and seasonal campsites.

In 1836, Captain William Rhodes, fresh from buying land in New South Wales, looked over the Port Hills that separate the port of Lyttelton from the Canterbury Plains and observed that the land was largely ‘swamp and mostly covered with water’. Over a decade later English surveyor Captain Joseph Thomas thought otherwise. He found the site at the head of Lyttelton Harbour originally chosen for the new settlement planned by Canterbury Association founders John Robert Godley and Edward Gibbon Wakefield to be too cramped, the cost of required reclamation too high. He too looked down on the Plains, noting not only swampland but also vast expanses of potential farmland, a navigable river and good stands of forest.

The first street plan, drawn by assistant surveyor Edward Jollie in 1850, carefully avoids, or crosses at the shortest point, the myriad of streams that run through the selected site. But as the city grew the land was cleared and drained. Springs and tributaries were diverted, piped or built over, old stream beds filled in. Stands of tī kōuka (cabbage trees), once used to guide travellers through the often-treacherous swamplands, were cut down.

‘WE WILL LEARN from this,’ says Lucas of the earthquake. ‘Now for the first time people are thinking about the land beneath. These old stream corridors are a natural feature. You don’t mess with things like that.’

But mess we did. A map of the worst hit areas of the inner city correlates almost exactly with the fine web of creeks and streams underlying Jollie’s 1850 gridded street map.

Today the city is full of strange sights. A building facade leans into a mesh of scaffolding, banks of shipping containers protect insecure walls and vulnerable roads, a rooftop rests fully intact on an inner city lot, a backless theatre reveals rows of tiered seats. The city centre lost 80 per cent of its buildings. Its skyline is low and spare, its streets scattered with traffic cones, detour signs and improvised car parks.

Christchurch is a city of becoming – a transitional space caught between memory of the past and hope for the future, an urban centre awash with empty sites, temporary gardens, impermanent artworks and community projects. Alongside a rash of sanctioned and unsanctioned street art, billboards advertise new developments, sandwich boards promote relocated businesses, wire fencing serves as an unofficial noticeboard for messages of mourning, strength (‘Kia kaha’, we read, ‘Stay strong’) and protest against processes of insurance, repair and rebuilding that seem too intransigent, too disconnected, too ‘top-down’.

Out of this dramatically altered landscape a new city is being planned. In May 2011 some ten thousand people used Post-it notes, video clips, Lego creations, and questionnaires to pitch their suggestions for the revamped inner city as part of the council-run Share an Idea expo. The resulting draft city plan was presented to the government, which passed it on to its new arm, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), established in the wake of the February earthquake to lead the recovery of the city. The same act that brought CERA into being also appointed the South Island’s principal iwi Ngāi Tahu as a strategic partner in the rebuild alongside the Crown and local council. Under the legislation the required recovery strategy must be developed in consultation with, and with input from, its governing body Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu (TRONT). Already this tripartite arrangement is taking form. The new plan for the inner city includes a commitment to recognise Ngāi Tahu heritage and places of significance, to ‘incorporate and showcase Ngāi Tahu cultural identity and values’ and to ‘integrate the Ngāi Tahu narrative into the new city through planning and design of the anchor projects and precincts’.

Co-governance arrangements between iwi and the Crown are not uncommon. Such plans are in place for specific natural features such as the Waikato River in the North Island and Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere in the South. In 2013 the Crown and central North Island iwi Ngāi Tūhoe signed a co-management plan for Te Urewera National Park, by which full control of the 212-hectare estate will eventually be ceded to Tūhoe. Various acts of Parliament, beginning with the State-owned Enterprises Act of 1986, include the obligation to take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by the British Crown and about 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs) in 1840 and long considered New Zealand’s founding document. Since the 1970s ‘honouring the Treaty’ and, more recently, ‘Treaty partnership’ have become the catch cry for political aspirations and new regulatory frameworks.

But this is Christchurch, often described as a transplanted corner of empire, a postcard-perfect tour bus destination complete with weeping willows, nattily dressed punters poling visitors up the Avon and an architectural legacy dominated by a now-diminished suite of neo-Gothic buildings including the former university, now the Arts Centre, and the ChristChurch Cathedral, currently the subject of a vociferous save-or-raze debate. 

As Mark Twain wrote during his visit in 1895, ‘Christchurch is an English town, with an English-park annex, and a winding English brook just like the Avon – and named the Avon… Its grassy banks are bordered by the stateliest and most impressive weeping willows to be found in theworld.’

This reputation is exaggerated. Native plantings have been a feature of the city since the 1860s; the subsequent pattern of suburban growth with its fraying edge of single-storey, single-family homes is more American than English; the surrounding expanses of flat paddocks and braided rivers stretching across the Plains to the pile of mountains that form the Southern Alps are uniquely New Zealand.

While the city’s population of 377,000 does comprise a higher proportion of New Zealand Europeans than other New Zealand cities, its diversity is growing. Projections for 2021 put the Māori population at 38,800 (up 37.6 per cent from 2006), the Asian ethnic population at 52,100 (up 73.7 per cent) and the Pacific population at 16,000 (up 52.4 per cent). The ‘European/Other’ ethnic group is projected to reach 326,600 – an increase of only 4.3 per cent.

THE EARTHQUAKE OF 22 February 2011 left Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu homeless. Its large inner city building, Te Wai Pounamu, was shaken, closed, marked for demolition. TRONT migrated westward, to the control tower of the historic Wigram Aerodrome, once the site of a nineteenth-century pa (village) occupied by Ngāi Tahu, then home to the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Now, in a tight but full circle, it sits again on Ngāi Tahu-owned land. Here the office of Mark Solomon, the youthful-looking kaiwhakahaere (chair) of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, looks down on a sea of new houses, tiled rooves, pocket-handkerchief lawns, street names, many in te reo Māori (Māori language), alluding to the area’s aviational history. This is Wigram Skies, SOLD signs everywhere, one of three new residential developments being built by the iwi in and around the city.

The eleven thousand earthquakes that have battered the city over the past three years have changed attitudes. No one, explains Solomon, complains about students after the Volunteer Student Army took to the streets with shovels, rakes and spades to clear silt-ridden yards and gutters. Similarly the unpaid efforts of the ‘Farmy Army’ have breached the long-standing urban-rural divide. In the immediate aftermath of the February earthquake Māori wardens knocked on close to ten thousand doors, delivered around 1,500 food packages and huge amounts of water, addressing the needs not only of Māori but also of migrants and Pākehā.

‘There is no such thing as colour or racism in a disaster,’ he says. ‘Everyone is equal and because everyone pitched in it has broken down a lot of silly barriers that were there before.’

He describes the potential of the new cultural and visitor centre, Te Puna Ahurea, planned as a symbolic entrance to the city in Victoria Square, once the main site of trade between settlers and Māori. Such a centre, he says, will give form to the traditional Māori value of manaaki, meaning offering support or the hand of friendship.

‘Everyone thought it was just for Māori but we’re saying no – we want a cultural centre for all cultures, something everyone is comfortable with. We are not a monocultural society, we are not bicultural society, we are multicultural. Before the earthquake I would have said every Māori kid in the city comes with a stigma – and that stigma is that they are Māori. That attitude is rapidly changing.’

But inserting a ‘Māori chapter’ into the city-wide rebuild, the biggest economic development project ever undertaken in New Zealand, is not so straight-forward. Key anchor projects identified in the new plan for the city centre, including a green frame bordering the east and south of a condensed central business district, a new convention centre and cultural centre and the Papa o Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct, provide ample opportunities to acknowledge Ngāi Tahu history and to connect ‘past traditions to future aspirations’, but these ‘past traditions’ are complex.  

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, European settlers in Christchurch relied on Ngāi Tahu, particularly the Ngāi Tū-āhu-riri hapū which holds manawhenua, or tribal authority, over the city from its historic home in Tuahiwi in North Canterbury, to supply provisions brought in from outlying regions and traded in Market (now Victoria) Square. Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi the Crown purchased the South Island through a series of deeds, the largest being the Canterbury Purchase of 1848 by which the Crown bought twenty million acres (about eight million hectares) for £2,000. One of the conditions of the sale was that Ngāi Tahu communities would have continued access to mahinga kai (food and resource gathering places), including the large village settlements of Puāri and Tautahi (from which the Māori name for the city, Ōtautahi, is derived), now lying within the city boundaries. But, in relying on a narrow translation of these mahinga kai as ‘cultivations’, access to many of these vitally important sites was denied. Land was privatised, titles sold. Repeated claims for continued access to these areas were dismissed.

In 1986 Hēnare Rakiihia Tau, ūpoko (head) of Ngāi Tū-āhu-riri, filed a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board. The claim was presented in nine parts, known as the ‘Nine Tall Trees of Ngāi Tahu’. Eight of these represented different areas of land purchased from Ngāi Tahu, while the ninth represented Ngāi Tahu’s mahinga kai. The resulting report formed the basis of the landmark settlement between Ngāi Tahu and the Crown, including compensation valued at $170 million (about 1.5 per cent, suggests Solomon, of what the tribe had lost), first right of refusal on all Crown land being sold, an apology from the Crown, opportunities for cultural redress (the protection of customary rights guaranteed under the Treaty and Deed of Purchase) and a ‘top-up’ mechanism to ensure Ngāi Tahu’s position is maintained relative to settlements negotiated by other tribes.

By the time of the earthquake almost fifty thousand people identified themselves as Ngāi Tahu, making it the fourth largest tribe in New Zealand and the largest in the South Island. Its asset base is in excess of $809 million with significant interests in tourism, seafood, farming and property.

HOW IS THIS story of settlement and encounter to be ‘intertwined’, as the recovery plan states, into the redevelopment of the central city? Under the heading ‘Complementary elements’, the plan suggests markers to identify historically important Māori sites, art works by Ngāi Tahu artists and new plantings of indigenous flora as possible ways of integrating ‘the Ngāi Tahu narrative’ into a city previously dominated by an imported English aesthetic.

Ngāi Tahu Chief Executive Officer Arihia Bennett says such visual acknowledgements give the iwi more relevance within the city. ‘It gives us a sense of identity, it enables us to be valued with integrity, that we are part of this landscape.’

I ask her to imagine a hypothetical five-year-old child, starting school today and graduating in twelve or so years. ‘That child will grow up seeing, touching, feeling that he is part of this city. I want children to see this Ngāi Tahu identity as the norm, not as an afterthought or add-on but something that it is integrated through all stages of thinking from conceptual to turnkey.’

But some fear Māoridom will be presented through a generic, largely decorative iconography based on the arts and crafts expression of North Island Māori and not applicable further south (Ngāi Tahu communities, for example, traditionally had little carving in their buildings). In Memory and Place: geographies of a critical relationship (2004), Steven Hoelscher and Derek Alderman argue that ‘geographies of memory’, traditionally circulated in material form or through performative arts and cultural displays, ‘are frequently called upon to support the specific kind of conquest and domination associated with colonialism.’ Such ‘imaginative geographies’, to borrow the phrase of Edward Said, pay ‘negligible attention to the actuality of the region’s geography or its inhabitants, but more accurately reflected the fantasies and preoccupations of colonising agents’.

To avoid an incorrect and potentially alienating misreading Te Maire Tau, director of the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre at the University of Canterbury, is arguing for an aesthetic that refers specifically to Ngāi Tahu and Ngāi Tū-āhu-riri, the descendants of those originally allocated land in the Kaiapoi Māori Reserve under the Canterbury Purchase.

Such an aesthetic, he argues, need not be rooted in the ‘mythic world view’ and rituals of pre-European Māori. Rather he is looking to a contemporary expression of Māori design and architecture within a city founded on imported English principles. 

‘We want a twenty-first century aesthetic that is Māori-settler, not swimming with the dolphins, spiritual stuff. Ngāi Tahu need to see their community valued and respected in the city but equally important is that they understand the value of Pākehā settler communities in Christchurch. There’s no point in putting in customary values that don’t resonate with Pākehā. The tribe’s rhetoric right through is we have committed to the Queen and the British Empire [through the Treaty] – we are not going to go backwards from that. But what were the values when English settlers came here? Once we know that we can engage, we can see where to bounce, test and synthesise.’

So the sturdy, bronze monarch, currently staring down visitors to Victoria Square, the site of the planned new cultural centre, will stay? ‘Everyone thought we were going to chuck her in the river but, no, she is a fundamental part of the Treaty.’

Tau has been preparing the historic background for the development of the proposed Papa o Ōtākaro/Avon River Precinct, a broad tract of land weaving through the city centre on both sides of the river. The draft plan presents it as a place of cycleways, pathways and cafes, with artworks by Ngāi Tahu artists and ‘cultural markers’ identifying the importance of this waterway to Māori.

But to have any real relevance such visual references need to be grounded in the specific values associated with a much older landscape, the landscape of Lucas’s eight thousand springs and the life they supported and attracted. Already the plan suggests enhancing springs and waterways and improving water quality to encourage the return of native birds, create additional habitat for fish and eels and allow for the planting of orchards along the river, so upholding the mana of Ngāi Tū-āhu-riri as kaitiaki or guardians of Ōtākaro/Avon River and the importance of kai, food.

‘Māori culture is based on food,’ says Solomon. ‘Food and access to it. It is what governed us. So the river is one of the focal points for us. You cannot have access to mahinga kai without water and for us the wetlands are the filter systems for rivers, the breeding ground for many species. I’m not in favour of taking out all the exotic [plants] around Christchurch – we are not called the Garden City for nothing – but I’d like to see the Avon planted in natives. A corridor showing our visitors this is what Canterbury used to look like.’

Architect Huia Reriti works on behalf Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu as advisor on some of the planned anchor projects for the city. To translate the traditional values implicit in mahinga kai, he says, is to incorporate more meaningful elements than, say, traditional Māori arts and crafts appliquéd on to European built structural forms. Rather than adopting ‘complementary elements’, he says, the rebuild requires an aesthetic rooted in a relationship that is as equal as it is specific.

The expression of a uniquely Ngāi Tahu aesthetic, he argues, has yet to be defined. Across the country ‘traditional Māori art’ tends to be expressed as basket weaving, wood carving, kōwhaiwhai (the usually abstract patterns painted on the rafters of Māori meeting houses) and the ‘Air New Zealand koru thing’.

‘But we are more parochial down here, we don’t use global views of Māori in this city. We don’t want a Sky Tower here [as Auckland has]. We don’t want tikanga [customs] from Wellington or Rotorua which don’t fit our conditions and history. If it is global it will be a wishy-washy watered-down aesthetic. I’d like to think this new city will engage both European and Māori culture equally. It is as simple as that – we are equal partners in Treaty of Waitangi. The future of that combination is what interests me. Hopefully it will forge something new or something we haven’t been aware of before.’

He gives as an example Australian architect Glen Murcutt in his ability to use modern materials – glass, concrete, corrugated metal – while also paying attention to Aboriginal references to the seasons, the movement of the sun and the moon, light and wind.

‘We have to get rid of the narrative of legend telling. It is wrong, on so many levels. I don’t do the whale legends, I don’t do the story-telling. I don’t want it to be bullshit. Some of this stuff gets too esoteric, but to leave out fundamentals like food and drink is a bit strange – put in indigenous stuff and leave out the kai? What’s that about? There must be something about the natural bush we walked through as a nomadic tribe that had beautiful space and texture that had nothing to do with who was killed in battle there. So why can’t we design an aesthetic that encapsulates the factual story rather than this oral history, a mutually agreed vision of shared values, history and culture celebrating a shared colonial past?’

WE ARE NOT talking ‘complementary elements’ here. Increasingly the conversation is veering towards a shared story of encounter, historic factuality and social values. The role of Ngāi Tahu in the city rebuild is being recognised as an opportunity to address more long-standing problems, exacerbated by the earthquakes but indicative of a long-standing disengagement that impacts on the wellbeing of Māori communities and whānau (extended family). 

From behind his desk, at the former Wigram Aerodrome control tower, Mark Solomon rolls out the numbers.  In 2010, for example, only a quarter of Māori school leavers were qualified to attend university compared to half of the non-Māori school leavers. ‘Can we survive as a first world nation based on a workforce of labourers? Absolutely not. We have to turn our nation around.’

To meet the requirements of the city-wide rebuild Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, in partnership with the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology and Hawkins Construction, have developed He Toki ki te Rika (an adze in the hand), a Māori trades training initiative to provide entry into jobs and trade apprenticeships.‘I say to all the kids on the training program, getting your ticket as a tradesman is the start but stay on the waka [canoe] with us – we’ll put the training resources in front of you so you can become the supervisor. And when you are the supervisor don’t get off that waka, we’ll put training packages in front of you that turn you into the manager. And when you are in the manager’s role, stay on that waka because we want you to become the planner.’

Similarly steering the conversation away from design, motifs, decorative elements, Arihia Bennett points to the pressing need for more housing, a result of the earthquake and the establishment of the red zone but also the loss of historic reserve land. Already Ngāi Tahu is working with the government and outside agencies to develop a model of affordable housing for families currently reliant on emergency, shared or temporary accommodation. Operating within a wraparound program of social services and pastoral care, the venture, says Bennett, is aimed not at corporate return but at social return. ‘This is not about property development, it is about whānau development. It will allow communities to stay together through rentals and low cost housing, all mixed in so people feel part of that community.’

WE RETURN TO our child of the future, living in a city far different from the deflated cityscape we see today. ‘I’d like them to be looking at a city that they feel in their puku [belly], in their heart and in their head, is part of them,’ says Arihia Bennett. ‘I would like that five-year-old child to have grown up knowing they are strong in their identity not only as Ngāi Tahu but as Christchurch citizens, that they are part of this city.’

To establish that sense of belonging the city cannot, will not, simply stand up, dust itself down and restore its familiar paved footprint. That footprint, broken apart by eleven thousand earthquakes, has exposed an older landscape, a landscape instrumental to the telling of the story of migration and settlement of early Māori, the resourceful gaze of Joseph Thomas, the subsequent history of cultural encounter and the physical and social development of the city. Landscapes of memory, Derek Alderman and Joshua Inwood write, ‘anchor and bring historical legitimacy to the identities of social groups, but they also serve as a conduit for debating what (and whose) view of the past should be remembered’ (2013). In Christchurch’s council chambers and government offices, in universities and a former airport control tower, the challenge of identifying and giving tangible form to these multifarious and still unfolding stories are being debated. Through the strategic partnership of the Crown, the local council and Ngāi Tahu the result, it is hoped, will not stop at aesthetically appealing add-ons or ‘complementary elements’. Nor will it settle on a static landscape mired in memory and memorialisation. Rather this debate, if given adequate time, research and opportunities for discussion, will allow for a new and distinctive reconstruction of architect Huia Reriti’s ‘mutually agreed vision of shared values, history and culture’, a vision that anchors memory in a specific, authentic and ever-changing environment.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review