With the Garden City catchphrase still rolling off the tongues of most Cantabrians and Kiwis at large, Frank Film looks at whether Christchurch is still actively earning its brand, or simply paying it lip service.
Christchurch flies the Garden City flag, but Elizabeth Peacock, a past president of the Canterbury Horticultural Society, says that the state of some of the planted spaces of Christchurch are a disgrace. “I would be ashamed to bring anyone to have a look.”
Like most long-standing catchphrases, most people can’t remember – or don’t know how it came to be. It’s actually over 100 years old, and dates back to 1906, when Hagley Park played host to the New Zealand International Exhibition.
Sir John Gorst of the British Government was attending the exhibition, and Christchurch reminded him of garden cities in the motherland. He declared it as such, and in doing so coined the title for the first time.
A long while later, in the 80s and 90s, New Zealanders were itching to throw off the weight of the British blanket and claim their own identity, garden variety included. There was a movement to establish a New Zealand garden identity, and in the 90s, the city’s head of parks, Neiel Drain decided to take Christchurch to the world stage.
The Nations in Bloom competition had been established to find and celebrate the best garden city in the world, and as Drain told Frank Film, he was “determined to give it a fair shot”. After all, Christchurch covered all the criteria for heritage, landscape, community involvement and planning.
Drain’s hard work paid off, and Christchurch took out the medal. This seemed to calcify the title of Garden City, but what’s happened since? It would appear, in some parts at least, the city’s garden spaces are a little under-maintained, sparse, even scruffy.
Peacock, for one, is unimpressed. “It’s appalling,” she says about one planted riverside spot. She thinks gardens should be colourful, and something that you stop to look at, not walk by without noticing.
Andrew Rutledge is the present day Head of Parks, and defends the current approach. “We’re heading into a much more naturalised phase,” he tells Frank Film, “with a bigger focus on indigenous planting. They’re not gardens.” This, according to Rutledge, is meeting resistance from those who are still after the “highly groomed lawn”.
Rutledge says that the plants which appear to be dying will in fact resurrect themselves. He has a degree in botany, was a groundskeeper at Lancaster Park for many years and has “driven the odd roller” in his time.
But, he does admit that there’s room for improvement, and says the weeds and obvious dearth of maintenance are down to staff being stretched too thin. So is it a lack of funding? Or a lack of skills? He thinks it’s a bit of both.
Alan Joliffe, a former vice president of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, argues that there needs to be more effort put in to replant dead and dying plants. “We need to understand that these plants don’t live forever, so we need to take it out, replant it again and bring it back to life,” he says.
Joliffe thinks upskilling staff is the way to go, and that it’s a worthy cause. “We need to keep at it, we need to have this vision for what it can do for our society,” he says.
What is clear is that there’s not one leader taking the charge on this one, which Drain, arguably the biggest authority on the subject, regards as a major problem. As he showed back in the 90s, it seems time for someone to grab the bull by its horns and take the lead.
That is, if Christchurch still wants the Garden City label. But perhaps it’s time for a rebrand?