OPINION: The Avon-Otakaro river red zone is 450 hectares of bending, fertile, inspiring uncertainty. An extraordinary opportunity that simmers in the back of the minds of Christchurch folk. Will it become the place that defines our city? Or will it become another lost opportunity?
More than five years post earthquakes and we are yet to have any sense of what this red zone will become. Regenerate Christchurch has said consultation will begin in three months time and that within 12-18 months we will have more certainty about the future of the land. Now is a crucial time.
In 2011, the Avon-Otakaro Network collected 18,500 signatures to a petition calling for the creation of a naturally restored eco-reserve and multipurpose river park from the city to the sea. The Network has consistently worked towards this vision in the years since.
This vision has two parts. The first element is the naturally restored eco-reserve where the maximum possible amount of land is given over to the regeneration of indigenous habitat including enhanced water quality and biodiversity and restored mahinga kai values. This part of the vision is shared by groups such as Avon-Otakaro Forest Park and Greening the Red Zone.
The Avon-Otakaro Network vision overlays this with a second element – a multipurpose city-to-sea river park that meets a diverse range of community needs. These include the need for recognition of community and cultural heritage; play, recreation and sport; organic food production; arts and entertainment; and learning, training, employment, business and tourism opportunities.
There is a tendency at present in the media and elsewhere to encourage a sense of competition between proposals for the red zone. Rowing lake or forest park? Eden NZ or food forest? Proposals have been portrayed as competing for resources rather than synergistic complementary partners. The truth is that, managed well, there is room for all.
With a joined up holistic strategy it is possible to meet a diverse range of needs in the red zone, be they cultural, social, ecological or economic. We need to begin by understanding the technical constraints of the land and build consensus as a community as to what we want the red zone to contribute to our futures. The attached graphic is our representation of how the red zone could look if all of the major project ideas were feasible and implemented.
Where the river park projects might go: Urban Farm (a), Heritage Park (b), EdenNZ (c), Rowing Lake (d), Food Growing (e), Eco-Sanctuary (f), Bexley Wetlands (g). Avon Otakaro Network
The forest park concept still holds the imagination of the public but there is a nagging sense of unease that the zone may become another lost opportunity. Why is this?
Firstly, is it unclear what role the community will have in deciding the future of the red zone. Regenerate Christchurch is tasked with coming up with a set of recovery plans, including for the red zone, and consistently state that they are different to Cera and will listen to the voice of the people.
However the divestment of crown land is the responsibility of Otakaro Limited with no requirement to wait for or be consistent with regeneration planning. So will this agency undermine or heed the decisions that the community contributes to in the development of regeneration plans? How will the community's voice remain central throughout this process and the community's investment in planning processes be realised in the future if it can so easily be overridden and ignored?
This leads us to the second threat, lack of funding. Ultimately, financial decisions on the future of the red zone lie with Treasury and they are all about the dollars. Can we convince Treasury to spend New Zealand's money to create a river park? Perhaps a better question is, can we afford not to?
As we all intuitively know, the benefits of a large native river red zone will spill into every corner of our lives and will end up putting more money in our pockets – in tourism dollars, healthcare savings, ecological paybacks, and avoiding expensive future disasters. It is important that Treasury view the opportunity not only financially or commercially – by selling the land and making a quick buck – but rather with a broader economic view that takes into account all of the benefits to be gained from such a plan.
Thirdly, we in Christchurch know that the Earth will have her way and we need to respect this in the red zone. The cultural ecology and lie of the land, how this affects the flow of water and how this in turn will be impacted by future sea level rise should all be prioritised when decisions about her future are made.
Imagine driving over Gayhurst Bridge under the shade of huge kahikateas, or cycling to work to the sound of bellbirds and children laughing at one of the many attractions on the way. The future of the red zone will hugely shape the future of our city and is a major asset to the nation. We must see this for the opportunity it is and work together to ensure its bright future.