Q&A | Barnaby Bennett: rebuilding Christchurch should have started with its people

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch, NZ on February 22, 2011 left the city wrecked and its residents emotionally fraught. Having just started a PhD in temporary architecture, and with a strong interest in post-disaster situations that predated the quake, Barnaby Bennett relocated to Christchurch from his then-home in Melbourne. He soon became a key figure in the local community’s engagement with the rebuild process – which many have criticised as poorly executed at both the city and national government level. Several years prior to the quake, Barnaby had helped to found Freerange Press, a publishing collective that is currently putting the final touches on a book titled Don’t dream it’s over: Reimagining journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Sarah is another of the editors on the book, and here puts a few questions to Barnaby about where things are at with the rebuild five years on.

You’re currently completing your PhD on temporary architecture and participatory urbanism. Are you able to tell us a bit about your research?
I’m looking at how temporary architecture projects create opportunities for people to form groups around shared interests and concerns, and how they create, often novel,  public activities and experiences around these issues. In Christchurch people used temporary architecture to support local food-growing initiatives, to bring activity and life in the city after the quakes, to encourage people to think more critically about waste and materials, to counter the perceived corporate takeover of the city, and to try and get people involved with the politics of such a big, messy, important process.

How did Freerange Press come about? What drives the collective, and how does it operate?
Freerange Press originally emerged in 2006/7 out of a series of conversations between friends in Wellington. Partly out of a desire to maintain and develop a network of relationships with great people around the world, and partly to attempt to raise the level of conversation around urbanism, cities, design, architecture and politics. The name was ‘borrowed’ from a studio space that a number of us worked out of on Tasman Street. Since 2007 it has gone through a few changes. Originally it was largely led by myself with a huge amount of support from others, but since 2012, when it became a legal cooperative, a board of directors has shared leadership roles, and with Emma Johnson stepping in to do a huge amount of the work. We’ve also recently, finally, opened up Freerange to membership. So we are in the process of becoming a membership-run organisation that will function as a cooperative publishing company. I think different people are interested in Freerange for different reasons, but largely it’s the desire to be part of, and see, great books being published about topics that we are really interested in and want to bring into the world. In many ways we are quite conventional; it’s run as a company, we pay tax, we get books printed and sell them in shops and online. In others we are bit more weird. We have no scaling up or growth strategy. We are happy to stop publishing if it’s no longer what the people involved want to do. One of our basic rules is to be editorially radical and financially conservative. That way we are never bound into making decisions because of previous financial commitments. It’s an open-ended approach to running a business, I’m interested to see where we end up.

Freerange recently published Once in a Lifetime, a collection of essays about Christchurch post-quake, and are currently helming another collaborative title about the future of journalism in NZ. Why publishing, and how does Freerange choose its topics?
Most of our publishing projects have been about getting people together to discuss a particular issue or idea, and I think this explains the reason we want to publish. There is something really wonderful about bringing different people with diverse ideas together around a particular problem or idea. Certainly this can happen with a conference, or a festival, or a dinner party and we’ve been involved with all these too, but there is something special about the way books and publications travel through time and space to new readers who you’d never have known to invite to the events. It also gives people the space to discover bits of writing or images in places that are comfortable to them. The topics are developed quite organically really. Because most of the work is done for free or very low pay there is a threshold of commitment and enthusiasm that is needed to push a project from idea to completion. So we usually spend a bit of time discussing an idea before committing to it completely. The topics tend to fall under a general banner of issues around the city, design, politics, and the odd bit of subversiveness to keep everyone on their toes.

What is makingchristchurch.com, and why did it start?
In 2015 Coralie Winn, Jessica Halliday and myself talked about the lack of good quality and regularly published articles and essays about the rebuild and reimagining of the city of Christchurch. So we started makingchristchurch.com as a place to gather and publish stories as they came about. We’ve developed a big group of people who are keen to write and regularly submit the writings to the Press for publishing as opinion pieces as they see fit. It’s a relationship that seems to be working well. We gather a range of voices that might not otherwise participate in the public arena and then hold them in one place via Medium.

Were you in Christchurch when the major earthquake occurred in 2011? How has it shaped your path since?
On the day of the big quake I was in Sydney, but was living in Melbourne. It was obviously shocking to see the damage, and a group of us with connections in Christchurch gathered soon after and speculated about what we could do from so far away. Our first Christchurch publication was born of this, Chur Chur: Stories from the Christchurch earthquake edited by Gina Moss and designed by Shakey Mo. The goal of the publication was to do the simple act of listening to people’s stories, with a second goal of selling the book to people outside of Christchurch to raise some funds. But the first goal was really the most important – from afar we thought the best thing we could do is to make people feel like we were listening and interested and willing to help.

Personally, I’ve been interested in participatory urbanism, and post-disaster situations for long before the quakes. So for me to have just started a PhD and have this happen in my own country was a kind of tragic opportunity I couldn’t avoid getting involved with. Of course it all became very real and unacademic once I moved there and became entangled in the excitements and frustrations of the place.

What are some of your biggest frustrations with how the rebuild has been handled?
This is a big list! I’d say buy Once in a Lifetime and read it! For me the three big failures of the rebuild have been:

1. The failure of the government to show any kind of understanding of the power and importance of participatory engagement for the rebuild. I don’t mean this as some ‘nice’, airy fairy idea. A plan that doesn’t have community buy-in was always going to be much harder to convince people about, and they never seemed to realise that. Further, the Prime Minister’s own Science Advisor Peter Gluckman warned soon after the quakes that one of the big dangers for the mental health of the community was to reinforce the sense of disempowerment created by the quake experiences by not engaging the population in the recovery – and yet this is exactly what Brownlee and co did with their approach to the rebuild. I don’t think it was malicious, but it did so much damage to both the vision of the city and the sense of promise and hope that the population might have had from being involved. They were warned at the time, on a number of occasions by different groups that they were taking the wrong approach, so I don’t have much forgiveness.

2. The way that heritage was treated. Not just individual buildings, but the idea that particular places and streetscapes in the city held importance and value to the people of Christchurch. This never seemed to enter the minds of the decisionmakers, and is really an extension of the first problem. It’s obvious that old buildings had killed people and held some sense of danger for some time after the quakes. But so had new buildings, and if you look at the city now, the old ones that have survived are so valued and loved. And frankly, despite all our modern wealth and technology, few of the new buildings are anywhere near as urban or sensitively scaled as the city that has been lost was.

3. The last is the complete screw-up over housing. Partly in terms of their approach to ‘let the market sort itself out’, a move that led to huge amounts of stress and financial burden for people. Too many landlords, with support of property agencies, put up their rent massively because there was a disaster-induced housing shortage. This enabled a classic case of money following the wealthy, and for no other reason than they happened to own it before the quakes. Secondly, EQC (the state-owned insurance agency that covers the first $100,000 of each claim) was screwed by a few early court decisions and never recovered and became a horrible organisation for its customers by most accounts. Sadly we are coming up to six years since the first quake and thousands of people still haven’t had their houses fixed. It’s a shambles.

A bonus fourth issue is the various agencies not taking advantage of the opportunity to remake Christchurch as an ecological or sustainable city. I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading through the summary of the comments from the large Council-run engagement process that was run in 2011, and a green, sustainable and ecological city was largely what people wanted. It would have futureproofed the city in terms of resilience and energy, and importantly it would have given the branding of the city and its ability to attract capital something exciting to hook onto. So again, a kind of fear and narrowmindedness led to a huge lost opportunity, but hopefully not permanently lost as some good things are slowly starting to happen now that the citizenry is reasserting its role.

What are some of the things you’ve liked the most?
I’m glad you ask this because, while registering all of the above, I’m still hopeful for the city. It still has everything there to turn it into a great place. It has very talented, educated and committed people – which is really the only important thing. It has all the natural resources a city could want. The political structures are slowly balancing out and getting some control over themselves and the city. It’s not rolling in money, but by world scales it’s a rich city and if it keeps leaning forward the capital will come to do good things. I think the most important thing is the Share an Idea consultation that happened in 2011 revealed a surprisingly shared view of a city that should be people-focussed, environmental and vibrant. If this vision can be regathered together, then it makes it so much easier for the different groups in the city to support each others’ initiatives so that – more or less – business, arts, civic, government, youth and other groups are all – more or less – acting to support each other. The really exciting potential is the huge publicly-owned land that now runs from the city to New Brighton. It is an extraordinary asset that, I think, will define the city and its post-quake story in 20 years.

But mainly it’s been the people. It’s incredible watching the character of people when put under pressure and their desire to – largely – stay polite and keep working together.

Where are things at – at the ‘official’ and the grassroots level – now?
After a wonderful four years in Christchurch I moved to Sydney at the beginning of 2016 to finish my thesis. So I can’t really say where things are at. Since CERA officially finished its five-year life in March, the grassroots has more influence and apparently there are some encouraging signs, but not much to show for it yet.

What would you personally most like to see happen for Christchurch from here?
I just hope that the great seeds that were planted in Christchurch since the quakes keep being watered and care for. There is amazing energy around – so many good things there and everyone just needs to keep going and supporting each other. There is local food-growing, incredible street art, good quality digital innovation, a vibrant participatory urban city-making scene, a real desire to understand materials and waste better, a collection of great artists and art, a slowly recovering music scene, some innovation in the built environment – although the designers and architects need to up their game – great active sports culture, and more.

Why do you think it’s important to involve publics in the conversation, and decisionmaking as to how Christchurch is rebuilt?
I think one way or another publics are always involved in the making of cities. It can be via blunt processes at the ballot box or more nuanced and created versions in which citizens are more actively engaged. That latter is not easy and creates its own risks. The public has an amazing capacity for evolving new ways to challenge and thwart the best intentions of the processes. But if it works the outcomes can be extraordinary. Making cities is like a giant, slow, improvised dance, and it takes enormous practice from everyone’s parts to get good at it. I think Christchurch has had some great training in the past five years and needs to just keep going and keep talking and supporting new initiatives.

I was involved with FESTA, the world’s only Festival of Transitional Architecture, and that remains the peak event for engaging ‘the public’ with a big weekend of interactive experience-based ways of testing and experimenting with new ideas. Jessica Halliday and Anne Cunningham run Te Pūtahi: Christchurch centre for architecture and city-making, which is sustaining many important urban conversations. Gap Filler goes from strength to strength. Various geographical communities out east are strong and thriving. I was involved with a campaign called Option 3 + that lobbied successfully for a locally-led recovery, and many of the people who were involved with that meet regularly and continue to lobby, agitate and build relationships. Also, the local council is slowly developing new and better forms of engaged democracy, so hopefully they flourish and grow.

All these things, and many more, are critical because ultimately it is the public that acts as the counterbalance for political structures. It is only publics that can gather when they fail or can’t handle an issue. This is an idea developed by Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s in America. Christchurch has exemplified this to me. When the authorities have been overwhelmed – and it’s happened frequently post-quake – it’s always groups of people that gather together to point the way. Sometimes it’s a struggle, and it doesn’t always work, and it’s always messy. But it has to be messy because it’s created by the failure of the tidy processes. But it’s also the only way that cities develop and grow at the pace and speed they need to and that they respond to the enormously complex issues around cities, which are only going to get worse with climate change, energy shifts, technological impacts, housing issues and many more problems of our time. I think the public can be seen as a kind of Geiger counter for the presence of issues in a city, and the managing authorities that run cities should be smart enough to register these concerns and publics when they emerge.

The real point here is there is no optimum way of doing this. There’s never going to be a new interface, or app, or participatory programme that solves the problem of cities. Cities exist as amazing, complex, entangled overflows of problems and issues from different competing groups – that’s what makes them rich and stimulating. If we ever solve any part of them it just means that something is being suppressed. So, like a garden we need to live with the messiness; develop sensitivity, engage with forces we can’t understand, and by working out the deeper flows and movements of materials and energy we can then hopefully watch it flourish – at least until the next winter.

Given the likelihood earthquakes will continue to happen in and around Christchurch, why do you think it’s important to rebuild – rather than, say, evacuate?
This is quite simple. The fault line that caused the recent Christchurch quake isn’t expected to go for another 6 or 7,000 years – but the main fault that runs down the centre of New Zealand might go in the next 100. It’s anyone’s guess as to where and when it will break. I think evacuation was never seriously considered for Christchurch. The repair is costing around NZD 50 billion, but moving 400,000 people and the enormous infrastructure to sustain their lives would cost magnitudes greater than that. And, to where? Pretty much all of New Zealand is at danger of some disaster. I think we have to get used to the idea that disasters, like accidents, are a part of life on the planet, and rather than running away we need to learn how to adapt and live with these things.

Barnaby Bennett is an activist and academic. He is a founding member of the publishing collective Freerange Press. Follow him on Twitter.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.