Landscape Architect Tony Milne muses on the makings of successful inner-city living in Christchurch.
Historically, we have taken to nesting in suburbia. This tendency is understandable given Christchurch is flat, which supports the proliferation of spread. However, with the majority of our urban population in ‘depopulated car-centric suburbs’, these have become monocultural landscapes with very little soul.
One of the post-earthquake initiatives has been a drive towards a concentration of residential housing in the heart of the city. However, this notion is proving difficult to realise – largely due to the cost of development, but also in part because of the psychology of the typical Christchurch resident, who is used to the idea of more space.
The real success or failure of this initiative, I believe, will be driven by its inhabitants and whether the promise of a revitalised inner city will deliver. That challenge poses the all-important question: ‘what would bring people back?’
The need to create stimulating and interesting environments in which people can thrive – whether with private courtyards or communal spaces associated with apartment-style developments – requires more than merely replicating a traditional suburban yard on a smaller scale: it requires the creation of an oasis at its epicentre.
I like to think that the external living space within an inner-city development is a place to escape the daily grind, one that is well considered with layers and meaning. I believe a city tells a narrative, a story about the people who use it; it is a space that reveals our idiosyncrasies and the touchstones of our lives.
Our environments impact and shape our behaviour. Therefore, the best small spaces are the ones that do one thing really well. As a landscape architect, I am drawn to refined simplicity where every square inch matters; so, designing outdoor spaces in a densely populated urban area presents the ideal opportunity to design in a way that reflects these values.
In Bob Parker’s book, Ripped Apart: a city in chaos – which details his experience as mayor during the earthquakes – Bob envisions Christchurch becoming a ‘city in a garden’ rather than a ‘garden city’, which resonates strongly with me.
The design of apartment complexes involves a careful juxtaposition between private and public spaces. And one of the key design elements is to ensure residents are able to choose a level of engagement that suits them. It can be interesting to see how residents set about delineating these public and private spaces on their own terms, either with the placement of garden pots that both physically and visually demarcate space, or through the placement of outdoor furniture.
As one looks to navigate the pressures and stresses of modern life, I particularly like the notion that our own little slice of the inner-city landscape can be one that responds to the rhythm of life, celebrating the diurnal and seasonal nature. We can create spaces that are bursting with vitality, yet relaxing and bucolic.
As I look out onto the courtyard from my office, I see the flow of water, sun reflecting off leaves, and Monarch butterflies dancing on the breeze. Blossoms come and go, as do the leaves of the paperbark maples, and our resident bellbird sings to an appreciative audience. We may be in the inner city, but this small area is brimming with life.
Inner-city gardens need soul and a touch of the unexpected. All too often we landscape architects can get a little too serious about our craft, but there’s nothing better than creating a slice of paradise in which we can lose ourselves, pick from our harvest, eat, drink and be merry, and sleep and dream of our next adventure or some faraway place.
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