Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel on how to boost grassroots groups

Lianne Dalziel, mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand, says the city has learned a lot from the spontaneous actions of community groups since a pair of earthquakes leveled parts of the city five years ago. (Christopher Swope/Citiscope)

Five years ago, a pair of earthquakes struck Christchurch, New Zealand, leveling the central business district and many other parts of the city. As the work of rebuilding continues, grassroots community groups have popped up to liven up empty spaces with art, dancing, music, mini golf and pizza making, among other activities. This creative explosion was the subject of a recent film, The Art of Recovery.

Mayor Lianne Dalziel says city officials have learned a lot from the spontaneous outpouring of community spirit. It’s also led the city council to think about how best to support these activities — and how to keep the civic momentum going when the earthquakes are a more distant memory. I spoke with Mayor Dalziel about this last month at the Citylab conference in London. We also talked about how the rebuilding effort is going. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Christopher Swope: How did these community groups rise up in Christchurch?

Lianne Dalziel: After the earthquakes, there was a lot of demolition work and we’ve got vacant lots all through the central city. The question was asked of the council at the time — and this is before my time — how do you activate those spaces when some of them are in private ownership and some of them are owned publicly? How do you create an opportunity for community groups that are creative and innovative to actually do things, trial things, and maybe even activate spaces on a temporary basis?

These groups emerged immediately. One is called Greening The Rubble, and that means bringing in plants and planters, doing some landscape design and making little pocket parks out of vacant lots. Another is called Gap Filler. They built a pallet pavilion out of unused shipping pallets. The Festival of Transitional Architecture emerged. There are all of these different community groups all with different perspectives, a lot of it around landscape, a lot of it around community activation and creating things to do, a place to go. It was not directed by the local council. It was something that really came from the heart of the community.

These young people just want to get on and do stuff and yet they find themselves dealing with the council over regulation. They’re dealing with private landowners over access to sites, writing lease agreements, making sure they have plans for health and safety. All of these things that become very problematic when you just want to get on with it.

Community groups in Christrhurch constructed a ’pallet pavilion’ out of used shipping pallets. (NigelSpiers/

Out of that realization the council worked collaboratively with the community to develop a group called Life In Vacant Spaces. It’s like a community broker. It’s a not-for-profit umbrella organization that represents all of these different groups, and it’s the one that negotiates the agreement with the private landlord. It’s the one that does the regulatory compliance with the council. We’ve built a relationship of trust and reciprocity with this group.

Q: Could this model apply to other things the city does?

A: Since I’ve become mayor, I’ve been talking to them [Life in Vacant Spaces] to say: ‘I really like what you do. Why couldn’t we use you in the future for community groups that want to set up a community garden, or want to hold an event at one of our parks?’ They could become the community broker and community groups would never have to worry about red tape ever again. I’m really excited about this as a possibility, because that makes a legacy from the earthquake.

[See: Christchurch’s SCIRT offers a model for rebuilding after a disaster]

One thing community groups tell me is they hate dealing with the red tape: ‘How come you want me to do a traffic-management plan when all I want to do is have an event at a park?’ Well, we know that cars are going to come, and we know that they’re going to park somewhere, and actually you do have to have a traffic-management plan. But do you as the community group have to do it? Or could we do in it collaboration with an organization that’s the broker for the community? I think that’s a really good model, so I’m quite excited about that.

Q: Why not just get rid of the red tape so that groups don’t need a broker to navigate it?

A: Somebody is always held to account when something goes wrong, and that’s always the council. You make sure the red tape is appropriate. We had an example in New Zealand once where some well-meaning staff of a government department put up a platform for people to view a beautiful stream called Cave Creek. They put the platform up, didn’t wait for tradesmen to do it, it collapsed and young people died. You actually do have to make sure that you’ve got the right regulatory controls in place. You make sure that you right-size the regulations, absolutely, and get rid of silly ones, but you have to have somebody that’s accountable and making sure that people are aware of any risks and taking appropriate action.

Q: Where would you say that leadership to create this innovation came from?

A: It came from the community itself. We have this phrase, and I know it comes from somewhere else, but it says, ‘It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.’ People were getting on and doing stuff. And because people were getting on and doing stuff it was important that there be a mechanism for ensuring that everyone did the right thing. That’s one little innovation.

Q: Where is Christchurch now on its road to recovery?

A: We’ve still got quite a long way to go, and the reason is that it’s been hard to get some of the economics right in the central city. Until you know exactly when the convention center is going to be built, it’s really hard to know when to invest in that 5-star hotel you want to build. We know that’s an issue. And there’s also still a lot of people in their homes that are waiting for resolution around whether they’re going to get repaired or whether they’re going to get rebuilt. And then if they are going to get repaired, when? And if they’re going to get rebuilt, when?

There’s some issues around our earthquake commission and also the insurance industry, and some of these things have literally gone on for too long. And I’m hoping that as part of this concept of regeneration we might be able to look at maybe putting some deadlines on the insurance industry as well.

Q: Is there a broad lesson for other world cities in what Christchurch has experienced?

A: There’s two phrases I picked up in Judith Rodin’s book, The Resilience Dividend. The first one is, ‘The good news is you’re better prepared than you think.’ That basically speaks to the capacity within communities to just get on and do stuff for themselves.

[See: Judith Rodin on the ‘resilience dividend’]

The second one is, ‘The actual experience of emergencies is not of cities falling apart, but of communities coming together.’ That is our experience. That’s exactly right. We’ve seen that at the community level through Gap Filler and all these community-driven activities. But also, after the earthquake, communities just came together. They came together within the community, but also across communities. We have organizations like the Student Volunteer Army. They joined up with the Farmy Army, and came over and dug us out of the silt that had come out of the ground.

We’ve got one thing that the rest of the world hasn’t got: We’ve got a Ministry of Awesome. It’s another community-driven group, and their job is to make sure that things are happening in their city that are awesome. Can you imagine having a Ministry of Awesome?

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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