Making life in close confines better

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Increasing urbanisation means people will be living closer together which could be challenging for some. In post-earthquake Christchurch, community gardens show how connections can be forged and the power of community engagement.

AS BUILDING and development intensifies in our urban areas, getting communities to engage in how they want to use their spaces is crucial for our future wellbeing.

By communities taking ownership of their decision-making process, people are more likely to feel at ease and connected to the place where they live. As a result, our communities become more resilient to shocks such as pandemics and the changing climate.

Looking to red zone communities

The Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities research we lead includes the changing urban landscape in post-earthquake red zone Christchurch. In this work, we’ve collaborated with three organisations who are working with Ōtautahi communities to understand the role community engagement plays in helping people feel connected to their space.

What we’ve learned is that this process of commoning and coming together as a community is the important thing. Working together to decide what to do in a space is just as important as what the space ends up being used for.

Cultivate Christchurch develops urban farms that employ young people to supply fresh produce to Canterbury homes and some local businesses, including cafés and restaurants.

Meanwhile, the Life in Vacant Spaces Trust coordinates temporary leases on disused spaces around the city and supports artists and community groups wanting to be involved. That way, if their idea fails, they can easily move on. But if it’s successful, for example as with Cultivate Christchurch, these red zone co-creations make the space genuinely more desirable.

Another organisation we are currently studying is the Roimata Food Commons, which is set up in a lower-socio-economic area of Christchurch. It is an openly accessible community garden that people can take food from any time and is designed to connect people to the growing seasons and to learn how to produce food. This was started by one person who got permission from the council to do something with the land.

The power of coming together

To start anything at a community level, you need passionate people to make it happen and local decision makers who support handing over the authority of that space to the group.

Research shows there is something special about people coming together, recognising a problem and solving the problem in the absence of an external authority.

If we are going to densify our urban areas successfully, we must be able to support different types of people, living in close proximity, to work together for wellbeing. This is the power of community engagement.

Making denser neighbourhoods liveable is not about being protective of your space. Instead, we know from the research it’s about embracing the liveliness and community of the city.

Once young people come in to the Cultivate urban farm and do their 6-month internship, they will not forget what they learned and will recognise and normalise these activities in the urban environment.

Keeping connections to nature

When we live more closely together in urban environments, it can also disconnect us from our food sources and the natural world. That’s why urban farms and community gardens are so crucial as we densify.

The research shows how important diverse food systems are for our resilience during pandemics and for climate change mitigation. During COVID-19, our team talked with food rescue groups, community organisations, supermarkets and local and central government to look at the community-based responses to food shortages.

What we’ve learned is the diversity of our food supply system is important. When we’re building for different urban density and climate adaptation in the future, recognising and planning for those diverse food organisations is important. We define resilience as the ability to bounce back from shocks. If your food system is diverse, you’re not going to wipe out the whole system in one go.

Community engagement is key

These are just some of the examples of how we can make living in close confines more bearable. What we know is that, even if we design the buildings right, living well together won’t happen unless the community is engaged. Through ownership and a community taking care of something, people have a different relationship to their space.

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