Gap Filler: Placemaking, Design, and Rebuilding in Christchurch

I have to admit, as a designer passionate about the role of design in place making, I was excited to visit Christchurch and see how the city has redefined itself in the past 7 years following the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. As a visitor, I felt inspired walking around, witnessing the creation of public parks, active street art festivals, and delightful moments of design that encourage tourists and locals to explore in new ways.

 Gap Filler's The Pallet Pavilion, 2012-2014 (credit: Maja Moritz 2012)

Gap Filler's The Pallet Pavilion, 2012-2014 (credit: Maja Moritz 2012)

We quickly discovered an amazing organization, Gap Filler, behind so many of these installations and creative events in the city. Gap Filler describes their organization as “a creative urban regeneration initiative that facilitates a wide range of temporary projects, events, installations and amenities in the city [Christchurch].”

Co-founder Coralie Winn, and two others “began the initiative in response to the very first quake we experienced way back in September 2010. We did a one-off (or so we thought) project that involved turning a vacant lot into a colorful, quirky garden with borrowed plants, furniture and more. We hosted live music, outdoor cinema, poetry and more over two weeks. The response was pretty amazing, so we then did a second, very different project (which actually disappointed some who wanted more of the first project) before the February 2011 quake wreaked havoc on the city, taking 185 lives and changing things forever.”

 Rebuilding the ChristChurch Cathedral started this year and is expected to take 10 years.

Rebuilding the ChristChurch Cathedral started this year and is expected to take 10 years.

 The Cardboard Cathedral (a church literally made of cardboard) opened in 2013 designed by architect, Shigeru Ban.

The Cardboard Cathedral (a church literally made of cardboard) opened in 2013 designed by architect, Shigeru Ban.

Throughout our time chatting with friendly Kiwis at the many fabulous cafes throughout the city, we heard so much appreciation for the creative and empathetic approach Gap Filler has taken in bringing joy to the city. But, unsurprisingly, we also learned that rebuilding a city is complicated, emotional, and downright difficult.

Frustrations with Rebuilding

Many creative projects that felt “good” at first seem to have lost their charm among locals. The container mall, the weaving in and out of orange cones, and the innovative Gap Filler projects, now often feel like a sad reminder of what 7 years later, is still not in great shape. A barista at a café summed up a mindset we heard over and over. “People like to call [Christchurch] creative, but I just want it to be the way it used to be. I’m just really ready to get back to normal.”

 Gap Filler's giant spray paint cans in Christchurch's East Frame.

Gap Filler's giant spray paint cans in Christchurch's East Frame.

Gap Filler’s Coralie Winn understands this mentality. “We tend to be the target of negativity from a small section of the community here, who see our work as a waste of time, messy, 'gypsy'-like and having run its course. To say it another, and possibly overly-simplistic way, temporary stuff has served its purpose and it's time for a proper city now. I think this sort of attitude wouldn't be the case if more of Christchurch was rebuilt by now and the rebuild wasn't taking so very long. People vent their frustration our way, as they are annoyed about the state of things.”

Gap Filler isn’t just about post-quake revitalization. It’s about responding to the needs of Christchurch. Coralie explains Gap Filler’s approach:

“Placemaking, DIY urbanism, whatever you wish to call it is known throughout much of the world. But in Christchurch, temporary urban activations or interventions tend to be understood as a post-quake thing and struggle to shirk that connection. We've done projects that respond to what have identified as needs or lacks in the city. I guess we are hoping that in time, tactical urbanism or placemaking, will be better understood as a useful, purposeful practice.

 Greening the Rubble car park installation in Gap Filler's community car park, Good Spot.

Greening the Rubble car park installation in Gap Filler's community car park, Good Spot.

"Gap Filler brings creativity, provocation and participatory projects to the city in the context of a rebuild that has not been especially consultative and very top-down and heavy handed. The projects we undertake have certainly changed as the city has evolved. To that end, now that we are nearly seven years from the disaster you will find our projects these days have a much higher design aesthetic than many earlier ones. This evolution was based on public feedback. Our projects in the last two years have often used the public realm (i.e. Council owned land like footpaths) or walls of buildings rather than ex-demolition sites as they did a few years ago. Such sites were usually privately owned, which made the whole process faster. Working with local or central government to access public land is much slower. Examples of such recent projects are Super Street Arcade, Open City, DiversCity (comprising Ping Pong and AyoAyo - a mancala).”

What’s next for Gap Filler? 

We can’t wait to return to Christchurch and see the latest Gap Filler projects. Coralie provided an exciting vision for the future and their switch towards a social enterprise model:

“We've not readily identified as a social enterprise thus far and that's for a number of reasons but now, we do. We are increasingly needing to undertake paid work to ensure we can continue as funding for our work has changed as time passes.

We have recently begun work in the East Frame, five blocks of prime central-city land to be developed as part of the government's master plan for the rebuilt city. This land will have town houses and apartments for 2000 people built on it over the next 8 years. We're leading a temporary space activation program on this land, enabling all sorts of groups and people to do projects here, as well as delivering some of our own. This work is paid and it's also part of a permanent development being led by the country's largest building company, Fletcher Building and this case, their Fletcher Living division. Fletcher Living has been required by the national government to enable temporary, community uses of the land so that’s where we come in..

We hope that our work on this land, although temporary, will have a permanent impact. So we will be doing fewer projects per year and more collaborative, paid projects such as one we have coming up out at the airport to make their public realm space work better for its users and for the airport, too. We really hope to infuse the values behind what we do into more and more projects.

To summarize I want to use a word you won't know. Kaitiaki tanga. It's te reo Māori for custodianship or care-taking. Māori, like many indigenous (and I might just say, more enlightened peoples!) don't see themselves as owners of any land but rather custodians. We see ourselves as a kind of creative custodian of the land or spaces we use, taking on the risks but making empty land contribute positively to the city and allowing its citizens a chance to participate by making something on that land and ultimately making the city a place that they want to be.”

We’re inspired by Coralie’s participatory approach. If you are too, please check out their website and consider donating at http://gapfiller.org.nz/

 Gap Filler, Super Street Arcade (credit: Erica Austin 2015)

Gap Filler, Super Street Arcade (credit: Erica Austin 2015)