The images in this gallery form a representative selection from Vestiges, Tim J. Veling’s ongoing body of work documenting post-earthquake change in the red zoned suburb of Avonside, Christchurch. Within this work Veling is tracking the neighbourhood as it transitions from a home to thousands of people, to pseudo-park and beyond. There is continuing debate and public consultation over what use the land that is Avonside–or any residential red-zoned land–will eventually be put to, and how the government will attempt to recoup some of the $1.5 billion it has spent acquiring it.
Vestiges follows on from the exhibition Thx 4 the Memories, a project undertaken by Veling alongside Place in Time colleagues Glenn Busch and Bridgit Anderson. Thx 4 the Memories formed a major part of the 2013 Christchurch Arts Festival.
Place in Time’s work in Avonside was instigated by Lawrence Roberts, Gail Ross and The CowPats–an Avonside residents group, their name an amalgamation of Cowlishaw and Patten Streets–who asked if Place in Time would be interested in recording, by means of photographs and oral history texts, the close-knit community that existed on two adjoining Avonside streets during a time of considerable unrest.
At Place in Time’sfirst meeting with the CowPats, Cowlishaw Street and most of Patten Street were designated ‘orange zone’, meaning decisions concerning the fate of the area were yet to be made by the government, pending results of extensive geotechnical and infrastructural remediation reports. Most neighbouring properties on Retreat Road were already designated red zone. The Ministry of Education was heavily investing in Avonside Girls High School facilities to have them back up and running, and some members of the CowPats, particularly those who lived on the south side of Cowlishaw Street, held out hope their properties would ‘go green’. More skeptical members speculated about a government sanctioned land-grab in order to expand the school’s grounds. What all of the CowPats did agree on, however, was the pain felt in watching their community slowly dissipate. As many of their Retreat Road neighbours and friends packed up and left, they had no choice but to grin and bear it. With each day, even the most optimistic couldn’t help but start to feel resentful. Eventually, all of Cowlishaw Street was ‘red zoned’, while a good portion of Patten Street ‘green zoned’. The CowPats were forced to go their separate ways.
At this first meeting, Veling, Busch and Anderson worked out that while documenting Cowlishaw and Patten Streets alone would make a potent project, they could give voice to a broader spectrum of experience and feelings, detailing aspects of community and post-quake life, by looking at the wider suburb of Avonside. By documenting one entire suburb, they hoped to create a comprehensive record, indicative of what people in other red zone suburbs had been, and at the time were still going through. Avonside encapsulated a relatively wide gamut of social demographics, but beyond recording the social-political predicament that was playing out, a project of such expanded scope would also provide an opportunity to make visible, over the course of many years, the built and natural landscape of a large patch of land as it slowly changed; its future long to be determined, but ghosts of the past lingering ever present.
Vestiges is an independent project undertaken by Veling which picks up from where Thx 4 the Memories left off. Within Vestiges, Veling is primarily interested in unpicking concepts of time, proximity, memory and place. By photographing spaces as they open up within Avonside, and periodically returning to sites and re-photographing them during different seasons and in different states of change, his desire is to build an archive of work that acknowledges and strongly conveys the history and psychology of place.
Veling has found photographing in Avonside to have been a disconcerting experience:
"Early on, I’d head out to photograph and find people out and about; walking dogs, talking over fences and generally being social. My admittedly outsider’s perception at the time was that there was a generally healthy sense of community, and although jaded by what they were going through, that community was mostly friendly towards me, and keen to express their pride in place. Although there were areas where most people had been forced to move from–mainly on Maling Street, Galbraith Avenue and Retreat Road, but also stretches of Avonside Drive–the majority of houses in wider Avonside were still occupied. Very quickly, however, dust and the churning noise of machinery hung in the air as well-loved homes were demolished. Much of what was left of well-established gardens was then thrown through wood chippers, then graders scraped and levelled the earth. Avonside now feels unbearably quiet, but if you take time to jump the chain fences and stand in the fields, if the light is right and you’re receptive, you can sense the ghostly shapes of homes and people where they once stood."
When looking at these photographs, we are reminded of what has gone before, but even more importantly, we are prompted to consider a narrative yet to be written. Natural forces and government decisions have dictated the recent history of Christchurch City, but now that the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority has wound up and Regenerate Christchurch is established in its place, Veling insists people must re-inhabit and lay claim to these patches of land as places for all to use and enjoy. While the vast majority of people who once lived in Christchurch’s residential red zone areas no longer own the earth they once called home, it is their collective spirit and story we must honour as we move forward, together.
Vestiges of Democracy
A recent article in the journal Nature surveyed the impact of “recovery projects” in the aftermath of disasters. Most recovery efforts, the author concluded “do produce net benefits. But many boost social inequality and environmental damage.”Canterbury was included in this global survey of disaster recovery, as a case study, but not one that we can be proud of. It’s worth quoting the brief case note as it appears in this historical overview, in full:
“A century later, in New Zealand, the Canterbury quakes of 2010 and 2011 consolidated national political power at the expense of local groups. Here, disaster recovery interfered with due process and procedural justice. Community officials and residents were excluded from decision-making processes over the status of their homes when a central-government authority was granted power to acquire and dispose of property and suspend laws and regulations.”
Official New Zealand records, describe the aftermath of Canterbury earthquake recovery differently. The NZ Statistics Year Book (2012) offers a colour coded official statement of reassurance:
“Soon after the February 2011 earthquake, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) mapped the Christchurch land into four zones – red, orange, green, and white. Land was marked red if it was so badly damaged by the earthquakes it was likely it would take a prolonged period of time before it could be rebuilt on again; or it was affected by cliff collapse or rock roll where there would be an immediate or unacceptable risk to life; or where other engineering solutions were not practicable. In total, 7,857 properties were deemed red. By 31 December 2012, all residential property owners knew whether their property was zoned red or green, and if the government would offer to buy their house and land. The Residential Red Zone offer was crucial to Canterbury’s recovery. It gave red zone property owners the chance to move on with one part of their lives and find a new, secure, and safe home.” 
The struggle to make meaning from years of national planning, regional turmoil, local protest, and comunity and personal loss, can’t be captured adequately in academic assessments or government review.But it matters that we take time to reflect. In the coming years of distruptive climate, how we manage through disasters, listen, give dignity, follow due process, will be crucial as we collectively retreat from areas facing new risks of flooding, storm surges, sea level rise,and drought. But as philosopher Bonnie Honig reminds us, we can’t keep suspending democracy every time we face increasingly common, “emergencies”. We need to find ways to maintain democracy. Begining to understand what places mean for people, documenting loss, hope, and regrowth, as we learn to live within a landscape, not as an anthropocence we can control but a local landscape we inhibit with humilty, is our first and perhaps most important step
in learning how to live in hope and uncertainty.
Dr. Bronwyn Hayward
Associate Professor Political Science, University of Canterbury.
Sovacool, B.K (2017) “Don’t let disaster recovery perpetuate injustice” Nature 549, 433 (28 September 2017) doi:10.1038/549433a
Sovacool. B.K (2017) Ibid
CERA (2012) “Canterbury’s earthquake recovery progresses” Statistics NZ Offical Yearbook 2012 [http://archive.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/yearbook/people/region/cera.aspx] accessed 25/5/2018
Honnig, B (2009) Emergency Politics Paradox, Law, Democracy. Princeton University Press