Radley Park, a grassy 2.6ha strip of land tucked into a quiet corner of the meandering Opawaho Heathcote River is such a strange shape, no one wanted it for sports fields, or anything much, really.
Surrounded by low socio-economic housing with high fences, the council furnished it with a few pathways and a playground. Other than that it was largely ignored.
That was until Michael Reynolds moved into the area, wandered into the park with his two daughters and was stunned by the vast area of underutilised space.
“I approached the community board and said, ‘How would you feel about us, the community, growing food here?’ They told me if I could build a team around it, gather some like-minded individuals and put out a petition then they would look at it,” says Michael.
LOCAL COMMUNITY LOVES THE ROIMATA PLAN
“So I did that and managed to find a group of people that were into it and the community were largely behind the idea too. It’s reasonably easy to get permission to plant trees, even in council reserves.”
They named the area Roimata Food Commons and the first trees were planted in September 2017.
“Within six weeks we’d held two planting days, planted an orchard of 65 fruit and nut trees and went on to plant over 500 native trees and shrubs along the banks of the Opawaho Heathcote river.”
FOOD PRODUCED HERE FOR GENERATIONS
The area was once a very important mahinga kai (Maori food gathering) site for local iwi. Mostly a wetland area, it provided fish, eels and birds as well as timber and flax for weaving and building. It was a plentiful resource.
When the English arrived the swamp land was drained and turned into farmland growing wheat, oats and turnips. Michael has uncovered records showing just one year after purchase in 1852 a farm here was producing 250 bushels of wheat.
Michael was delighted to realise that they would be able to continue the legacy of food production.
“People have been using this land as an edible resource forever, so we haven’t invented anything. We’re really just stepping into the newest version of how this land has been interacted with by humans for many, many years. That was reaffirming – we’re using the land in the right way.”
POLLUTION FROM INDUSTRY BLIGHTS RIVER
Looking over an area so lush and green it’s hard to believe that the Opawaho Heathcote River running alongside is one of the most polluted urban waterways in the country.
Pollution from 160 years of tanneries, lime works, brickworks and other industries has turned this innocent looking stretch of water into something much more toxic.
Christchurch City Council have made alterations to the rivers course and put in storm water gates to stop flooding of the area so no more contaminants can make their way into the park. In fact soil testing revealed the Roimata Food Commons meets bio organic soil standards, meaning the area is perfect for growing food.
“A lot of what we are doing is aimed at how to start remediating and improving the water quality through a relationship with what we’re planting on the riverbanks and the river passing through,” says Michael. “It’s been a bit tricky. This is the largest scale activation of council owned reserve act governed land anywhere in Christchurch.”
A STRONG COMMUNITY LINK
The garden also plays host to community events that often have nothing to do with food. Outdoor cinema evenings combined with planting events and food trucks bring people together to build local support and community.
“We had nearly 200 people come to our first movie night.” says Michael.
“It’s now at a point that I see people in the park that I know because of this place and I can check in with them and see how their day is going. I feel part of a community now which wasn’t the way at the start of this. So that’s the power of people taking leadership and looking for ways to bring people together.”
A great resource for locals, the appreciation for what is developing here is clear among the diverse and jovial bunch who arrive for a recent movie night and bulb planting event.
They tell me that coming into the garden, pulling out a few weeds and interacting with other people from the neighbourhood - feeling that you’re not alone, are significant steps in the growth of their community.
“Feeling ownership of this place is really important to us. That it belongs to all of us. It’s a place where we can all come and enjoy and feel part of it,” smiles one lady as she tucks daffodil bulbs into the earth. “I love knowing that I’ve been part of putting something in the ground that we will enjoy next spring, with everyone else. Knowing that we all belong to this place.”
“We are so grateful to Michael,” another tells me. “The work that he has put in to bring people together, his tireless energy for this project. We really admire all that he’s done.”
COMMUNITY VEGETABLE GARDEN ON THE WAY
Permission has now been given to the group for a 400m² community garden. A landscaper has prepared a design for free and irrigation pipes have been donated to get a water supply into the park.
“We had a couple of working bees recently to put that in,” says Michael. “It was hard yakka, doing it all by hand but it went well. I really value the currency of time. Rather than putting a monetary value on things, thinking about how we value the amount of time and effort we put into things. Growing your own food, once you’ve got the systems up and running you have to put in so little effort, really. And the payback is huge. Much bigger than anything you could operate in a monetary sense.”
Primary schools in the area currently get fruit through the Fruit for Schools programme which they hope to be able to replace with locally grown, organic fruit from Roimata Food Commons.
“Whatever we do in this park needs to be reflective of the social issues and the problems people face in this area. There’s a huge problem of food poverty in this neighbourhood and that was the driving force behind getting it started.
“But what we tend to find, and I’m noticing too in talking to other community gardens, is it starts to develop a holistic approach around community wellbeing and that invites a lot more possibilities in.”
Michael doesn’t want it to stop here. “We would like to be able to empower other communities to do similar things but in a much easier way than the processes we’ve gone through.”