A view from New Zealand

A blog piece from Sophie Jerram, Community Land Scotland Supporter

Nga mihi nui; big greetings. I am really excited to hear about your work from across the seas in New Zealand/Aotearoa.  A few years ago I read Heather Menzies’ Reclaiming the Commons; a book which woke me up to the effect of the Highland Clearances.  She is a Canadian who returned to Scotland to examine the lives of her forebears and this book had big resonances for me. The Clearances, alongside the Enclosure movement indirectly contributed to the major immigration surge into New Zealand (as it did for Canada) in the 1850s-1880s.

Given New Zealand’s habits and common laws were created after these movements had swept through the UK, it is no wonder that our town and country planning failed to consider spaces that might become commonly managed (as distinct from being governed formally). Our beaches are the closest thing New Zealanders have to a sense of common space.  Interestingly, ex-Scotsman and NZ Minister for Lands John McKenzie was instrumental in creating the 1892 Land Act that brought about what is called the Queen’s Chain in NZ. I wrote a piece for the Peer2Peer blog earlier this year which attempts to link the history to him and our approach to land. You can read it here.

In 2016, my experience is really in using ‘fallow’ ground in urban centres rather than in rural settings.  But our work feels ripe for connection to a wider international movement and I’m thrilled to be in dialogue with Community Land Scotland.

As with many developed countries, in New Zealand there was a strong 1960s-70s ‘back to the land’ movement.  I know of a number of long term communities that sprouted especially around the Nelson and Coromandel regions during that period.  However, property prices in all regions are sky rocketing so my sense is that community buy back is pretty rare at present.  I’m thinking that at some point they’ll get so high that community buy back becomes obvious. Not for now.

Our local neighbourhood, Vogeltown in Wellington, however has just spawned a great example of collaborative community. With 12 other local residents, we’ve established a community trust to buy and repurpose a disused Bowling Club – for long term community leisure and work use.  It’s been host to many concerts, theatre rehearsals, cooking and entertaining, fish and chip nights, quiz evenings and sports teams meetings.   Settlement on the building is imminent, once we complete and pay for the subdivision from the old Lawnkeeper’s cottage which will be sold by the group that inherited the Club. Check out our action here: www.vogelmorn.nz

During my working week, I spend time developing plans with cities that have lost their urban buzz. Perhaps their retailers are closing up; they may lack good ‘bumping spaces’ or have a sense of general inner city grimness.  We started this work in 2009 when I co-founded a public art programme, Letting Space, which began by temporarily repurposing empty retail sites in Wellington with interactive art.  We ended up becoming ‘experts’ (aka motor mouths) in brokering between property owners and those with artistic or community purposes in mind but no money to pay rent. Next city was the ‘Edinburgh of the South’, Dunedin, where the proud heritage property owners welcomed us warmly.   You can see examples of our work at  www.urbandreambrokerage.org.nz.

What I’m excited by is how we bridge the gap between property owners and those who might have new ideas for the space. It is a gentle, generally unthreatening gesture to temporarily occupy the empty sites and imagine private property becoming more publicly accessible.

Whilst it’s not permanent, there are many advantages to temporariness – reducing risk for both parties and lubricating the city with non-commercial ideas.  Most occupiers are paying a token key rent ($10/week, toward small breakages).  We’ve witnessed a number of extraordinary pilots and social experiments: a mood bank; an Imaginarium for children; a People’s Cinema and a space for collecting stories for the Big Wee Book of Dunedin.

We’ve encountered a number of similar models around the world. One of the major concerns is that it can be interpreted as a friendlier urban regeneration model just lying in wait for the big next development phase.  That’s a risk.  My belief is that we’ve given voice to many citizens who would otherwise not have seen themselves reflected back in their cities.  The big challenge is working out how we can make this temporary non-commercial usage into something more of a permanent transitional ‘mode of being’ in urban spaces.

With Letting Space co-founder Mark Amery, we also commission socially and politically active artistic projects. Overall we say our ambition is to ‘widen the public commons.’    We’ve made a huge field painting on a local park that was considered no man’s land; we’ve set up a mock PR office extolling the benefits of unemployment; we’ve also trialled two ‘Transitional Economic Zones’ that play with memes of alternative forms of exchange. These projects keep us stimulated and in touch with artistic practices. The entire scope of our work is at www.lettingspace.org.nz.

I have to mention one of the most extraordinary projects that I’ve assisted with: 17 Tory Street, (see photo) an ‘open source community gallery,’  in the middle of Wellington’s CBD. Here, the property owner is an art collector and friend who, post earthquake Christchurch was forced to reconsider his ability to rent a central retail site in Wellington.   His approach to me to find ‘some artists who wanted to exhibit in his space’ coincided with the end of the Occupy movement – and in Wellington much of the community who had been ignited by the discussions and gathering of people in Wellington simply continued to meet and converse – and bring the ‘open source thinking’ to this site.Tory Street

For me the last four years of this site has been a key teacher of the joys and magic (as well as frustrations) of very lightly governed group activity.   With no core funding, and relying on donations from those who use the space, the site is reliant on volunteer work and the love of those who have time in their lives. It seems to wax and wane and after 4 years and 350 events (book launches, anarchist & feminist discussions, film screenings, jewellery installations, exhibitions and even an office for our Brokerage for 4 years), it seems to be riding high again as a new co-ordinator has stepped up.   We pay a token license fee to the owner who is happy for it to stay until he can afford to upgrade the building.   It is one of the most open spaces I know and is well loved in New Zealand now. People provide a brief proposal and we discuss it briefly via Loomio – but it seems that unless there is a timetable clash, most things are AOK to be run there.  OK, no one’s allowed to sleep there – that sounds like another project we could consider with the help of Community Land Scotland!

Kia ora (be well!) from New Zealand.