4 minute read

Botanic gardens: a refuge during times of stress and disaster. Notes of the experience at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Wolfgang Bopp, Director of Botanic Gardens and Garden Parks and Bede Nottingham, Team Leader for Operations Support, Christchurch Botanic Gardens

At the start of the year, most of us had no idea that ‘lockdown’, ‘contact tracing’, ‘quarantine’ and ‘self-isolation’ would ever be part of our daily life, other than when visiting remote habitats as a special holiday. Nine months later this is the reality with which we must deal. How has Christchurch Botanic Gardens fared during this time and how does this compare to what happened a decade ago in Christchurch?

September 2010 was the month when the city of Christchurch was rocked by a strong earthquake. It caused considerable damage and although residents were busy with clearing up their homes and businesses, they also found time to visit their botanic gardens. Surprisingly, figures show that we had more visitors during this time compared to the long-term average. To many, it was a place of safety and solace, away from any buildings, and immersed in plants and nature, it was somewhere to take respite from the stresses of the day. The strongest aftershock occurred on 22 February 2011, centred close to the city during the middle of the day. Sadly, this was more destructive, and 185 people lost their lives. People in the city centre rushed to the gardens, the only large open space of safety. Parts of the inner city, including the area around the gardens, were declared a red exclusion zone, with the army patrolling access to these areas, and visitation dropped, as many thought the gardens were off-limits. There was also liquefaction, where the ground turned to liquid, affecting about a third of the city area. Within about six months visitor numbers were close to average again, even without the normal influx of tourists as the city was severely damaged and there were few hotel beds still available.

Come March 2020, lockdown Level 4 was imposed throughout New Zealand, despite the relatively low COVID-19 infection rate. By the end of lockdown on 27 April, there had been around 1500 confirmed and recovered COVID-19 cases across the country’s population of five million. Staffing at the gardens during this time was limited. We were allowed up to four staff to do essential works such as watering, safety checks and emptying bins. We mostly worked half days with two teams working over a two-week shift, with no cross-over to reduce risks if staff from one or other of the teams were to contract COVID-19. The use of disinfectant and personal protective equipment went through the roof. In Level 3 lockdown the gardens opened to the public but not the buildings, not even the toilets, to reduce any risk of infection to the public. Playgrounds were kept shut, mostly taped off, but two large facilities required two-metre-high security fencing to be installed, as the public continued to use them. During Level 2 the playgrounds remained closed, and monitoring visitors over a few days found that people overall were well behaved and keeping their distance.

Subsequently, we are fortunate to have spent so much time in Level 1 with few restrictions, although always ready to move alert levels at very short notice if required. Visitor numbers to the gardens have been the same as the longer-term average from May onwards, and considering that we had lost all international tourists, these are strong numbers.

Liquefaction following the aftershock 2011. Photo: Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

The red line shows the increase in visitors to the garden after the September 2010 earthquake, in contrast to the blue line which shows a decrease after February 2011. Image: Bede Nottingham.

The blue line shows the drop in visitors during lockdown (April 2020) and the increase in numbers (local visitors only) in May, in contrast to the red line which shows the average numbers for the last 10 years. Image: Bede Nottingham.

We are seeing more families visiting, with people enjoying the gardens even in winter, out in the open, a place to relax and explore. Our catering team have found it to be almost as busy as usual, although the pattern of purchase has changed. Many customers come for a takeaway, with entire groups supplied so they can enjoy their refreshments outside, reducing any risks. Anecdotally, it seems that where caterers, like ours, can offer coffee with a bonus garden setting, they are more successful. If we ignore the time when the alert level did not allow full operation, the revenue seems to be about the same as the previous year. Sadly, for the catering team, it does not mean they make the same profit as they are running a different service, one which is more labour intensive but easier for the public to adjust from Level 1 to Level 2 when required. Our events and functions sector experienced the biggest drop in revenue. We are seeing very few corporate events, weddings have plan Bs; however, with each week of Level 1 we see more confidence in the market, and the catering team are predicting as many, if not more, event bookings for the coming Christmas period.

All in all, this has been another demonstration, if it were needed, that botanic gardens don’t just grow a wide range of plants and support education and conservation — their social function and support of our health and wellbeing cannot be underestimated as an integral part of the community they serve.