Christchurch's little car park that could

OPINION: I recently helped to open a new Christchurch central city car park that's run by local community groups, with 100 per cent of the proceeds going to neighbourhood community activities. Judging by the initial response, it seems to be the most popular thing I've ever done.

As co-founder of Gap Filler, I've been involved in 80 or so creative community projects over the last seven years – but none that have gone quite so viral as the Good Spot car park we opened in December at 107 Lichfield St. This popularity has renewed my interest in thinking about land use in the city, and the relationship between ownership and outcomes.

I've experienced seven years of getting legal or financial advice telling us that Gap Filler is at best weird and at worst risky and borderline negligent. We do something that none of our social systems is really set up to enable – we take land that we don't own; make physical improvements to the land; install civic installations and amenities; invite the public on the sites to use them; take on all the insurances and liability; and leave the owners with the right to give us notice to vacate at any time.

We invest our resources, take on risk, and receive no assets or guarantee in return. It's nonsensical.

On other terms, what we do makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. We take spaces in the city that for whatever reasons are under-utilised or even neglected, and we invite the public to help make them productive spaces that involve or benefit the wider community. It's a valuable undertaking, but this type of value isn't captured in the systems of our bureaucracy (try explaining it to an insurance company!).

Lately I'm feeling like we even lack some basic terminology to describe the nuances of land usage. Simplistically, we tend to categorise land as either public (owned by a government group managing it in the public interest) or private (owned by almost anyone or anything else: a private individual, a charity, an incorporated society, a small business, or a huge multinational).

This public/private distinction actually tells us very little about how, or how well, the land is being used and who benefits from it. Most of us don't care much about who owns land or buildings; the public enthusiasm is for what people can do there.

I'd go so far as to say that the "publicness" of a site could be gauged by how broad a cross-section of society feels welcome there. An outdoor farmers market – where you might encounter an animal rights activist tent a couple stalls down from a butcher, and where you feel quite comfortable strolling and listening to music without buying anything – is far more "public" than a shopping mall where every tenant is curated and security is instructed to remove loiterers.

And that shopping mall is more "public" than the office building where you need an appointment to get past reception. So there's a continuum of public usage, even when the land is privately owned.

There's a deeper question of who benefits the most, or how much the benefits are shared by the wider public. In that regard, a farmers market on private land where a private developer receives all the rental income would score lower than the same farmers market taking place on a road, organised and managed by a local community group working in the public interest. It's not that private ownership disallows public benefits, but genuine community ownership could maximise community benefits.

It shouldn't be so hard to imagine a city in which the main retail precinct was cooperatively owned, and shops that contribute to a local, generative economy given precedence. I'll applaud and try to assist any efforts towards communal public land ownership – but the amount of capital needed to buy land (let alone develop it) feels really prohibitive. In the meantime, Gap Filler will continue to explore ways of maximising public usage and benefits without the means to own anything.

All of which brings us back to car parking. We've become accustomed to "extractive" car parking in Christchurch. A certain pervasive company pays a small lease fee to private landowners, invests very little in making the sites presentable, starts charging for parking and takes all the local money they make off-shore.

Gap Filler finds itself in a strange position being custodians of a central city parcel of Crown-owned land, in partnership with Fletcher Living, where the developer is enabling us to trial a different way of doing car parking. We're investing in the site, sprucing it up, and making a contractual commitment that every dollar we bring in will go straight into a community project within the East Frame residential development, where we're coordinating a placemaking programme.

We're also able to experiment with ways of making car parking more community-oriented and sustainable, with real live humans greeting people on weekday mornings, and offering discounts to anyone who carpools.

Right now, we're entirely reliant on the generosity of Fletcher Living to run this experiment. But on the back of this trial, I hope we can soon take on a commercial lease to run another car park not at all reliant on an owner's generosity. And perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we can become landowners, and put in place structures to guarantee long-term public usage and benefits.

Dr Ryan Reynolds leads Gap Filler's social enterprise work worldwide, helping citizens feel empowered to take creative action and experiment with fun ways of contributing to the wellbeing of the city and its residents.