On a recent visit to my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I got a lesson in the relational power of human-scale building.

Making my six-monthly pilgrimage into the devastated central business district of the city, I passed in front of the ruined cathedral before making my way to New Regent Street, knowing I’d find a café there for lunch. New Regent Street is one of the few parts of the CBD that were largely undamaged by the 2011 earthquake. Its row of charming two-story Spanish Mission Style storefronts built in the 1930s held up remarkably well to the 6.3 magnitude jolt of the quake.

Sitting at a shared table I eventually struck up conversation with a man in his 30s, and another young man sitting nearby soon joined the conversation as we talked about architectural styles and the rebuild of the Christchurch CBD. With 90% of the CBD’s buildings destroyed or demolished after the quake and rebuilding just beginning, this was the topic on everyone’s mind.

My lunch companions introduced themselves as James Carr, an architect and structural engineer, and Tim Taylor, an engineer in sustainable energy. James was deeply concerned at the lack of respect given to traditional building styles and methods in the rebuild. Tim too was saddened that the way so many beautiful, older buildings had been demolished unnecessarily. He said he’d seen a newspaper article about an eye-catching, traditional design for the empty Triangle lot on High Street that had really appealed to him. It turned out this was James’ design and James was delighted at the recognition.

I was struck by the fact that the three of us had found our way to that particular corner of the ruined Christchurch CBD for much the same reasons: this enchanting street survived because of the way it was built; its charm draws people to it; the designers created a human-scale space that encourages interaction and inspires creativity and civic engagement. This space allowed the three of us to connect quite spontaneously in a way that was truly gratifying, even if the interaction lasted only an hour. We exchanged business cards and went our way. My hope was that James and Tim would find ways to work together to turn their shared love for heritage buildings and human scale into a real building project. As James was leaving, I encouraged him to take heart, to connect with other people who share his vision, and to be prepared to start small to build a following for his vision for Christchurch’s civic buildings and spaces.

This conversation truly heartened me, that these young people feel so passionate about the city. I felt hopeful about Christchurch’s future, inspired by a vision of civic space that truly fosters engagement on a day-to-day level and leads to engagement at the level of community. And I learned later that there’s research showing that life satisfaction rises as a consequence of civic structures that allow for active community connection.