Christchurch local Moata Tamaira looks into the greatest sitcom map-related mystery of the 21st century: why was the New Zealand city chosen as a mappelganger for Parks and Recreation’s Pawnee?
This post was published in October 2016.
Once upon a time the best you could hope for in terms of pop culture references to Christchurch were some Exponents lyrics or a snarky “Crimechurch” jab during an episode of Outrageous Fortune. But no longer.
Now, thanks to the internet and Amy Poehler, Christchurch’s pop cultural claim to fame is that we are map-twins with Pawnee, Indiana, the setting of one of the best sitcoms ever made, Parks and Recreation.
But why and how have we received this rare honour?
The first inkling that we’d achieved cartographic immortality came when a version of a Pawnee map from the season two episode, ‘Summer Catalog’ was uploaded to the Parks and Recreation wiki in 2011, though its uncanny similarity to Christchurch seems to have gone largely unnoticed until late 2013. From then, it started getting shared around and eventually commented on by several people, including sometime Spinoff contributor James Dann. From there the story was picked up by New Zealand media.
For reasons known only to the vagaries of the Internet, the story has recently cropped up again, allowing a fresh new batch of Cantabrians to be delighted (and reminded that the most important things in life are waffles, friends and work).
Now, I love Christchurch as much as the next person but you’ve got to admit that my hometown does not seem like an obvious choice here, so I went on a hunt to find out more.
And lo, the Internet did provide in the form of Geoffrey Mandel, a graphic designer who’s worked on everything from Space: Above and Beyond (remember that? I LOVED that show) to Mad Men to Agents of SHIELD and Serenity. And he’s the man responsible for the Parks and Recreation map that was based on Christchurch.
But why us?
“I’ve been to your lovely city, in 2004 when I took a hiking vacation to the South Island. It seemed around the right size/shape for Pawnee, although there is much less vegetation in central Indiana, to say nothing of Glendale and the San Fernando Valley where the show was actually filmed.”
Ha! Christchurch is officially the loveliest of the pretend Pawnees. Suck it, Indiana! (This also explains why the Pawnee version of Christchurch features fewer green spaces.)
But as Mandel explains, other more practical reasons came into play as well.
“I used a PDF map provided online by the city of Christchurch, which allowed me to change street names very easily and quickly since I only had a day or so to come up with the map.”
Take heed, New Plymouth, Levin, and Gore. Your moment of televisual fame may be only an easily downloadable vector file away.
Mandel also informed me that the ‘Summer Catalog’ map (the one that everyone is flipping out over) is actually a cut-down version of a Christchurch/Pawnee map that appeared 13 episodes earlier.
In season two episode ‘Greg Pikitis’, Leslie Knope uses a folding map of Pawnee as part of a plan to foil her teen nemesis. Our glimpse of it in the episode is fleeting, but Hagley/Ramsett Park is clearly visible.
Though you never really see it in the episode, the full map extends beyond the Four Avenues and treats us to mappelgangers such as the “Boone Bread Factory” on the original Catholic Cathedral College site, “Olde Wamapoke Mall” smack bang in the middle of the historic Barbadoes Street Cemetery, “Howell Seminary” where Richmond Village Green is, and Christchurch East School masquerading as Pawnee Middle School.
It also has some pretty cute advertising on its borders, including “Kevorkians – Serving Pawnee’s pharmacy needs since 1962”.
So this was the first instance of Christchurch standing in for Pawnee. And Mandel confirmed what we already know, namely that it wasn’t the last.
“I used all the place names from season one of Parks and Rec, and I believe the map was updated in later seasons by other graphic artists.”
Yup. I binge-watched season five last summer and noticed something familiar about the layout of April’s presentation in the episode ‘April vs Leslie’.
So there you have it. Christchurch has been Pawnee on multiple occasions, possibly for no reason better than luck and a PDF.
It may not be a claim as great as “The factory fire capital of America” or “Home of the World Famous Julia Roberts lawsuit” but you know what? We’ll take it.
Christchurch: When you’re here, then you’re in Pawnee.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.