CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: On the road to recovery

Christchurch, New Zealand, has many things for visitors to see and do, including learning about the major earthquake that devastated the city in February 2011 and the inspirational story of the region’s ongoing recovery.

The date was Tuesday, Feb. 22. The time was 12:51 p.m. when central Christchurch was busy with shoppers, and workers on their lunch breaks. For 24 seconds, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked the city. Many locals reported being flung violently and almost vertically into the air, and scientists reported the peak ground acceleration exceeded 1.8, almost twice the acceleration of gravity.

Christchurch Cathedral, before and after
The hardest hit area of Christchurch was the city’s downtown area. Built on an infilled swamp, much of the soil liquefied when the earthquake struck. Deprived of their previously solid footings, some 1,800 buildings in the central business district collapsed or were so severely damaged they had to be demolished.

The spire of the iconic Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Cathedral Square was destroyed; the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament less than two kilometers away was also heavily damaged. Walls and verandas had cascaded down on shopping and strip malls, and two multi-story buildings had pancaked.

In the top photo, a popular postcard by Dave Foster of  Post Art Ltd., shows the cathedral before the quake. The photo below shows the way it looks today.

A total of 185 people were killed, including 115 who died when the six-story Canterbury Television building collapsed.

Immediately after the quake, most news photos and video of the damage showed a downtown area that looked like a parking lot filled with rubble. Today, it more closely resembles a parking lot swept clean. Many of the major buildings that either fell down or had to be taken down are gone, and work is underway to repair and restore many others that were less badly damaged.

While it might seem macabre in a sense, the story of the earthquake and the subsequent, ongoing recovery is something that should not be missed.

Canterbury Chief Post Office

RedBus, a local company that provides transportation and tours, operates a Christchurch Rebuild Tour and provided me with a ticket to the tour so that I could experience and write about it.

Convening outside the Canterbury Museum, which was damaged but has since reopened, visitors board a bus that wends its way through the area while a docent from the museum talks about the past, the present and the plans for the future.

The tour goes through Cathedral Square, past the ruins of the Christchurch Cathedral with weeds growing through the pavement and rust forming on the supporting I-beams. Directly across from the square stands the Canterbury Chief Post Office building, its doors and the clock in the clock tower boarded up and silent.

Less than a mile away, the bus passes the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. So badly damaged was this building that engineers used a camera-equipped drone to assess the inside of the structure rather than risk the safety of one of their own.

Returning to the central business district, the tour turns toward some of the more positive aspects of the recovery, including one of the most amazing things to come out of the disaster. At the corner of Hereford and Madras Streets is the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral or, as it is called by many locally, the Cardboard Cathedral, a name I am told that many of the parishioners loathe.

Christchurch Transitional Cathedral

Designed pro bono by Japanese “disaster architect” Shigeru Ban, it uses prestressed cardboard tubes for the framework and corrugated plastic that is the same construction as cardboard for the sheathing.

A block south of the Cardboard Cathedral is an artist’s installation of 185 chairs that represent those killed in the quake. As no two people are the same, the artist determined that no two chairs should be alike.

Farther north, where Manchester Street meets the Avon River, sits one of the most recently completed projects: the Margaret Mahy Playground. Driving by on the sunny Mother’s Day Sunday I was in town, it had obviously become an instant hit.

The Christchurch City Council Chambers are being rebuilt a couple of blocks away, work has started to turn the former Forsyth Barr building a block north of the Christchurch Cathedral into a new Crowne Plaza hotel, and the empty lot that sits kitty-corner is the site for the city's new convention center.

In the downtown core, just east of the World War II memorial the Bridge of Remembrance is the area’s temporary business center, the Re:START Mall.


Understanding that, without a retail core, the downtown area would likely die out, merchants joined forces and pulled together a temporary mall of modified marine cargo containers to make a very interesting, if temporary, shopping center. On weekends, musicians play for the crowds as people shop, mingle, and generally get on with their lives.

Most encouraging are areas where more has already been done. A short walk west of Cathedral Square is a residential neighborhood that has been returned more or less to normal. Work on a few larger projects continues but, along with the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Art Museum has been reopened and is welcoming visitors. Numerous businesses dot the streets, ranging from espresso stands set up in cargo containers to white table cloth, fine-dining restaurants.

The story of the earthquake, including some amazing video of a building as it collapses during the quake, is told vividly at Quake City. An arm of the Canterbury Museum, Quake City occupies a storefront across from Re:START Mall and has a wide variety of static and interactive displays that provide a bit of the area’s history. It also includes a chronicling of the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and a cataloging of their effects. It is well worth the price of admission.

Much accomplished, much yet to be done

Shortly after the quake, political and business leaders as well as ordinary citizens saw that the devastation had provided the area with a unique opportunity.

“How many times do you get to re-invent your city?” more than one local said during my visit. But, as so often happens, the ideal came into conflict with reality.

Consensus, it turned out, was not easy to come by. While civic leaders and concerned citizens agreed that the city could be rebuilt better and stronger, that was where the agreement ended. The “how” became the bugaboo.

In the five years since the quake, some consensus has emerged. The city plans to widen Manchester Street, a main north-south thoroughfare, adding additional bus lanes and a protected bike bath. Building codes have been updated and new buildings will be limited to seven stories in height. But much inertia has yet to be overcome.

Christchurch Cathedral at present

In a very public display of procrastination, the Anglican Church still has yet to decide the fate of its damaged cathedral. As a result, many of the other damaged buildings in Cathedral Square remain in limbo. Without knowing the fate of the cathedral, which is the Square’s and the downtown area’s anchor, it is difficult to assess whether the cost of repair or rebuilding will be worthwhile. If the ruins remain or the cathedral is razed, the area might not have the appeal that would enable projects to be profitable. If the cathedral is rebuilt, it might have quite the opposite effect.

Around the area, empty lots are ubiquitous. Reasons range from owners who are banking on the future and holding their vacant land to those who refuse to accept that their land no longer has the value it once held, to parcels that are tied up in probate because their owners have died, either during or since the quake.

Finally, the recovery is slow by U.S. standards because New Zealand does not have a disaster relief infrastructure like the one that exists in the United States. There is no organization or government ministry analogous to FEMA to assist municipalities or the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to lend money to disaster victims at low interest rates to facilitate rebuilding. The recovery is being, and will continue to be, funded by insurance claims – not all of which are settled – and private funds.

As a result, some residents estimate the area’s full recovery could take a generation. And while that is unfortunate, the people with whom I spoke are generally making the best of things, happy to be getting on with their lives, and more than willing to talk with visitors about what they went through and how their lives were changed a little more than five years ago.

It may not be the most serene or beautiful place one could visit, but one of the reasons we travel is to become acquainted with and understand other people and other cultures. The opportunities for that in Christchurch are abundant, and will be for some time to come.

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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
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