February 24, 2021

Before and after: how the 2011 earthquake changed Christchurch


Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel was born and raised in the city she now represents. But she finds it hard to describe how it has changed since the earthquake.

“I don’t know whether it’s a post-disaster thing,” Dalziel says. “But for me, it’s sometimes hard to remember what was there before.”

Many Christchurch residents say the same. Their home has undergone enormous transformation in the past 10 years after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake killed 185 people, disrupted tens of thousands of lives and reduced 80% of the city centre to rubble.

Today, the streets of Christchurch are bustling, following a period of sustained construction: first, commercial development of glass-fronted office blocks and high-end retail space – and then civic and cultural buildings, which were either restored or replaced.

Christchurch Basilica, Barbadoes Street
Christchurch Basilica, Barbadoes Street

Though the rebuild is ongoing, traces of the destruction – fenced-off broken buildings and sports field-size stretches of land slated for development – are more likely to be noticed by tourists than locals, who know how far the city has come.

“Every now and then I get to see the city through the eyes of people who are visiting here for the first time in a long time, and hear their excitement about … what it’s becoming,” says Dalziel.

Latimer Square, Christchurch
Latimer Square, Christchurch

After 10 years, Christchurch is no longer, first and foremost, an earthquake-damaged city – but progress to this point has been slow and hard-won. In 2013, the cost of the recovery was put at $40bn; it was likely more.

Asked about the missed opportunities of the rebuild, Dalziel laughs. “How long have you got?”

Stressing the advantage of hindsight, Dalizel – who was elected in October 2013, nearly three years after the quake – says agencies could have been better aligned.

For example, individual telco and power companies took different approaches to repairing damaged infrastructure from the council, meaning the same roads were dug up many times.

Lincoln Road, Addington, Christchurch
Lincoln Road, Addington, Christchurch

Those lessons of the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) have been made publicly available for the benefit of other cities facing a post-disaster rebuild, Dalziel says.

But the defining problem of the rebuild was the relationship between local and national government.

On 1 May 2011, the national government established the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), a public service bureaucracy with wide-ranging powers to lead its response to the recovery – including over local authorities.

The approach taken by Cera led to widespread discontent, with both the council and residents feeling sidelined.

Dalziel suggests the central government and council could instead have set up an independent entity to operate together, appointing directors that were accountable to both of them.

Gloucester Street
Gloucester Street
Gloucester Street
Gloucester Street

In April 2012, a unit within Cera took over responsibility for the rebuild of the central city, making its own version of the council’s draft recovery plan – what became known as “the blueprint”.

It was based on dedicated precincts, such as for innovation, health and performing arts; and “anchor projects” that, it was hoped, would encourage organic investment. (One, for a “sustainable village”, was finally abandoned last week.)

But local knowledge from the council’s public consultation was lost, says Dalziel. The blueprint “wasn’t of the city; it was a creature of government”. Cera itself was disbanded in 2016.

Meanwhile, the council approached the task of a new central library, Tūranga, with granular attention to community engagement: one resident’s suggestion of a “Harry Potter staircase” was reflected in the finished building, which opened in October 2018.

Central library

It is widely considered one of the triumphs of the rebuild, frequented by a wide cross-section of the Christchurch population – often indicative of a genuine attention to diversity and inclusion in the design process.

That kind of civic-mindedness seemed absent in the first buildings to spring up after the earthquake, spurred by private investment. For a time, Christchurch’s inner city was dominated by low-rise commercial developments made of glass and steel, such as the Deloitte and PWC buildings.

Hundreds of heritage buildings were lost – either to the earthquake, or the demolition drive to move on from it.

The town hall and Edwardian-era Isaac Theatre Royal have both been restored and reopened; but demolition of the Christchurch Basilica, which first opened its doors in 1905, began only in December. (Construction of its replacement has been delayed by rare seagulls nesting on the Armagh St site.)

Armagh St
Armagh St
PricewaterhouseCoopers Centre, Armagh St
PricewaterhouseCoopers Centre, Armagh St

The city’s cultural renewal was led by grassroots groups such as Greening the Rubble, Gap Filler and Agropolis, which set up small, often temporary “soft infrastructure” projects to revitalise the city at a street level, and a human one.

A coin-operated community dancefloor, gardens in vacant lots and other displays of the “ingenuity of its hardy residents” was highlighted by the New York Times in naming Christchurch its second-best place to travel to in 2014. It was singled out again last year.

Gap Filler is now a partner in a major residential project, led by Fletcher Living covering six blocks in the inner city.

Manchester St
Manchester St
Manchester St
Manchester St

The One Central development is central to the blueprint’s bid to increase the residential population of central Christchurch – but sales got off to a slow start, prompting concern that construction may be outpacing demand.

It speaks to the evolving challenge of the rebuild. Central Christchurch is unrecognisable from the disaster zone it was post-quake, and significantly changed from how it was even five years ago. And the city it is yet to become is still emerging.

Cathedral
Cathedral
Cathedral

Regardless of what has been built so far, Dalziel says: “We are absolutely the best city for the future … From every disaster, any crisis, there is always opportunity – Christchurch has all of its opportunity in front of us, and people can now see it.”

For her, the new Christchurch is most evident along the banks of the Avon river: home to the new Riverside indoor market, an indie theatre, and a hip new hospitality development.

“If I walk by on a summer evening, it’s just filled with people: in the bars and restaurants, family groups, out walking and cycling – it’s got this blissful feel to it … You’d never want to go back to the way it was.”



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