Whose Fault Is It?

Saturday, September 27, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Days 24 & 25:  Christchurch
In early 2010, Christchurch was known as the Garden City, an urban area that dedicated more than most cities to green space.  Grand old buildings sat amid stately beech and chestnut trees along the city's picturesque streets, and its population had recently surpassed that of Wellington to make it New Zealand's second largest city.   (Worcester Street, Christchurch, in July, 2010 pictured above)

Then on September 4, 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck, its epicenter just 25 miles from Christchurch.  Aftershocks continued for many months, with the most devastating centered very close to the city—a shallow 6.3 quake on February 22, 2011.  Destruction was widespread, and 185 people were killed, more than 11,000 injured.  Survivors continued to be battered, both physically and emotionally, by an unrelenting swarm of aftershocks.  By August, 2012, more than 11,000 aftershocks with a magnitude of 2.0 or greater had been recorded, including 26 over magnitude 5.

Christchurch Cathedral, September, 2014
When the 2011 quake slammed the city, the steeple of the bluestone Chrischurch Cathedral, the physical and symbolic heart of the city toppled, ripping a gaping hole in the narthex.  Many other buildings, some weakened in the previous September's quake and its aftershocks, collapsed into rubble.  As many as 1,000 structures in the central business district were destroyed or undermined.  Before locals could begin to clear the debris, another large aftershock on June 13 wreaked considerably more damage.

Due to instability in the area of greatest destruction, a "red zone" was established after the February 2011 quake, excluding all but emergency personnel from the central city.  As rubble was cleared, the zone shrank in size until the final barriers were removed in June, 2013.  Today large areas of the devastated garden city remain unrenewed.  Hulking shells of critically damaged buildings still await demolition.  Miles and miles of temporary fencing stand between the curious and these unstable structures.  In some instances, shipping crates have been employed in an effort to keep historic facades from crumbling.

Saving this old facade, but for what purpose?
Rebuilding cost estimates surged with each new event.  Like major hurricane disasters in the U.S., devastation at this level far exceeds the power of a local, or even state, government to manage.  By the time of the June, 2011 quake, the amount of damage was equivalent to 20% of New Zealand's annual GDP (compared with Katrina damage equivalent to a paltry 1% of American GDP).  Economists estimate it may take the New Zealand economy 50 to 100 years to recover.  Yet with almost 100 faults and fault segments identified in the Christchurch area, some within 12 miles of the central city, seismologists have predicted that Christchurch has the potential for a major earthquake about every 55 years.

One of many vacant lots in the central city
Upwards of 11,000 residents (about 4%) understandably abandoned the city in the aftermath of this overload of seismic activity.  Yet the population is rebounding, though the recovery process has been overwhelmed by a surfeit of ideas and political jockeying.  The idea of central Christchurch as a "blank canvas" took hold, and no one wanted to bungle the opportunity to create the ideal city.  So precincts were conceived for every purpose—an arts precinct, healthcare precinct, retail precinct, government precinct, and on and on.  None of that typical organic, natural process of city growth would be tolerated.  This was the chance to "fix" everything.

But people needed to get on with their lives.  While those in power in the central city dawdled, construction began in the areas just outside the CBD that weren't affected by the quakes.  Today law firms and other major tenants for downtown office space have signed multiyear leases in these structures, eliminating the opportunity to fill new buildings which still have yet to be built in the central city.

The church's plan to demolish the ruins of the cathedral and rebuild were waylaid when preservationists invoked court interference based on the historic value of the original structure.  In the interim, the congregation employed a Japanese architect who specializes in designing temporary post-earthquake structures.  Created from massive cardboard tubes, timber and steel, the Christchurch Cardboard Cathedral opened its doors in August, 2013 several blocks away from the ruins.  Designed to serve for fifty years, the new structure seats 700 and has become a popular event space as well as a center for worship.

Cardboard Cathedral
Other temporary structures which seemed funky and clever in the months after the disaster continue to dominate the city center.  Re:START Mall, a conglomeration of retail shops, banks and other businesses housed in shipping containers, opened on the city's main pedestrian mall in October, 2011.  They remain at the heart of the retail recovery.

Organizations like Gap Filler popped up in the days after the 2011 disaster.  With their stated goal of facilitating the use of vacant sites and buildings in Christchurch, they must have been a breath of fresh air, organizing events and putting up temporary structures with recycled materials like wooden shipping pallets.  Four years later, their efforts to "activate vacant lots with cool and creative projects" while the city still sits in ruins don't seem as relevant, though today their primary funding source is the Christchurch City Council. How long should these transitional efforts remain the focus?

A Christchurch local told us of watching a television documentary recently about the 1995 earthquake that decimated Kobe, Japan, leaving more than 150,000 buildings destroyed and more than 4,000 residents dead.  "After four years, you couldn't even tell there had been an earthquake there," the local marveled.  "And look at us after four years."

It is immediately apparent that Japan, with the world's third largest economy, had infinitely more resources to support the Kobe recovery effort.  But money aside, protracted conflict and mistrust among levels of government seems to have sapped the wind from the Christchurch recovery sails.  Potential foreign investors are losing patience and looking elsewhere.

In twenty years, Christchurch will probably be restored, or reinvented, into a vibrant city again.  But that's another generation away.  How many of those who grow up amid the rubble will remain?


Asbestos removal crews are doing a booming business in the city 
After prolonged insurance settlements, some residences are just now being restored.
A window on Christchurch
Since the Red Zone was eliminated, rolling street closures permit demolition work to continue.
Planted Whare, a city council sponsored project to provide "a hopeful presence" in Cathedral Square
185 Chairs:  Even this memorial to the victims of the 2011 earthquake has an air of impermanence.