Christchurch: Overcoming Challenges, rebuilding for 2050

ImageIn the New Zealand city of Christchurch, there are six dogs registered with the name of “Quake”. But when calling the animals to heel, the owners have learned to keep their voices down.

The citizens of the earthquake-shattered capital of the south island are nervous, for there have been many, albeit smaller, earthquakes since the one last February that killed 185 people and created the most violent shaking ever recorded worldwide.

“There is a high chance you will experience an earthquake while you are here,” Professor Jarg R Pettinga told a 15-strong AIIA group on a 36-hour visit to Christchurch as part of a five-day public diplomacy visit to study the rebuilding of New Zealand’s second city and then to visit Wellington to look at how the country is tackling the so-called Asian century.

Effectively all of Christchurch’s city centre, including its famous cathedral (picture is inset) and other historic buildings, were ruined by the earthquake, and most of those still standing will have to be pulled down and rebuilt.

Less well known is the fact that 8000 homes in the city’s suburbs have been condemned, with most of them empty and waiting for demolition teams to come and do their work.

With the other 14-members of our AIIA team, I stood in what had been a group of old peoples’ houses alongside the Avon River that had been left empty and abandoned. Like the road outside, the  floors were uneven and in some places had dropped by a metre. Inside the walls were bent, and a bridge across the river was twisted. A gap in the ceiling bore evidence to looters stealing the copper water tank.

It would be good to be able to report that the reconstruction effort is proceeding smoothly. But in a five year endeavor where more than $30 billion has already been earmarked for investment, 65 per cent is for residential homes, 15 per cent for infrastructure, and 20 per cent for commercial, there are bound to be complexities and disagreements.

The New Zealand government quickly set up the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) with substantial powers to rehouse the homeless, get the schools up and running again, repair the sewers and the water supplies, and design and create a new modern city that can withstand future earthquakes and appeal to the growth generations of tomorrow.

In the first months after the February disaster, members of CERA were greeted as heroes wherever they went, as the city – despite being denuded of many of its landmark buildings – began to function again.

But as time moves on, tensions have grown. Some CERA people feel the quality of engineering advice is less than 21st century. There were those who felt all or part of the Cathedral should be preserved, while CERA made it clear all or most of the building should be pulled down.

There were arguments about the design and architecture of the new Christchurch. Some wanted to retain the ‘old look’; others saw the need for a thoroughly modern city.

There were people who wanted to stay in their condemned houses, and try and fix them up, while the authority believed the whole area should be cleared.

There is also tension and aggravation between home owners and insurance companies. The government provided up to $100,000 per property in compensation where properties were doomed, but some insurers have been slow to settle claims, with disagreements over values, meaning that some families will not recover sufficient funds to move elsewhere.

Some have criticized CERA’s powers. “I have a lot of power”, confirms Roger Sutton (portrait inset), CERA’s dynamic chief executive. “You can’t have buildings still standing that are not safe, or don’t meet the building code. This city has to be rebuilt with the middle of the 21st century in mind, with different interactions, different transport arrangements.”

The Christchurch City Council is also fretting that councilors and the people they represent will not have enough say over the shape and style of the new city.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has been agitating for a return of control of the city’s development to his council well before the CERA is dissolved in three years’ time. “I think the city centre rebuild is something that should be driven by the people in the city and the council,” he told the local newspaper.

But with most of the funding coming from either the government or big investors, there are others who question the council’s capacity.

This debate will be a fascinating one to watch. We have seen a similar scrap in Sydney over the development of the north-west end of the city between the Sydney City Council and the NSW government.

The hope is that, when rebuilt, Christchurch will be a city for 2050.

Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW).


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