Previous articles in this column have discussed some of the planning issues relating to the devastating earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand.  This has included commentary on the pop-up retail precinct utilising shipping containers and the new town plan released in the middle of this year.

A recent trip to Christchurch revealed a city in transition.  If you are visiting Christchurch I would encourage you to consider taking a ‘red zone’ bus tour.  It takes you into the eerie restricted space behind the cyclone wire fencing still covering a large portion of the central city area.  The tour is importantly, aimed at locals as much as visitors and helps everyone understand the impacts of the earthquakes and the works associated with the clean up.  It is presented by a guide from the Christchurch museum and includes on-board video images of the area before the earthquakes, enabling a greater appreciation of the before and after landscapes.

Some reflections:

  • The red zone is large – but shrinking. The scale of devastation is hard to comprehend.
  • It is still a very dangerous place to be.  Buildings within the red zone are still crumbling and are continually under assessment.
  • There is real concern about the stability of many buildings should another significant earthquake occur.
  • The red zone is patrolled by the military and blocked off from everyone other than certified contractors, building inspectors and others authorized to enter.
  • Many of the buildings include the fixtures and fittings at the time they were abandoned – menus and place settings are still on some café tables; ‘happy hour’ chalk board signs on bars and taverns ironically signal a more joyous yesterday.
  • There are numerous additional buildings and structures outside the red zone that are also fenced off and have restricted entry.
  • It will be a long and slow process to rebuild the city. There are still hundreds of buildings and structures needing to be demolished or extensively rebuilt.
  • Dozens of buildings are riddled with asbestos – compounding an already difficult process.
  • Liquifaction / a very high water table make future foundations problematic.  To what extent is reconstruction in some areas realistic at all?
  • It took months before thousands of car owners were allowed to even come back to collect their vehicles – if they were undamaged.
  • It is a City that is very difficult to cross due to the red zone and extensive road works and the replacement of utility services outside the red zone.
  • Locals find it difficult to orientate themselves in some parts of the City due to the loss of so many landmark structures.
  • The word ‘demolition’ is no longer used in official language – rather, it is all about ‘de-construction’.  Apparently this sounds more positive.
  • Creating a positive image has been very important for all stakeholders.
  • The shipping container retail precinct has been a very positive focus to demonstrate resilience and ‘business as usual’.
  • Shipping containers have been used for a variety of other purposes during the aftermath of the ‘quakes – from storage of household items, to storage of de-construction equipment in the red zone and even to the bracing of buildings and walls.
  • Random graffiti speckled throughout the city offers messages of optimism and hope.
  • Heritage buildings and what to do with the damaged ones are a source of significant conflict and community interest.
  • Who is going to pay for the reconstruction?
  • Government is faced with difficult planning, economic and social issues in a context rarely seen and with little precedent to go on.
  • Many in the community just want to move on; some have moved out.

The future of the iconic Christ Church Cathedral is still to be determined.  The Cathedral is an emblematic symbol of the City located in the very heart of the CBD and was damaged significantly in the February 2011 earthquake.  Some groups want the Cathedral rebuilt stone by stone to its former glory.  Others want it completely de-constructed and replaced by a contemporary Cathedral inspiring the rebirth of the City.  Then there are those that advocate a hybrid model blending old and new.  Several images of possible concepts for the Cathedral were released in ‘The Press’ newspaper in Christchurch on 5 October 2012 and generated much debate.  A final decision appears some time off.  And then there is always the question of who pays?

The rebuilding of Christchurch will be fascinating to watch.

Enquires John Roney (jdr@colliepl.com.au)

Footnote 1

Work is now underway on a temporary ‘cardboard cathedral’ in Christchurch.  The A-frame building, which was designed by Japanese architect Shingeru Ban, features a skeleton of strong cardboard tubes reinforced with timber, steel and concrete.

The 700-seat building is designed to last at least 20 years and is due to open in February 2013.

Meanwhile, the fate of the iconic century-old Christ Church cathedral, which was badly damaged in the earthquake, is still unclear and is subject to continuing High Court action.

Footnote 2

This week Christchurch was listed in the Lonely Planet’s ‘Top 10 Cities to Visit 2013’.  Christchurch was described as “rising from the rubble…with a breath-taking mix of spirit, determination and flair”.