Nothing prepared me for the tightness in my chest during the first 36 hours I spent in Christchurch. When we arrived, we opted for a mile and a quarter walk to stretch our legs after the 7-hour bus ride from Nelson. We both noticed something peculiar. The only people we saw walking the streets on our half-hour walk to our cottage were the young couples from our bus, plus a few other solitary travelers. It was 6:45 p.m. on a Friday night, prime time for social hour in other cities. The quietude of the central city gave way to vacant lots and rubble every other block. The destruction of Christchurch from the 2011 earthquake was not just evident, it was everywhere.
Christchurch, known as ChCh, is the third largest city in New Zealand (the largest on the South Island), and the seat of the Canterbury Region. With a population of close to 370,000, the city is still growing. The majority of new residents are from the U.K. followed by China, Australia and the Philippines. Named for one of the colleges at Oxford in 1848, Christchurch also bears another distinctly English feature, a river named “Avon” that meanders through the city. True to form, a diversion common for locals and visitors is Punting, the English version of gondoliering, though the boat is wider and nowhere near as romantic.
A sweeter spot to land for a few hours is the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, called a “living museum” since the “displays” change with the seasons. The Gardens elegantly sprawl behind the Canterbury Museum and between the Avon River and Hagley Park (half the size of Central Park, according to our tour guide). It features a traditional English Rose Garden as well as a native New Zealand Garden. It was one of the few places in Christchurch where my mind and heart were at ease.
The Maori name for the city is Otautahi, after Chief Te Pokiki Tauhahi, who set up a seasonal residence near the river. Not far from Chief Tauhahi’s dwelling site is a Fire Station and an international memorial to all firefighters, The Firefighters Reserve. A large twisted metal sculpture sits on the riverbank, marked with a plaque. The five pieces of rusted metal, now inextricably interconnected, were girders salvaged from the site of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero and a gift from the City of NYC to the City of Christchurch in honor of all firefighters worldwide. It turns out that it was a gesture bigger than one event. Nine years after the installation, Christchurch suffered it’s own tragedy. The gift was from one resilient city to another.
Because it was the first city in NZ to be established by Royal Charter in 1856, it is home to more gothic style churches and buildings than any other place in New Zealand. Before coming to Christchurch, I had imagined it looking like the sub-tropical sister to Cambridge, England. And not too long ago, it did.
A great fact about New Zealand is that it was the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893 (almost 30 years before the U.S.). There’s a historical marker in Christchurch honoring Kate Shephard, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement.
At 12:51 p.m. on February 22, 2011, over a weekday lunch hour in Christchurch, the ground started to shake. Registering 6.3 on the Richter scale at a very shallow depth of about 6 km, the epicenter of earthquake struck 10 km SE of city center, lasting 10 seconds. It was the second earthquake in 18 months, and by far the most destructive.
One hundred and eighty-five people from 20 different countries died in the quake and close to 7,000 were injured. One hundred and fifteen of those killed were in the Canterbury Television (CTV) building when it collapsed. In addition to the CTV headquarters and some retail shops, the building housed an English as a second language school. The school was hosting students visiting from Japan.
The building “pancaked”, meaning the six floor fell onto the fifth, the fifth onto the fourth, and so on.
Moments after the shaking stopped, the building had fallen. A small, inconspicuous alter with flowers rests in the vacant block where the building once stood. Across the street is the memorial to those who died: 185 white chairs, of all shapes and sizes, sit empty.
The quake also brought down some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, including the namesake Christchurch Cathedral. After the quake, the Anglican Church slated the cathedral for demolition in favor of a more modern replacement, but UNESCO and local preservationists fought back. A court issued an injunction to stop the demolition of the church. Even today, the Cathedral sits in ruins in the city center. The entire site is closed to the public. It’s future is uncertain.
The downtown landscape is forever altered. Over 70% of the buildings downtown were declared unsafe and slated for demolition. In between derelict buildings and rubble and grass covered lots, life goes on in Christchurch.
Te Ao Hurihuri (The Forever Changing World)
Te Ao Hurihuri evokes a connection between the past and present and creates an opportunity to look back at historical events and create a vision for a path forward. That vision is what is bringing Christchurch out of the rubble into a city of the future.
The RE:START mall is composed entirely of shipping containers. Strong, mobile and cheap, shipping containers have quite literally become a building block of the recovery. Retail shops, cafes and restaurants occupy a virtual “Legoland” of containers, creating an inviting commercial space for locals and tourists alike. It was by far the most bustling part of the city we experienced.
Another innovative and successful project is the “Cardboard Cathedral”, a temporary cathedral designed by Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban. An A-frame building held together with 86 enormous cardboard tubes reinforced by laminated timber, the cathedral’s roof is made of a polycarbon material and the walls are (you guessed it) shipping containers. The cathedral opened in 2013 and can seat up to 700 visitors.
The Christchurch Recovery Plan lists 17 other “anchor projects” (some nearing completion) that set out the major rebuilding efforts of the city.
One of the most ambitious projects is the Arts Center, one of the classic gothic buildings, will begin opening this year as restoration continues.
Another project is the Margaret Mahy Family Playground, named for a renowned NZ children’s author. The park partially opened to the public in December 2015, but has sections still under construction. Built at a cost of $40 million (NZ), it is one of the most innovative parks in the world.
In addition to the city’s plan, we noticed several modern houses and apartment buildings in the neighborhoods, interspersed with the Victorian homes that survived. The new designs are interesting and strangely seem to fit with their older neighbors.
What seems to be lacking as part of the city’s comeback is a comprehensive transportation plan. Unlike other cities we visited in NZ, Christchurch is particularly car-centric and not all that pedestrian friendly. Streets are three and four lanes, often one-way, designed to move people by car quickly. Because of some development, sidewalks end mid-block and walkers are forced to cross streets in the middle. There is a planned expansion of the city’s trolley (e.g. streetcar) to create more opportunities for transit, but pedestrians appear to be out of luck. To its credit, Christchurch does employ sheep for traffic calming. Apparently, cars aren’t supposed to worry the sheep either (see Nelson post).
What is clear is that the character of Christchurch is most certainly changing. Even five years after the earthquake, it is a city still very much in recovery. But there are more stories to be told here and many lessons to be learned. I’ve realized that the tightness in my chest is as much concern for the future of my own city that sits quietly and dangerously in the Cascadia Subduction Zone on the West Coast as the city where I landed for four days. But here my eyes have been opened to one city’s struggle and resilience. It forced me to come to terms with some realities and will give me much to think about for the remainder of my time on the road.
My wish is for Christchurch is that its own prophesy is fulfilled:
Everything is Going to Be Alright.