Three years after quake, Christchurch slowly rebuilds

A mix of construction sites and condemned buildings in the Christchurch central business district

A mix of construction sites and condemned buildings in the Christchurch central business district

To escape Indonesia’s humid tropical climate, we met Katherine’s parents for a vacation in temperate New Zealand.

New Zealand and Indonesia share at least one thing in common: a high level of seismic and volcanic activity. As I write this, Mount Sinabung on the Indonesian island of Sumatra continues to spew ash and gases, as it has for months (forcing 19,000 people to evacuate the area on New Year’s Eve).

Reconstruction plans for the Cathedral are hotly debated, while the bishop hopes to tear down the original building, citizens want it rebuilt.

Citizens are lobbying to save the Christchurch cathedral from demolition, and reconstruct what was left after the quake.

On New Zealand’s north island, we visited bubbling hot pools cause by magma flowing close to the Earth’s surface. We also visited the city of Christchurch, on the south island, which was devastated by a series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks between September 2010 to June 2011. The biggest quake, in February 2011, all but flattened the city’s central business district.

Like Indonesia, New Zealand lies along colliding tectonic plates along the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” Regions like this contributed to the very existence of both nations: Indonesia’s islands are mostly made of volcanoes, pushed out of the sea as one plate is shoved underneath another, forcing magma out through the Earth’s crust. New Zealand’s mountains are still being pushed upward by the Pacific and Australian plates. The specific nature of this zone makes for fewer volcanoes, but still causes great releases of energy­ — such as the earthquake that struck Christchurch in 2011.

A Foot Locker sits frozen in time; spray paint on the window indicates that it was cleared for survivors on February 26, 2011.

A Foot Locker sits frozen in time; spray paint on the window indicates that it was cleared for survivors on February 26, 2011.

Christchurch could now be described as an inspiring ghost town. For a full year after the 2011 quake, downtown was closed to civilians as safety workers went from building to building, identifying unstable and dangerous sites that would need to be demolished; cleaning up rubble; extracting crushed cars, etc. After the damage had been assessed, the city began building new bridges to replace those that had collapsed, before letting civilians back into the area now dubbed the “red zone.”

Today, downtown Christchurch is an expanse of empty lots amid the few remaining high-rise buildings — about half of which are empty, rendered uninhabitable by the quake. Those buildings seem frozen in February 2011, when people ran out the door and never returned. After search-and-rescue crews had spray-painted the “OK” sign to signify that a building was clear of survivors, the buildings were closed and roped off for public safety. Only official crews with permits could enter buildings in the city center. One Starbucks sits vacant, the oversized chairs and tiny tables are now piled with dust; nothing has been served in almost three years.

A mall made of shipping containers brings life back to downtown Christchurch.

A mall made of shipping containers brings life back to downtown Christchurch.

However, the newly vacant lots have sparked a creative twist on local life. Gap Filler, a non-profit citizens group, is bringing life back to downtown by creating activities in the empty lots. A café made of wooden shipping pallets has sprung up in one of the lots; in another, a musical playground has been built out of a variety of construction materials (of which there are many in Christchurch at the moment). A makeshift boutique mall has also been built — made out of shipping containers. Painted in bright colors, the container mall has become a popular retail and restaurant space in an otherwise barren area of the city.

The town is making use of the destruction to redesign itself as a green, livable city. Children have even been consulted to design public playgrounds. A new trolley line is now open, and plans for bike lanes and walking paths are being implemented. These creative and resilient Kiwis (as New Zealanders are called) have turned a tragedy into an opportunity. The public activity around downtown suggests that life will return to the city center. Today, Christchurch exists in an eerie limbo, but in 10 years, I predict it will be a model of urban planning.

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