The dark sky opens up as rain begins to fall on the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s welcome relief for regional farmers who for months have been plagued by drought, but it seems the men clad in orange vests scurrying around downtown would rather do without. The water falling from the grey sky brings with it an eery feeling of emptiness. The once vibrant city streets are quiet and now filled with only the sounds of heavy machinery in action.
It has been two years since not one but two earthquakes devastated Christchurch city and its surrounds. The first 7.1 quake rattled Cantabrians from their sleep just before 5am on September 4, 2010. While some buildings sustained minor damages, no lives were lost. It was on a clear, sunny early afternoon on February 22, 2011 that true terror struck. In nothing more than a moment, the earth began to violently shake, clouds of dust rose toward the sky, the shriek of bending metal, the shattering glass and the rumble of bricks tumbling to the ground pierced the air. In a panic, hundreds of people ran into the streets, but those trapped in high-rise buildings were left helplessly stranded. Silence washed over the city, it was over. Pools of water and sand, known as liquefaction, filled the suburbs, and homes and businesses were left tattered, but it was the skyline of the Christchurch Central Business District that was most altered. Downtown buildings once reaching tall from the earth now lie crumbled at the hands of Mother Nature. 185 people died either that unassuming February afternoon or in the days after. Many of those downtown raced to search for survivors or comfort the injured; others stood paralyzed trying to grasp the magnitude of the 6.3 earthquake, which was actually considered an aftershock of the first – the epicenter this time much closer to Christchurch.
Nearly two years later and downtown remains a ghost town, much of it still inaccessible to the public. At the site of the CBTV (Canterbury Television Network) building, flowers, pictures and poems remain tacked to a fence encircling a small pile of rubble – all that’s left of the building. Across the street 185 white chairs sit empty as a makeshift memorial built to resemble that of one honoring the victims of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Just feet from the chairs, rain-soaked neck ties and scarves are tied to a fence spelling out Faith, Hope and Love.
Meanwhile, a few cars pass nearby the barricaded ‘Red Zone’ where hundreds of construction workers are now battling the rain in their quest to rebuild. Without knowing the magnitude of the destruction, one might think the city hasn’t come far from that devastating February day, but a look back at the horrendous damage reveals just how far the city has advanced.
While some are taking steps toward rebuilding, many homes and business are far from it – the skeleton of their buildings remain standing yet condemned. When all is said and done 85% of CBD buildings will have been demolished, and just more than 50% of streets around Christchurch will be repaired or replaced. It’s an incredibly daunting task when you pause to think about it.
Yet while downtown Christchurch remains nothing more than the shell of a battle zone, one small pocket of innovative entrepreneurs is thriving. The Re:START Mall sits just outside the Red Zone sandwiched by Cashel Street. It’s here dozens of businesses have created a destination in their own right. Dozens of brightly colored shipping containers are home to restaurants, boutique clothing stores, souvenir shops and even one of Christchurch’s iconic department stores. It’s definitely worth stopping by to browse and buy, if not to just see how these resilient business owners are moving forward.
Located on the Re:START Mall you’ll also find “Quake City”, the new interactive exhibit on the Canterbury Earthquakes that forever changed the face of Christchurch. It’s $10.00 nzd to enter, but it’s well wort the entry fee as you’ll gain new light into what physically happens during an earthquake as well as the overwhelming extent of damage and the road to recovery.
Just outside of downtown you’ll find plenty to do including Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens. Here more than 500 acres of park and gardens stretch across central city. It’s here you can start your punt down the Avon River as it winds through the park and along the edge of downtown. In addition, there are still a number of wonderful attractions in operation including the Antarctic Center near the airport – just check at the relocated isite located near the Arts Center and Canterbury Museum. You’ll also find high-end shops and cafes lining Victoria Street and Papanui Rd. stretching just north east of downtown – more proof the city is making strides toward normalcy.
As for the future of Christchurch, walking these dreary and deserted downtown streets it’s hard to imagine it will somehow morph into a vibrant city once again. However, the city has a very aggressive plan that will bring Christchurch to the forefront to lead the way as New Zealand’s most modern, forward-thinking city. To see the Christchurch Central Recovery plan click here. The plan includes state-of-the-art event venues, commercial and residential development districts and much more. You won’t see skyscrapers towering toward the sky, instead many of buildings constructed in the future will be much shorter and use the most advanced earthquake resistant building technology available. It’s a system commonly referred to as Base Isolation Technology, which essentially lifts a building up on heavy-duty rubber footings creating a plate between the building’s base and the ground. While that seems somewhat rudimentary, I can assure you it’s not. It’s a very complex building system currently in place at New Zealand’s Parliament Building in Wellington. The building located in Christchurch boasting similar technology before the earthquakes is still standing and only received minor cosmetic damage.
While it may take years to use this advanced system to complete the Central Recovery Plan, those who believe in the future of Christchurch know it’s well worth the wait.