When the builders go home, the city of cranes falls eerily silent.
With this much space and so many building sites it’s not really a surprise – there isn’t really the infrastructure to have bars, restaurants and the other entertainment that keeps a city centre alive once the office workers go home. But do you know what that leaves? It leaves a ghost town where all you can see and feel is aftermath of the earthquakes that devastated this city five years ago.
Remember hearing about them on the news? A series of powerful quakes hitting Christchurch back in 2011? Well, here’s a refresher. Between the second half of 2010 and the first half of 2011 there were three powerful earthquakes in the Canterbury area (of which Christchurch is the seat); the most severe being on the 22nd of February 2011. Considered one of the worst earthquakes to ever hit an urban area, 185 people died that day – 115 of them in one block – suburbs collapsed and the city centre was almost entirely obliterated. Standing in the very centre, the city’s cathedral was once an icon of the city’s history and strong European connections; today it is a metaphor for the city: destroyed and a battle between restoring history and moving forward.
In the immediate aftermath of the quakes the entire CBD was branded a ‘Red Zone’, and no one could access it. They city’s skyline had mainly collapsed and more had to be pulled down over safety concerns. It took two years for the Red Zone to be fully removed.
It makes central Christchurch a really strange place to visit. What is not a building site is a barren piece of ground. There is nowhere else like it on earth.
I have family here and nearby, so perhaps I knew more in advance of arriving, but the shock is palpable on visitors’ faces: five years on there feels like so little progress. But Kiwis are resilient, and although I saw the city in a transitional state (a frustratingly slow transitional state, many people here call it) what you do see is ingenuity, passion and a whole lot of (justifiably, in my opinion) angry people wondering why the government is spending $26 million nzd on a referendum on a new flag. I was in Christchurch when the news broke that the flag was remaining the same; no one was hiding their opinions and frustrations.
Talking to people a common theme is the battle raging between heritage bodies and the progressive lobby. It’s a really interesting question on whether historical buildings should be fully restored/ recreated faithfully or whether it is an opportunity to build a city designed for the 21st century and beyond. Feelings are strong on both sides, and it’s easy to empathise with both. What it means in reality though is that progress is even slower than it could be, Christchurch will be covered in dust and road cones (or should that be baa-riers?) for years to come.
What struck me most about the city was the desire to make the most of what there is, be that in temporary buildings, businesses, culture or a dark sense of humour. The shipping container has become the unofficial symbol of the city, they are everywhere. Their strength and cheapness has made them the building material of choice for temporary structures. Some hold up a cliff so a route out of the city remains clear, others are home to the Re:START shopping mall, and even the walls of the temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ are cleverly disguised containers.
It’s also a city of rough and ready contemporary art and culture. Far from my area of expertise, but the bright colours, murals and pop-up exhibitions say a lot about the city being more about people than buildings.
With a distinct lack of central infrastructure one of the most interesting things I noticed after a while was in the food and drink space. The relentless spread of branded food outlets is one of the realities of the modern city, but here I think I saw two chain fast food outlets (both in very recent rebuilds) and not a single chain coffeeshop or mini supermarket. Food trucks and pop-ups are now the norm here, feeding the city’s daytime workforce. From sushi to burritos, street corner coffee huts to cafes in shipping containers, no two eateries are the same. Sadly I suspect this will not last as the centre slowly rises up again, but it is certainly heartening to see so many local food businesses. How this is protected – or if it protected at all – against more ‘competitive’ big brands will be interesting to see. It would certainly be a massive loss of creativity and taste if it was allowed to be swept aside.
There may only be three buildings here today that have more than 10 storeys and it may still be – if I’m honest – a wreck of a place that has very little aside from rubble to see, but what Christchurch does have is a spirit and its attention set on what its future holds. Today Christchurch is probably a destination that only disaster tourism fans would intentionally come and see (the vast majority of people are, like me, simply ‘passing through’), but I look forward to coming back in a few years time and seeing what this city metamorphoses into – I hope the colour and creativity that is so much a part of the rebuild is recognised as an integral part of what Christchurch has become.