Despite two major earthquakes rocking the city, I still chose Christchurch as my study-abroad location. My family was terrified that another quake would demolish everything while I was there but I made myself feel more secure by repeating the mantra, “whatever was left standing will need an EVEN BIGGER earthquake to knock it down.” I anticipated a changed landscape, what I did not anticipate however was how that altered landscape would impact the “cultural hub” of the South Island.
Christchurch is still the South Island’s biggest city, supporting a population of 350+ thousand even after thousands of people moved away in response to the earthquake damage. Tourism in “the garden city” dropped dramatically after the earthquakes and several iconic landmarks (e.g. Cathedral Square) were still in the “red zone” and thus off-limits. The restaurant and bar scene dispersed to various suburbs and public transportation lines had to shift to account for new traffic patterns that skirted the central city. I too was caught up in image of the city center as dead, for I didn’t even bother to take any pictures of the earthquake damage. Half-fallen brick buildings, huge fences labeled “keep out”, and houses falling off of cliffs near Sumner Beach were all things I saw, but did not bother to document. In my naiveté, I failed to realize that nearby rock climbing crags, a main reason for choosing Christchurch, would be too dangerous to explore. But even amidst all the damage, I soon found myself marveling at the city’s opportunity for a renaissance.
While a significant constituency of the city was begging to restore damaged sites for nostalgic reasons, much of the city’s younger crowd was focused zealously ahead at reinventing Christchurch. Looking at the Central City Rebuild Plan, I could see that designers wanted to recreate the cultural hub by recognizing how a sense of place impacts pedestrians. Through the inclusion of bike paths, greenbelts, and pedestrian plazas along the Avon River at the city’s center, and incorporating efficient technology into new buildings, the earthquakes can actually be seen as a blessing disguised as a disaster; a chance to escape the city’s environmental history and supersede archaic technologies.
Even before the rebuild was underway, the earthquake brought those who stayed in the city together. An innovate mall, made out of shipping containers, became the new central city shopping district and locals and tourists alike were stoked to see such radical reuse of space and materials. Empty lots left where buildings once stood were put to use by Gap Filler and a class titled Christchurch 101 was set up at the University of Canterbury to promote student involvement in recreating the city and providing disaster relief. Most importantly, Christchurch citizens banded together in response to the turmoil. Grassroots organizers burst forth to inform citizens about proper sanitation and waste disposal after all the pipes broke and the whole nation stood in solidarity with those who lost loved ones when buildings collapsed. In the state that I saw it, Christchurch certainly looked different than it would have only a year prior, but it was not the “dead” city that had been described to me. In fact, in the toughest of times, the broken city was just as much a symbol of resilience, ingenuity, and perseverance as it had ever been.