Taking advantage of destruction: how earthquake-torn Christchurch rebuilt itself

A damaged Christchurch building is demolished following the 2010/11 earthquakes. Image: Getty.

It began with an earthquake. In February 2011, a 6.3 magnitude aftershock of an earlier earthquake that occurred in September 2010 caused a disastrous disruption to Christchurch—killing nearly 200 people, injuring 10,000 more, and leading to the demolition of more than 70 percent of the buildings in the city’s central business district, which were deemed unsafe to remain standing. In the 2010 quake, no deaths were recorded, and significantly less damage was done.

The 2011 quake was remarkable in that it was just one of thousands of aftershocks from the September rupture – as of March 2014, the city of Christchurch has experienced more than 12,000 aftershocks. But none of them were like the tremor that forever changed the way Christchurch will think about its vulnerability to earthquake and, potentially, the way the community sees itself more broadly – as a resilient city.

That, at least, is the goal of Christchurch’s mayor, Lianne Dalziel, who signed Christchurch’s application to become a part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network in October 2013, less than a week after being sworn in. In the first week of November, Dalziel hosted a forum with more than 80 participants from local communities and governments to discuss how they could work together to make Christchurch a more resilient city.

“When I saw The Rockefeller Foundation’s call for expressions of interest to [join the 100 Resilient Cities] initiative, I knew that this was what I wanted for the city,” she said at the city’s first 100 Resilient Cities workshop in March 2014. For Dalziel, becoming a resilient city is all about “participatory democracy” and “collective governance.” “Reclaiming the word resilience in its broadest sense will enable us collectively to reclaim the power that rightly resides within our neighbourhoods and communities,” she said. 

One way Dalziel intends to support community development is by letting communities redefine themselves, even setting their own boundaries, an important political distinction. Indeed, this would be almost unthinkable in the United States, where voting districts are elaborately drawn to keep like-minded constituencies together, at least on paper. “Communities need to be allowed to make sense of their own identities if people are going to want to vote and influence how their cities are run,” Dalziel said.

The projects create activity where there were once only grim reminders of the earthquake

The mayor talks about co-creating a new Christchurch through grassroots community building and efforts to strengthen social cohesion. These factors will also facilitate the awareness, acceptance, and mitigation of community-specific risks (such as development in liquefaction zones, where soil has been weakened due to stress, or where there is a high density of buildings that are vulnerable to earthshake); she also wants to use top-down governance to identify and achieve outcomes that are grounded in the collective good and shared identity. There are things communities can do for themselves that government cannot, but there are also things governments can do that communities cannot.

Thus, Dalziel emphasizes the importance of creating partnerships and networks that bring stakeholders, decision makers, and experts – with both local and generalized knowledge – together to take prioritized, resilience-based action. “Resilience is not a destination,” she said at the 100 Resilient Cities workshop. “It is a means by which we can determine our destination as well as providing us with the means of getting there.”

Christchurch is already on a path of transformation, and it can be seen most clearly in initiatives that are, surprisingly – resiliently – taking advantage of the destruction that the earthquake caused.

Take, for instance, Gap Filler – an organization dedicated to finding creative, innovative, and communally significant ways to use and develop vacant lots throughout the city – of which, considering the ongoing demolitions of seismically unsafe buildings, there are plenty. Gap Filler’s projects include a miniature golf course, spreading hole by hole on abandoned lots throughout the city, and the Pallet Pavilion, an outdoor performance venue pieced together out of shipping pallets. (The pavilion was so well liked that roughly $70,000 was raised through crowdsourcing to keep the space in operation for another year.)

A Gap Filler golf hole in a vacant lot. Image: Gap Filler.

Greening the Rubble and Life in Vacant Spaces are two similarly minded organizations, working to provide “transitional” function to the lots and areas in the city destroyed or otherwise disrupted in the quake until something more long-term moves in. You can imagine the effect such initiatives can have, promoting and encouraging social cohesion by re-enlivening Christchurch’s streets, creating activity – and fun – where there were once only grim reminders of the earthquake and the toll it took.

A Greening the Rubble site. Image: Jocelyn Kinghorn via Flickr. 

There’s a new furniture company in Christchurch, Rekindle, that uses wood salvaged from the rubble to create chairs, tables, and more. There’s a new bar, Revival, that serves customers out of a shipping container. A new cathedral – which has a resemblance to Christchurch Cathedral, badly damaged in the quake and yet to reopen – is made in part from cardboard tubing. Creativity and willpower are two major assets in Christchurch, and they may, in the long run, prove more valuable than any concrete or steel structure.

As we’ve seen before, crisis and disaster can be powerful opportunities for revitalization. After the February 2011 earthquake, a new community in Christchurch is beginning to emerge, just as it has in New Orleans, and may well do in the area around Fukushima – the young, the creative, the innovative, the entrepreneurial – who will be sorely needed in the years and decades ahead if Christchurch is going to continue on and sustain its path to creating a new identity as a resilient city.

Judith Rodin is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

This is an extract from "The Resilience Dividend: Managing disruption, avoiding disaster, and growing stronger in an unpredictable world" (Profile Books, £20 hardback/ebook). 

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”