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). 

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.