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). 

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.