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). 

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.