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). 

 
 
 
 

“Ministers are ignoring the people who’ll deal with the fallout from Brexit”: The case for a second referendum

Everything is fine: Prime minister Theresa May and Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson. Image: Getty.

We’ve come a long way from the days when Brexiteers promised a free trade utopia and an £350m a week to spend on our NHS. Now we have David Davis reduced to warning there will be no Mad Max-style scenario when we leave the European Union.

Anyway, how do we know? The Brexit Secretary refuses to publish his economic risk analysis so we can have an informed discussion about the effects on cities like mine. What evidence has trickled out of his department shows that the UK economy will take a hit – and the further you are away from Greater London, the harder that punch will feel.

At best, with retained access to the single market, we will take a 2 per cent hit to GDP over the next 15 years. At worst, with a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’, this increases to 8 per cent.

That’s hundreds of thousands of jobs taken out of the economy. Moreover, we know the impact will be felt unevenly. The further away you are from London and the South East, the deeper the effects.

This week, leaders of some of our major Core Cities met Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to explain our worries. Our cities are potential engines of growth and vital players as we insulate the country from Brexit-related shocks. We are trying to play a constructive role – whether or not we agree with Brexit – because we are on the ground and left dealing with the fallout.

So far, ministers have refused to meet us. We are apparently frozen out of the conversation because our reality-based concerns do not fit with the government’s celestial belief that things will be all right on the night.

As a local government leader, I deal in pragmatic solutions. (Having lost two-thirds of our Government funding since 2010, I have no choice.) But ministers need to come out of their bunker and talk to us about the support we need and the part we can play in preventing a recession when we leave the EU.


There is only one way to interpret their reluctance to do so. They know that we are on course to take an economic shellacking, and are preparing to leave us to it. They have done nothing to reassure us that a dystopian nightmare does not await – with Britain reduced a low-tax, low regulation fiefdom, with neo-liberal hardliners taking a red pen to the social and environmental protections currently guaranteed by EU law.

This is not acceptable. It is a total betrayal of those parts of the country already struggling with a decade of austerity and all the uncertainty generated by the Brexit process. But ministers should care because if we suffer, then Brexit will have demonstrably failed.

It will come as little surprise to Scousers. Liverpool voted 58 per cent to Remain back in June 2016. That’s because we felt the practical benefits of being in the EU. Europe was there for us – especially in the 1980s – when our own government wasn’t.

Objective One and other regional funding streams helped bring Liverpool back from the dark days when ministers in the Thatcher Government were seriously contemplating writing us off entirely. ‘Managed decline’ they called it. We were to be left to fend for ourselves.

But Europe allowed us to begin a ‘managed renaissance,’ becoming the modern, optimistic and dynamic city we are today. EU funding helped us to bounce back and catalysed many of the dramatic changes we’ve seen over the past few years.

If leaving the EU now results in a harsh economic winter, then the pendulum of public opinion will swing back the other way. So it’s actually in the interests of Brexiteers to have a second vote on the terms of our departure.  Asking the public if they approve of the deal ministers will have negotiated, is entirely justified. Call it a confirmatory ballot, or a cooling-off vote.

This is not about keeping asking the same question until the political elite get the answer they want. It is about giving the British people sign-off on how the country will be governed after 2019 and the effects that will have on their lives.

It’s ridiculous that we have more opportunity when it comes to cancelling our car insurance than have when it comes to reflecting on the biggest change to Britain’s economic and political fortunes in any of our lifetimes.

If – after knowing the full facts of what we face on the outside – the British public still voted to leave, then I would accept their decision with no further protest – and so should everyone else.

But it is right to ask them.

What is not acceptable – or credible – is to ignore reality and refuse to deal with the very people who will be left to pick up the pieces.

Joe Anderson is the Labour mayor of Liverpool.