Rebuilding Christchurch

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What would a city look like if you got to rebuild it from scratch? And how would you incorporate more than 100,000 ideas from the people who matter the most – the stoic individuals who continue to call Christchurch home?

During a holiday visit to my hometown of Christchurch in late April, I sat down with the man charged with rebuilding New Zealand’s second largest city and discovered a city on the cusp of rebirth.

More than two years before, however, I remember standing in the lunch-room of the REIQ’s Brisbane office on 22 February 2011 and watching as the Christchurch Cathedral crumbled on live television right before my very eyes.

Just six weeks after the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi, another natural disaster – this time earthquake – had befallen my life and I watched through tears and an almost overwhelming sense of fear for my family and friends as the place I used to call home was almost wiped from the map.

More than two years – and thousands of after-shocks – later, Christchurch continues to be mostly unrecognisable. One in two roads in the entire Canterbury province reportedly needs repairing so patience is a virtue that is an absolute necessity for anyone driving around the region. In fact, orange witches-hats and mesh fences are ubiquitous.

The central city has, for the most part, been reopened but it is an eerie experience to drive through what was once a thriving CBD populated by thousands of people. More than 1,000 buildings are being demolished in the central city and for someone like me, who remembers clearly the way it used to be, that means I often found myself rather discombobulated with no sense of where I was at all. Indeed, sometimes it felt like I was driving on the moon.

But it is not the moon, it is New Zealand’s second largest city and it must rise from the ashes for the sake of the country’s economy, and for the sake of hundreds of thousands of courageous souls who are waiting and watching for their home to be reborn.

Warwick Isaacs is the man whose shoulders this heavy burden now rests but to him it’s not a burden it’s a privilege. He heads up the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), a government-created unit, charged with rebuilding the city between the four avenues which have long defined the inner-city precinct of Christchurch.

For a man with such a task ahead of him, he is a relaxed, easy-going individual, who was also happy to sit down with an ex-Kiwi from across the ditch to explain the unique opportunity now available to civic leaders, developers and residents alike.

“The devastation by the earthquake has been quite extreme in the central city,” he says as we sit in the CCDU offices located in one of the few commercial buildings to survive the 2011 earthquake.

“If you look at the central city it’s almost like someone has pointed an arrow and said: ‘That’s where we want to hit’ because that’s the impact.

“Between these four avenues there is in excess of 1,000 buildings being demolished and the very heart as you would have seen, the landscape is almost back to Ground Zero.

“What the recovery plan is about is, there were over 100,000 submissions from people in Canterbury and businesses and people from afar as well, that went to the council process – it was called Share an Idea.

“New thinking has come to Christchurch. There are opportunities the earthquakes have given us – it’s been a tragic thing – but there are opportunities to reinvigorate and revitalise, and set the tone for Christchurch as a future city rather than a city that’s still evolving from its past heritage.”

This is an extract from a feature originally published in the REIQ Journal. You can read the full story here.