Posted by: Adam Kay | January 15, 2013

Creative post-earthquake recovery in Christchurch by Adam Kay and Liz Chambers

A sign on a building in downtown Christchurch

A sign on a building in downtown Christchurch

At first glance, Christchurch looks like a war zone. We’ve spent several days here this January (for our project on the ecology of sexual reproduction in a freshwater snail), and we’ve seen shocking evidence of the major earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. There are ruined buildings, piles of rubble, and empty lots throughout the downtown. It’s so different from the quaint city Adam remembers from 2007 when he was here for a conference with UST student Katie Theisen and her sister Becky. However, as we’ve walked around we’ve found so many imaginative recovery projects being developed around the damage. What’s particularly interesting to us about these projects is that they share many features with ecological sustainability efforts happening elsewhere.

Christchurch experienced a series of earthquakes and aftershocks in 2010 and 2011. In early September, 2010, a 7.1 magnitude quake struck near Christchurch. Although it did not result in any deaths, it likely significantly weakened many buildings and other infrastructure. Then, on February 22, 2011, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck with an epicenter just south of Christchurch. Many buildings collapsed as a result of the quake, including the steeple of the cathedral in Christchurch’s main square. The quake killed 185 people, almost all in the downtown area.

Nearly two years later, the city is still largely in ruins. Many buildings and houses are condemned but not yet demolished. We’ve heard that residents are battling with insurance companies to get fair compensation for their property. Hotel managers have told us that tourists aren’t staying in downtown Christchurch because of fears of aftershocks. In general, we’ve felt that people are frustrated and tired. The rebuilding of the downtown will take many years, and it’s easy to see how people could be discouraged and overwhelmed by the challenge.

But also instead of discouragement we’ve felt amazing energy and excitement about the rebuilding efforts. It seems like one main goal is to quickly make an interesting environment that can attract visitors. One regeneration organization group is called Gap Filler, a collection of projects designed to fill vacant sites for short periods. The projects we’ve seen are very artsy and cool. One of our favorites is the Palette Pavilion, a meeting space in the middle of a big vacant lot downtown. Blue palettes are stacked to make 10-ft-high walls enclosing a central space with a performance stage and a seating area. The palettes are covered with native plants and various art pieces. Other gap fillers were Dance-O-Mat – a dance floor on a vacant site with coin operated lighting and sound, Gap Golf – a temporary miniature golf course, and numerous murals and other art projects.

Probably the most substantial regeneration effort is the container mall called Re:START. The mall is made up of brightly painted shipping containers recommissioned as retail stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. The tenants include major retailers and downtown businesses that were destroyed by the quakes. Containers house other businesses nearby, including this interesting bar that uses old chests and refashioned shopping carts as tables and chairs. Another interesting reconfiguration is the Smash Palace restaurant that has built a kitchen, bar, and seating into old city buses on an empty lot.

Overall, there is a strong emphasis on recycling materials to make interesting public spaces. The structures are simple, but the designs are creative and the overall feel is hip and vibrant. I wonder if this could be a model for a lower energy society in other parts of the world.

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