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Christchurch bites back after devastating 2011 earthquake

In 2011 Christchurch was flattened by the most destructive earthquake New Zealand has ever seen. But as the Christchurch Rebuild project gets underway, the city is shaping up to become better than ever before

Lyttelton, Christchurch. After the earthquake of 2011 - the most damaging in New Zealand's history - the city had a tough challenge recovering. But three years later new developments have transformed the area
Lyttelton, Christchurch. After the earthquake of 2011 - the most damaging in New Zealand's history - the city had a tough challenge recovering. But three years later new developments have transformed the area 

The streets are deserted. Filled with rubble, dust and the squalid remains of once lively restaurants and shop fronts, these structures have been untouched for nearly four years. A boarded up cathedral and a string of mobile homes tells us that this is a broken city. This is the scene in Christchurch, more than three years after the 2011 earthquake – the most damaging in New Zealand’s history.

And yet in the distance there’s a low hum coming from a row of temporary shops and cafes: the Re:Start Mall, an intriguing array of quirky boutiques, cafes and banks, all housed within brightly coloured shipping containers. These glimpses of activity and vibrancy are a promise of what’s to come as Christchurch is gradually restored to its former glory, reclaiming its title as the second largest city in New Zealand and the gateway to the country’s stunning South Island.

Fateful day
On February 22 2011 the earthquake – measuring a magnitude of 6.3 – struck the city, killing 185 people and injuring thousands more. Its epicentre was only 10km from the central business distract, meaning that the CBD was devastated within 40 seconds and 80 percent of its buildings were irrevocably damaged. Unlike the country’s capital Wellington, Christchurch had never been considered as prone to tremors – meaning that its buildings simply hadn’t been built to withstand them.

The Pyne Gould Corporation and the Canterbury Television multi-storey buildings tumbled to the ground instantly, killing over 100 workers, with other buildings that had already been weakened by an earthquake six months earlier swiftly following. Heritage sites including the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral suffered severe damage and the electricity, water and sewerage systems for much of the city were cut off. The government declared a national state of emergency and cordoned off the CBD, forming what was known as the ‘red zone’. It was to stay that way for over two years.

Mass exodus
What followed was a mass evacuation of people and businesses from the thousands of destroyed homes and crumbled corporate buildings. The city saw a 2.4 percent fall in its population, with over 10,000 people having fled the city by June that year, according to Statistics New Zealand. Although the exodus did drive growth in surrounding areas such as Selwyn, Queenstown-Lakes and Wimakariri, these figures formed a stark contrast to the annual one percent growth that the city had seen in the lead up to the catastrophe.


The magnitude of the earthquake


Of the CBD’s buildings were damaged beyond repair


People fled Christchurch within four months of the event

In the immediate wake of the earthquake, workers focused on bringing down the buildings that had been wrecked beyond repair and removing the debris lining the city’s streets. The red zone was emptied out. Then, in March 2011, the government established the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) in a bid to drive the city’s revival. Just over a year later the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) was also formed, hailing a $40bn project that would transform the demolished city centre.

Over the past year progress from these two interlinked projects has finally started to show. According to The Australian 200 new restaurants and bars having sprung up, and the surrounding city areas (including the CBD, which is no longer cordoned off) have seen hotels emerging. After intense renovation the Novotel, for example, has reopened and was reported to be almost full in February this year. The city’s efforts are evidently starting to pay off: Christchurch was ranked in the Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Places To Visit last year which, considering its bleak state just a couple of years ago, really is an impressive feat.

But it still has a long way to go before climbing to the top of that list and re-establishing its reputation as one of New Zealand’s greatest leisure and business destinations. “A lot has been rebuilt but there is still a lot more to be done,” said Christchurch born-and-bred athlete Angie Smit, who represented New Zealand at this year’s Commonwealth Games. “Some of the central area feels like a ghost town, whereas some parts, like the new container mall area, are really vibrant”. Experts predict that it will take another ten years before the city will fully shape up and regain its former character.

Opportunity from tragedy
Architects have already set to work with ambitious plans in mind, looking to other major cities such as Australia’s creative and commercial hub Melbourne for inspiration. Using the disaster as a springboard for creativity, the city has already implemented initiatives such as Gap Filler, where quirky attractions have filled previously derelict sites, including a gigantic chessboard that uses road cones as pawns.

Drawing opportunity from the disaster is something that the city is doing well, with the Rebuild Christchurch project set to make it better and greener than ever before. The city certainly had its draws prior to the disaster: it even battled with the capital city Wellington for the place of second most populous city to Auckland. Yet it also had its shortcomings, seen by some as an “old, white and monocultural place”, according to Christchurch coffee shop owner Sam Crofskey. He told The Australian: “Youths were fleeing the city… Now they want to stay. There’s a sense of community that wasn’t there before.” That much is clear from the number of community schemes that have sprung up, such as the ‘share an idea’ campaign launched by the government which saw over 106,000 people contributing ideas for the recovery proposal.

With a view to plucking such positivity from tragedy, the CCDU set out a blueprint plan that suggested 70 projects for completion by 2031. Developed with a vision for a “vibrant, green, connected, innovative centre”, new parkland and green spaces will characterise the banks of the River Avon while the CBD will feature mainly low-rise buildings. Pedestrian boardwalks, cycle tracks and a light rail system will make Christchurch more environmentally friendly than ever before.

Plans for 17 exciting anchor projects to be completed over the next few years have also been laid out: these include an earthquake memorial and a world-class 2,000-capacity convention centre, set to be underway by 2017. The vision for this structure is “to reinvigorate what was a successful convention destination market before the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 and to be an anchor project for citywide urban renewal”, said Paul Crowe, Head of Origination and Commercial at Plenary Group. According to Crowe, up to $500m could be invested in the development of the convention precinct, which includes retail, hotel and exhibition areas alongside the business space.

The wreckage from 2011's earthquake in Christchurch
The wreckage from 2011’s earthquake in Christchurch

Buildings have started to spring up in the four great avenues that define the central city, with over 200 developments on private sector sites either already fully constructed or well underway. Next year a bus interchange will reconnect people with the city, while inner city residential living is set to return in 2016. 2017 will see the birth of the retail precinct, likely to attract the return of the tourism and business that Christchurch lost for several years.

Other projects include ambitious performing arts, culture and innovation precincts, and lying at the heart of the city will be the Square (to be built in 2016); a green space appropriately evocative of Christchurch’s eco-friendly plans. A decision is still being made as to whether the destroyed cathedral, for many the former icon of the city, will be repaired or fully rebuilt.

A stadium that is planned to seat 35,000 will be constructed to replace the destroyed Queen Elizabeth II arena, which was built to host the 1974 Commonwealth Games, and other sports facilities are set to follow. According to some these plans mean that Christchurch, which is already world-renowned for its rugby, could become one of the world’s leading sports hubs. “As an athlete I feel we have it great here” said Smit. A high performance training centre is already up and running and has played host to world-class athletes, including gold medalist paralympian Sophie Pascoe. Next year the city will be one of a select few in New Zealand to host the 2015 Cricket World Cup, which is likely to be a huge magnet for tourism and investment.

Before those projects can be implemented though, the foundations need to be put in place. The city recently reached a milestone when half of its basic infrastructure was completed, with the remainder set to be finished by the end of 2016, according to Gerry Brownlee, Earthquake Recovery Minister. Costing $4bn, the repair project will see state-of-the-art road, sewage and water networks put in place.

The city is learning from the mistakes of its predecessors, collecting a mass of geotechnical data to assess the safest places for development and constructing buildings to withstand potential tremors. With those projects in mind the state has bought a large proportion of land from private property owners in the aim of developing new real estate and corporate space.

Future business hub
All of this forms part of an ambitious plan to turn Christchurch into a thriving international business hub, with the Canterbury Development Corporation (CDC) and its Christchurch Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) envisioning the city as “the best place for business, work, study and living in Australasia” by 2031.

And actually achieving this seems to be a realistic goal for a country that is ripe for investment. Once eclipsed by its bigger brother Australia, New Zealand’s economy has sped up significantly of late, partly as a result of a thriving dairy industry that benefits from extensive free trade. “New Zealand [has] very strong macro-economic fundamentals which provide global investors with quite a compelling proposition,” Jody Kaye of Harbour Asset Management told Business Destinations. Her co-worker Andrew Bascand added, “at over 3.5 percent, New Zealand has one of the strongest growth rates in the developed world.”

The country was voted the world’s third easiest country to do business in by the World Bank in 2012, as well as the least corrupt according to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Within that, the Canterbury region to which Christchurch belongs has the country’s fastest growing economy; a growth that has been driven in part by the very building boom that the Christchurch earthquake instigated. Once again the catastrophe has created opportunity by becoming a catalyst for growth.

These glimpses of activity and vibrancy are a promise of what’s to come as Christchurch is gradually restored to its former glory

With a view to strengthening its appeal, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has implemented regulations that allow investors to fast track the ordinary setup process. A five-day approval system is also in place for central city applications. Some businesses have already capitalised on this favourable financial climate, along with the newly renovated buildings in Christchurch: global US software firm Telogis expanded its activity in the city this year, leasing a central city block of renovated office space that was once home to the ANZ bank. Tourists are also starting to flock to the city, with Singapore Airlines increasing its flights to Christchurch for the coming summer in order to meet projected demand for business and leisure travel.

As commercial spaces and homes are rebuilt and investors begin to take to the city, the exodus that hit in 2011 is expected to be gradually reversed. The city’s population is set to grow rapidly, by 1,200 people yearly until 2016 and 2,500 yearly until 2031, according to Statistics New Zealand. The CCDU predict that most of the commercial space will be fully occupied by 2018.

The gradual emergence of new homes, precincts, green transport links and office space is sparking hope and enthusiasm among local residents. “Generally there is an optimistic feel in Christchurch with lots of people excited about the future of our city,” said Smit.

Christchurch’s location as the gateway to the South Island – where turquoise mirror lakes, vibrant green spaces and soaring mountains meet adrenalin-fuelled activities – already puts it firmly on the map as a worthy travel and business destination. And this is likely to accelerate ten-fold over the next two decades: “Christchurch will be a 21st century city with a beating heart; a green, connected hub in a thriving economic region” reads the CCDU promise on its website. And with the city’s appealing climate for investors, the optimistic spirit of its community, and its desire to pluck opportunity from disaster, there’s no reason to doubt such an ambitious claim.

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