Fieldnotes from Christchurch: ‘A wonderful disaster’

I visited Christchurch in New Zealand recently. This is the second largest city in the country, and one that has been dealing with the after effects of a series of major earthquakes which first struck almost 5 years ago. The impact of the quakes is most visible in the centre of the city. A great deal of the city’s buildings were damaged and had to be pulled down. I hadn’t visited the city for some 15-odd years but was unable to make any sense of the city from memory.

The view inside the 'Red Zone'

The view inside the ‘Red Zone’

The quakes have had a raft of impacts on people living in Christchurch – apart from damaged buildings that is. There were service disruptions, housing shortages, work relocations and, of course the psychological impacts. Financially the quake has taken a toll, both for individuals but also the country. The estimated cost has ballooned to over NZ$40 billion making it New Zealand’s costliest natural disaster. And, interestingly, it’s the third costliest earthquake (nominally) worldwide – apparently New Zealand has a high rate of building insurance.

My interest in Christchurch and recent events was spurred by hearing presentation by Professor Eric Pawson from The University of Canterbury at the Institute of Australian Geographer’s Conference in Melbourne earlier this year. He talked about the impacts of the earthquake on the university and students just kicking off their studies in 2011 when the February earthquake struck. With buildings damaged, many classes had to be run in tents and courses had to respond to changing conditions. However, it was one comment in particular he made that struck a chord with me. He suggested that Christchurch was a city that had been ‘forced’ to reimagine itself – that is both figuratively and literally.

The idea of natural forces acting as something of a creative catalyst in the upending of existing social and political orders is not new. Rebecca Solnit explores this in her excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, on what she calls ‘disaster utopias’. I was interested then to see just how Christchurch had been remained. And, given an interest in ideas of the Anthropocene, what we can learn – if anything – from the case of Christchurch. Certainly the geologic nature of events must force people to consider aspects of long-term liveability across the scope of human considerations – and beyond – right?

Rebuilding central Christchurch

Rebuilding central Christchurch

A good deal of my short time on the ground was spent walking around the city getting a sense of the physical impacts. After almost 5 years most of the collapsed buildings have been removed and there are new structures being built in all directions with cranes dominating the skyline. The sound of construction is a constant during the day. Orange traffic cones are ubiquitous. They mark out a fragile map of the new city – which is constantly changing given the need to cordon off safe and unsafe areas, directing flows of people and traffic. Each trip is an unknown quantity, and friends I met with mentioned the need to get used to this changeability and uncertainty. I asked people about the deeper impacts – the psychological effects. They shared a range of responses about living with unknowns – whether the daily commute would take the normal 15 minutes or 45 because of detours; ongoing uncertainties with insurance payouts; automatic panic responses, for instance when a large truck drives past and creates a rumbling that can be easily mistaken for another tremor.

Those that I spoke with were the ones that had decide to stay. Many had not. There was an exodus from the city immediately after the quake, with people moving to other cities around the country or overseas. Others have moved further out to satellite towns and cities. Even within the Christchurch area itself there has been a reshuffling of where people live, with new developments now springing up in previously fringe areas.

Still, those that have stayed said that the quakes have brought people closer together. One person mentioned she now knows people living on her street and will regularly catch up with neighbours for a cup of tea and a check-in. Another person called the quakes a ‘wonderful disaster’ given that it’s brought ideas of sustainability to the fore and has allowed a rethink of how these are enabled – that is, driven by community voice. Indeed the government undertook a range of community consultation to feed into developing plans for the city. The Share an Idea campaign in which Christchurch City Council invited people to submit suggestions on the central city recovery boasts that ‘over 100,000 suggestions poured in’.

Indeed, the other thing that drew me to a post-disaster location was stories that I’d heard about ‘creative’ responses. The mainstream news has picked up on the ‘cardboard cathedral‘, a temporary replacement for the damaged Anglican Cathedral that was the centrepiece of the city, designed by architect Shigeru Ban. Also, the ReStart Mall, a temporary shopping mall formed largely out of shipping containers to replace the damaged shopping precinct. In a more bottom-up fashion creative projects have emerged as people have seen possibilities for both practical and artistic responses. Gap Filler does what it says, fills the vacant building spaces with an assortment of temporary creative and community minded installations and activities: a dance stage, sonic art, a mini golf course, a pizza oven, temporary meeting spaces, and the like. In a similar vein Greening the Rubble installs temporary green spaces on now vacant building lots. From talking with people I got the sense that the artistic community had been a seedbed for ideas and activity in the aftermath.

Greening the Rubble site

Greening the Rubble site

The ‘rebuilding’ of the city, however, has not been without politics. Floated ideas for rebuilding included a relocation of the city center further inland to more stable ground, but eventually it was decided to rebuild in the current location even though, as one person in the know bluntly told me, ‘the ground there is completely f#cked’. Christchurch, being located on a massive floodplain is built on little more than silt and river stones, but the earthquake has shaken that up beneath the surface making it even more unstable. New buildings in the central city will be limited to a maximum for four storeys. Those I spoke with who had been forced to rebuild houses talked of the technicalities involved in laying rather substantial foundations – as well as the extra cost. Almost everyone it seems has had to become an amateur structural engineer.

But, perhaps the most notable political intervention with the new city plans has been central government’s reshaping of the proposed rebuild plan – one that injected a number of costly commercial developments without any public consultation whatsoever. The entire planing process has been a fraught one by all accounts, and it’s one that I think highlights the more normative forces underlying the rebuilding, both political and cultural.

So while my time in Christchurch was brief, it certainly brought up interesting ideas in relation to thinking through ideas of the Anthropocene, and how this confronts us in thinking though how we might cope with unpredictable earth forces and the world at more geologic scales. In having conversations with people I never mentioned this bigger context frame – it can come across as a bit ‘out there’. However, the events have certainly made people consider more existential issues. One person I spoke with discussed personal reflections on the quakes and  the sense of scale that they had imposed. They had made him contemplate his own sense of self in relation to much bigger and larger forces, both physically and temporally – like looking up at the stars and feeling extremely small and insignificant, he said.

That’s interesting, but I’m curious if these kinds of ideas are pulled into more applied areas – that is in the re-imaging of what Christchurch might be and how it might perform as a city. Sure, aesthetics is useful as a way of contemplating such events and making some sense of them in human terms. And apart from the utility value of filling ‘vacant’ spaces it’s not surprising that ‘art’ has been part and parcel of the response. But what does this change, and for how long? Does have the power to serious reconfigure our sense of cultural ecology – or political ecology? Any answer, in the case of Christchurch, requires more investigation. In conversation with one of the founders of the Gap Filler initiative I put this question to her. While there was certainly support for these organic ‘art’ projects at the moment, she said, she wasn’t sure if the impacts would indeed be long term. The tension between the bottom-up and local weren’t directly compatible with the plans that the state government has. The ‘gaps’ of the city will continue to be filled but they perhaps will not be dissimilar to the things that were there before.

Cathedral Square – heart of the city

Cathedral Square – heart of the city

Probably the most controversial ‘gap’ in Christchurch is the site of the Anglican Cathedral. Built in the late 1800s, the cathedral has been an important landmark in the city as well as a heritage-listed building. The recent quakes have caused major damage, destroying its spire and part of the tower as well as severely damaging the structure of the building. While the owners – namely the Church – are in favour of demolition, there has been a public campaign for  rebuilding and the case is currently going through a legal process.

So, ideas of rebuilding then are, unsurprisingly, contested. There appears a tension between the existing – or more correctly the previous order of things – and the new. And is the new actually that different from the old? While natural disasters open up the possibility for revolutionary positive change as Solnit illustrates, that change can also be channeled more oppressively as Naomi Klein argues in her disaster capitalism thesis. My sense is that Christchurch is somewhere in the middle. While events have indeed  forced a process of re-imagining the city, this appears not to be as a radical as it could have been. While elements of the city may be shifted around a bit, this is not a revolutionary reimagining. Neither does it seem to attend to notions of Anthropocenic futures. It’s focus is more immediate, and seems to be on getting the city back up and running like it used to be.

Interestingly, Christchurch City Council’s logo prominently features the spire of the Anglican cathedral. This has symbolically represented the city for many years, but five years after the toppling of this cultural icon it remains. This can be read a number of ways. Practically, perhaps they’re just waiting to see what shape the city takes before ‘rebranding’. On the other hand it could be that this is Christchurch’s symbolic phoenix, and the goal in rebuilding is return things to how they once were. Either way, I’ll be keeping an eye on Christchurch as things develop, and here’s hoping that processes of reimagining continue feed into debates about remaking cities.

Justin Westgate is a PhD Candidate with the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research exploring imaginative practices and post-natural futures. You can follow him on Twitter @justin_westgate.

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