From the Hereford Street bridge, Christchurch’s central business district is a scene of wanton violence and destruction. It is as though Titans have wrestled and stumbled among the buildings. Now, in the aftermath, traffic cones and steel safety fencing stand amid pooled water, and polythene barrier tape hangs limply in the morning drizzle.
At the nearby Bridge of Remembrance, a soldier in battle fatigues waves me up to the cordon barrier. Through the arch I gaze across a wasteland of broken paving tiles, fallen masonry, timber and bent roofing iron. There is a glimpse, now and then, of hard hats and high-vis vests as Civil Defence engineers go about their delicate work in the sealed red zone. Further down City Mall looms the fractured bulk of the doomed 26-storey Hotel Grand Chancellor. Along Oxford Terrace, toward Worcester Street, the 95-year-old statue of Robert Falcon Scott lies face down in the grass where it came to rest, its legs of Carrara marble broken. An inscription on the plinth, from one of the polar explorer’s last diary entries, speaks of enduring hardship, helping one another, meeting death with fortitude.
And all this on top of the wounds—many still raw—from the original quake.
It is weeks since the devastating magnitude 6.3 tremor hit, laying waste to the heart of Christchurch. Though weaker than the September 2010 earthquake, the shallowness, timing and proximity of the February 2011 aftershock proved a lethal cocktail. Centred just six kilometres to the south-east, in the Port Hills, it struck a little before one o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, 22 February, when the city’s streets were at their busiest. The fourth of what were to be 72 shocks that day, it was the first of nine massive tremors to rock the city in the space of just five minutes. It took the lives of at least 181 people.
For the better part of a day I skirt the cordons, taking stock. Circling the city to get perspective. To put this upheaval, this vicious subterranean assault, into some sort of order. To draw the sting.
Ten or more kilometres on, in late afternoon light amid the fallen headstones of Barbadoes Street Cemetery, I give the project up. It is not possible. I have seen too much to be easily soothed. Cars thrown at odd angles in the collapsed Smiths City car park, the smashed and corkscrewed domes of the majestic Catholic Basilica, hollowed out churches, hotels reduced to open dolls’ houses by fallen walls, damaged family homes bearing words of anguished defiance. Gaping fissures in the ground. Messages of hope and solidarity pinned to railings. Water sprayed amid ruins to control asbestos. The melancholy swing and fall of a demolition ball. And everywhere, the choking ooze of liquefaction.
Yet Cantabrians are not alone in these dark hours. Repeatedly, I meet outsiders here to do what they can. Salvation Army volunteers from Pukekohe and Invercargill. An Earthquake Commission inspector from Wellington. And, as I sit beside the lead-lettered gravestones, another Wellingtonian recently arrived in the Garden City on a security posting introduces himself.
Richard Anderson talks of being thanked for his efforts by appreciative locals and offered home baking. His hands splay in a gesture of surprise.
“I’m saying, no you need this stuff, not me,” he tells me.
“The spirit of these people makes you want to come down here and give something back.”
Anderson confesses to a keen interest in genealogy. He swung by this cemetery out of habit, he says, to read the inscriptions. It turns out that he is distantly related to the pioneering geologist Alexander McKay. McKay, who had a formidable reputation as an independent thinker, was the first scientist in New Zealand—some say in the world—to document transcurrent, or sideways, fault movement (after observing fence lines displaced by the 1888 Glynn Wye earthquake in North Canterbury). Prior to that only vertical movement had been recognised. His greatest achievement, says the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, was to liberate New Zealand earth scientists from the “received wisdom” of the Old World, “enabling them to see, interpret and report the uniqueness of New Zealand geology”.
There has never been a greater need for such interpretation. As the nation’s second city comes to terms with the scale of its misfortune and begins the arduous task of recovery, understanding the mechanics of what happened—and what may yet happen—is crucial. The findings of earth scientists, derived from such things as seismic mapping and trend analysis, will determine the available options—what can safely be rebuilt, and to what specifications, what land can be remediated and what must be abandoned. Whether, indeed, Christchurch will become a diminished centre of low-rise structures and heritage sites, with business activity transferred to satellite clusters on less problematic ground.
Due to the nature of Canterbury’s geology, in which basement rocks lie under gravels or other deposits, the location faults and their patterns of interlinkage cannot be determined from surface observations alone.
Just nine days after the quake, University of Canterbury geologist Mark Quigley was pleading the case for detailed geo-mapping, warning that other “blind” faults may exist beneath the city’s 600 sqkm footprint. Quigley pointed out that both the September 2010 and February 2011 events were triggered on fault lines that were not recorded on GNS Science’s database. He advocated carrying out seismic surveys using geophones without delay to augment the study of aftershocks.
“We’ve so far been struck by two faults we didn’t know about,” he told the New Zealand Herald.
“So here’s the question: is there a fault that’s really short but capable of a magnitude-four earthquake in the immediate Christchurch area? This can be answered. And we need this data before we even talk about rebuilding.”
University of Otago geologist Andrew Gorman was less sure about the proposal, saying geophysical surveys were useful but complex and that several on the Canterbury Plains in September had been inconclusive.
Making assessments more difficult is the fact that two entirely different geological process were involved in the February quake—structural damage, injury and loss of life caused by ground shake in the city’s CBD; and damage to property, utility networks and roads due to liquefaction in the eastern suburbs.
The engineering of buildings for earthquake resilience is acknowledged to be more advanced than are construction techniques to counter liquefaction.
Despite widespread distrust of high-rises in the wake of fatalities in both the Pyne Gould Guinness and CTV buildings, engineers such as Beca’s technical director of earthquake engineering, Richard Sharpe, defend them. In structural terms, both PGG and CTV were “pre-modern”, they argue. Dating from the mid-1960s and 1970s, they were designed before engineering practice began to reflect a true understanding of how buildings respond to seismic stress. More recent high-rises in Christchurch performed well, says Sharpe—among them the Christchurch Art Gallery (2003), with its impressive glass sculpture wall. The Art Gallery, which incorporates a “raft slab” designed to distribute seismic forces evenly, emerged from the aftershock unscathed and became the Emergency Operations Centre for hundreds of workers from Civil Defence and other agencies.
Even without Gorman’s proposed surveys, just three weeks after the quake a gathering of leading scientists sought to allay fears about the abandonment of the city’s CBD. As business owners clamoured with increasing frustration to be allowed into the cordoned CBD to retrieve vital equipment and records, the panel, headed by the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Peter Gluckman, set out the known facts:
It wasn’t unusual to have a six-month gap between a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and a 6.3 magnitude aftershock. The February quake was more destructive because of its proximity, despite releasing only five per cent of the energy of the Boxing Day quake. There was little risk of a major tsunami, or that an eruption of the Banks Peninsula volcano would be triggered. There was no evidence that seismic activity in New Zealand was increasing—in a typical year New Zealand experiences more than 500 earthquakes larger than magnitude 4.0. (They might have mentioned the massive, and now largely forgotten, magnitude 7.8 Fiordland earthquake of July 2009—the largest to jolt New Zealand since the 1931 Hawke’s Bay quake). It was also important to note that the Canterbury quakes differed from the Japanese earthquake of 10 March, which was 8,000 times more violent. The New Zealand quakes were generated by slip faults, whereas the Japanese quake and tsunami originated at the boundary of two tectonic plates, the Pacific and the North American, and tore open a fault line half the length of the North Island.
Earthquake science was complex rather than linear, said Gluckman. As with climate change, earthquakes could only be described in terms of risk and probability.
Nevertheless, New Zealand earthquake engineering science was leading the world, he said, and enough was already known to inform the decision-making process. “Scientifically, there is no reason not to rebuild in Christ-church, although because of soil degradation it may not be advisable to rebuild in some areas.”
Jim Dunlop, for one, would be heartened at the words.
I first catch sight of Dunlop in the city’s northeast as he straddles the ridge of a ruined building and, framed by rusting galvanised vents, knocks loose bricks from an outer wall with a lump hammer. Down below, standing beside a late model Honda, its hood crumpled by rubble, I watch him carefully drop the bricks. He pauses to adjust his hard hat.
“There were twenty-two of us in here when it came and we all walked out,” he says.
Dunlop owns the building. Originally belonging to Ward’s Brewery, parts of which date back to 1856, it is now—that is, it was until 22 February—a workshop for disabled people.
It has been a traumatic six months, he tells me. “Though there was virtually no damage to this building in the first earthquake. I thought we had dodged the bullet.”
I ask what the future holds. He draws breath.
“Depends what hat I have on. It doesn’t stack up financially to rebuild. Right now I have a massive mortgage on a building for which I’m getting no rent and I am only surviving because the bank is allowing me to.”
Nevertheless, Dunlop confesses that he would like to clear the land and “rebuild something that ties in with what was here.”
Move on while holding fast to his roots, in other words.
“We have a golden opportunity to make dramatic changes. The next couple of years will be a bit rough, but I’ve got no fears for the future,” he tells me.
“Some people have taken flight, but only because they are frightened. They’ll be back.”
The same evening, in battered Kaiapoi, my brother says much the same thing. Turning into his street I notice a sandbagged sign on the road asking drivers to slow down—“Your speed is SHAKING our homes”.
“This is where I live,” he declares, nursing a Speight’s. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Post-quake Canterbury is not short of analysis. Business owners may lack premises, many households might rely still on kerbside portaloos and portable showers, great swathes of road remain closed and kilometres of storm-water pipes are out of commission, but the flow of data, and the forecasts, predictions and suggestions derived from them, appears inexhaustible.
Take the human exodus. Undeniably, many residents seeking respite from the aftershocks (843 tremors and counting since 22 February), have left for other parts of New Zealand and have even crossed the Tasman to Australian sanctuaries. ANZ Bank economists quoted reports putting the figure at “as many as 65,000”, or 17 per cent of the city’s population of 380,000. Many would have gone to Auckland and Dunedin—earthquake-prone Wellington would have been less attractive—and to peripheral towns such as Timaru, Ashburton, Blenheim and Greymouth, said the economists.
The big question is: how many of these domestic refugees would return, as Dunlop confidently predicted? If Christchurch followed the Japanese example after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the economists reasoned, then 2.5 per cent, or 9500 people, would leave permanently. Add that to an expected reduction in permanent arrivals from overseas and elsewhere in New Zealand of, say, 5500 and all up some 15,000 residents, or four per cent of the city’s population, would be lost in the first year.
This ‘back-of-the-envelope’ calculation translates into a population about 25,000 lower than expected by 2031, which has implications for the amount of infrastructure, services and amenities needed—and, crucially, (though their own report doesn’t say as much), the level of economic activity that can be sustained.
If Christchurch’s port, airport or universities lost their dominance in the South Island economy, said the ANZ Bank economists, the depopulation was likely to be more pronounced.
University of Auckland Business School academic James Young, who studied the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans property prices in 2005, says Christchurch faces the prospect of empty suburban sections if owners needing to rebuild their homes are hit with heavy earthquake premiums to cover bank mortgages.
New Orleans is still affected by Katrina and, despite Christchurch not having the same socio-economic profile and higher levels of owner-occupied property, it may also be at risk for years.
“New Zealand is not big on Government incentives that attract developers, as we saw in New Orleans, and there will be lots of Cantabrians who, once they get insurance money and their slice of the Earthquake Commission benefit, will realise that they simply don’t have the money to rebuild,” Young says.
Even if they do have the financial resources, the insurance premium hike and the cost of making houses more earthquake resistant may discourage them, he adds.
Christchurch’s tourism industry is also likely to be affected, at least temporarily, though no one knows to what extent. As a result of this year’s quakes in Canterbury and Japan, Goldman Sachs economist Philip Borkin anticipates a 10 per cent drop in the number of international visitors to New Zealand as a whole in the second quarter of 2011—similar to what happened after the terror attacks in September 2001 and the global SARS outbreak in 2003—followed by a quick rebound. A shortage of serviceable accommodation in Christchurch, along with the relocation of all five of the city’s scheduled Rugby World Cup pool games to alternative venues, is likely to prolong the visitor slump for Canterbury.
Underlying such speculation is a more fundamental question: what form is a resurrected Christchurch likely to take? The available metrics outline the scale of the undertaking. As at March 31 this year, 1089 commercial buildings in the CBD had been given red stickers (meaning they posed a threat and may need to be demolished). Some 1859 residential buildings, 411 heritage buildings and 956 commercial buildings in the suburbs had also been red-stickered.
A reordering of life in the suburbs also appeared to be underway. A month after the latest quake, real estate agent Tony Brazier told the New Zealand Herald that some stricken suburbs were likely to become virtual residential wastelands. Other agents reported increased buyer interest in townships on the city’s fringe and in new projects such as the Pegasus lifestyle development, north of Christchurch. Unlike the badly affected eastern suburbs such as Sumner, Redcliffs and Mt Pleasant, Pegasus town, which has its own water reservoir, sewerage and gas reticulation, escaped damage in the recent earthquakes.
The Prime Minister, John Key, stoked uncertainty by claiming that as many as 10,000 houses faced demolition, with a further 100,000 damaged. He suggested that the Government might buy out owners in areas where liquefaction was so significant that it was unlikely to be remediated “in any time frame”.
Key later admitted that these were indicative numbers only and included some 3500 houses condemned after the September quake Nevertheless, after driving through Bexley, Aranui, Bromley and New Brighton—places that seem to sit on jelly—it is hard to dispute the gravity of the situation. Their pipes blocked with liquefaction, their chip-covered roads waterlogged and crowded with hazard cones, heavy earthmoving equipment and the vehicles of plumbers, builders and electricians.
It is possible to reduce the effects of liquefaction—by compacting surface soil, by installing flexibly jointed underground pipes made of ductile materials and by injecting concrete to bind underlying gravels and sand. However, for many streets, for whole suburbs even, new subdivisions on stable ground to the west and south of Christchurch may be preferable to large-scale land remediation. There is even talk of re-afforesting much of the land to the east, between the Avon and Heathcote rivers.
As to the CBD itself, there have been predictions that professional firms such as lawyers and accountants would relocate to the suburbs, while the CBD itself would spread beyond its traditional boundaries. Ample commercial and industrial land also exists near Christchurch International Airport—where the airport company is pushing through plans for both permanent and temporary office parks—and shopping hubs may develop in Riccarton, Sydenham and other fringe areas. The options are reduced for large retail malls, which are likely to re-establish in the CBD.
Controversially, Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee confessed at a media briefing in early March that if he had his way most of the city’s heritage buildings would be pulled down.
“While they are part of our past history, they have no place in our future history,” he said.
He had a point. Almost half of Christchurch’s 1000 or more heritage buildings had been red-stickered and many were in danger of collapse. Two days later, having raised much public ire, the Minister was back-pedalling, saying he had no wish to “take Christchurch to the ground”. Nevertheless, he defended the need to move “fairly quickly”, saying the heritage orders preventing demolition of many such buildings after the September quake had been “far too precious”.
Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Building Trust Board chair Anna Crighton wanted to know what the rush was, telling Radio New Zealand “the biggest enemy of heritage…is panic and haste”.
Also taking to the airwaves in defence of ancient stone and mortar was Mary O’Keeffe, from the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
“We know the buildings can be stabilised, they can be rebuilt, they can be reassembled,” she told TV One’s Breakfast Today. “I think some people are linking the fact that because the buildings are old, they are inherently dangerous. Those two things don’t actually go together.”
Some iconic structures will almost certainly be restored, even if Brownlee was handed carte blanche, among them Christchurch Cathedral, the Provincial Chambers, the Arts Centre and the Catholic Basilica.
New Zealand Historic Places Trust chief executive, Bruce Chapman, would like to see the net cast wider, saying that as Christchurch rose from the rubble, its heritage buildings would become important symbols.
Yet this is not just a question of what is possible in engineering terms, but rather an opportunity to rethink what a modern New Zealand city should be like—how citizens can best consolidate resources and co-exist in a sustainable, connected urban environment in the 21st century.
There are precedents. Earthquake-hit metropolises as distinct as San Francisco and Tokyo have risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes, resurrecting entire neighbourhoods and rebuilding on a massive scale. Closer to home, the coastal town of Napier, rebuilt after being all but destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1931, became an emblem of an architectural era and from the fortuitous circumstances of its reconstruction grew an enduring tourism industry (see sidebar).
With vision, Christchurch could similarly redefine itself—perhaps by becoming a hub for the ‘weightless’ economy; an economy, that is, based on knowledge—software, genetics and nanotechnology, for example—rather than on primary industries and heavy manufacturing. It could foster New Zealand-developed ‘green’ technologies, such as those contributing to energy-efficient buildings, which in turn would prove attractive to the highly-skilled knowledge workers needed to create such an economy. In this scenario, the vision would be as much concerned with creating the right financial, business and civic relationships and mechanisms as with building the appropriate infrastructure.
It is one of many possible futures. The Christchurch quakes have given rise to a number of websites dedicated to tabling possibilities—everything from becoming an elevated garden city to creating science parks, automated light rail and a river corridor of pedestrian malls. What is beyond question is that without some compelling proposition with a cogent economic underpinning, Christchurch risks collapsing into economic irrelevance.
Christchurch’s mayor, Bob Parker, is in no doubt that his city faces a challenge unprecedented in its history—indeed, in the history of the country. The scale of the calamity has left Cantabrians with hard decisions, but a way forward must be found and swift, sure action taken. The city’s very survival is at stake.
This, more or less, is what the mayor will say at the start of Christchurch City Council’s first meeting since the quake. But all that lies in the future when I catch him, clad in bright orange safety gear, water bottle in hand, outside Civil Defence HQ. He is patiently listening to a couple of Urban Search and Rescue workers who are pleading for access to a building on behalf of an upset owner. It is, by now, a familiar petition.
“This is fundamentally a nineteenth century city,” Parker tells me when at last he can spare time to sit. “We have a unique historical opportunity to embrace the paradigm of the twenty-first century. Environmental understanding and sustainable living are light years away from the experiences of the founders.”
The most prolific period of building was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he says, and the world has moved on “massively” since then.
“The council has led the way. If you look at its new building—we utilised the refit of an older building, which was a deliberate process to lower the carbon footprint. It has passive and active solar heating and is a six-green-star rated building—possibly the only one in New Zealand.”
Inescapably, the city will be transformed, he says.
“People don’t fully grasp how much the cityscape will change. There is a significant question over a lot of high rises and the majority won’t be standing in three months. But Christchurch doesn’t need to be a high-rise city. The risks are not just geological; it is a question of where people are at themselves.”
The community will lose a number of heritage buildings, he admits, but there is no reason why the best cannot be rebuilt. It doesn’t need to happen at once. They can be deconstructed to preserve detailing and materials and resurrected later.
“We have the rest of our lives to do that.”
As to the overall plan, whatever form the city takes must engender confidence as a place to work and build and invest. Parker talks of the council’s ambitious project to wire the city for ultra high-speed broadband and of the need for a significant residential presence in the CBD, but the visionary talk is tempered by a nicely judged practicality.
We are a remote, low-capital society, he says. It would be disingenuous to expect a Singapore-style miracle. As it is, cost estimates for the rebuild have already reached $20–30 billion.
“There is a danger we could focus too high and not achieve what we aspired to.”
In any case, Parker makes plain, it would be wrong to look to him or to any other individual for a Christchurch blueprint. What he can do is help facilitate a process.
“People need to create the vision they want. There are constraints in terms of the availability of capital, differing views on aesthetics and so on, but essentially what we must do is to engineer an opportunity for the community to download its collective and individual visions.”
Key stakeholders and the council itself, as a democratically elected decision-maker, would also contribute to the final plan which, once agreed, would be enshrined in law. Time is pressing, he says, so there needs to be a relatively condensed process.
“Sometimes city plans can drag on for 10 years. We need to deliver a cohesive plan in six months.”
Whatever the vision, he says, it needs to be compelling and inclusive. It must also have an aesthetic that is attractive, functional and affordable. And, most important, people need confidence that Christchurch is a safe place to live and work.
“Our city has taken something like 181 lives. We never want to see that again.”