Christchurch

How New Zealand’s oldest city became its newest

Grassroots initiatives and local communities have ensured Christchurch hasn't just been rebuilt - it's been reimagined. Words by NAOMI ARNOLD, photography by MICKEY ROSS

When a massive earthquake struck New Zealand at midnight on November 13, 2016, it brought back some scary memories.

The magnitude 7.5 quake killed at least two people, smashed roads and railways, thrust up parts of the seabed by two metres and caused devastating landslides. It cut off thousands of people in the small eastern South Island tourist town of Kaikoura. But that quake was centered under rural land near the town of Hanmer Springs, in the middle of the South Island. Had it hit nearer an urban centre, the damage and loss of life could have been colossal.

It was especially unnerving because it felt like things were returning to normal in New Zealand, after the earthquakes that struck its third-biggest city, Christchurch, in the spring of 2010 and the summer of 2011.

For New Zealand, a country straddling the Pacific Ring of Fire and formed by the crush of two tectonic plates, earthquakes are inevitable. But Christchurch –  less than 200 kilometres from both Kaikoura and Hanmer Springs – was built on wide river plains, and had always felt flat, solid, and immovable. With views of snow-capped mountains in the winter and hot, beachy weather in the summer, it was home to indigenous Maori for centuries, then settled by migrating Europeans in the 1840s. It is the oldest established city in New Zealand, and 386,000 people called it home before the earthquakes.

But it all came crumbling down – first in September, with a magnitude 7.1 quake, then much worse in February, when a 6.3 quake hit. It was devastating. Two thousand people were injured and 108 died. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed and it caused an estimated NZ$30 billion worth of damage (HK$165 billion today). For the city’s residents, it was life-changing; their worlds split into before-quake and after-quake. But above all, it was city-changing.

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Luckily, Christchurch escaped damage in the Kaikoura earthquake. A large swathe of suburbia was abandoned as the government bought up destroyed homes, razed them and turned it all to grass. Today, streets lead nowhere, and home gardens have grown wild. It’s an unofficial park, where residents walk dogs and pick fruit and flowers growing wild in the former lawns and gardens.

As people started responding to what happened, a grassroots creative movement began to arise. Visiting international artists and locals alike created murals. A shipping-container mall emerged, and a transitional church, the Cardboard Cathedral, was designed pro bono by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, built from cardboard, wood and glass.

christchurch

One of the most successful grassroots projects was Gap Filler, which temporarily enlivened vacant sites with creative projects. There was the Dance-O-Mat – a coin-operated dancefloor – a football field, an event pavilion made from wooden pallets, a cycle-powered cinema, garden cafes and a bar made from scaffolding.

Another project born out of Gap Filler is community bike workshop RAD Bikes. An acronym for Recycle a Dunger, RAD helps people renovate their ‘dunger’ (broken down) bikes and turn them into workable machines again. Three years on, it’s a thriving non-profit organisation run on a combination of volunteer donations and labour, as well as some external funding. Its five board members include Jess and Nic Sewell. Christchurch is Nic’s hometown, and the couple moved back just a few months after the February quake.

‘We thought being part of the rebuild would be really interesting for the years to come,’ Jess Sewell says. ‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work in Nic’s hometown, and he had lots of family, including grandparents, who were a bit down about what had happened. We wanted to bring enthusiasm and say, “This is an exciting thing and we want to be a part of it”.’

They got jobs in architecture firms and quickly met creative people who were doing exciting things, making the most of the opportunities that were popping up.

‘It was definitely inspiring. It was really exciting,’ Sewell says. ‘These grassroots initiatives were about urban regeneration from the ground up and were empowering. You could get your hands dirty and make things happen in your city that you wanted in a really tangible way with a manageable timeframe.’

‘That’s been a real theme of the rebuild: the parallel developments,’ continues Sewell. ‘Things like RAD and Gap Filler have flourished because people can see how they can be involved and be a part of rebuilding and making something positive out of it. People have compared Christchurch to Berlin after the bombing.’

Christchurch was always thought of as the Garden City, the most English of New Zealand cities. It was quaint and stately, full of elaborate Victorian stone schools, churches and government buildings that spoke to its past as a hopeful new colony.

Many of those are gone now, damaged in the earthquakes, though there have been passionate campaigns to restore some. One of those taking part is Rekindle. The social enterprise was started by Juliet Arnott in Auckland as a response to timber being taken to landfill, much of it resulting from the demolition of homes made from now-rare native woods. Rekindle has picked up what it could to make furniture and homewares.

Its 2014 Whole House Reuse Project took an entire house and made new, useful objects from it – right down to light switches and electrical wiring. A home that would have otherwise gone to waste was instead turned into nearly 400 beautifully crafted artefacts, including backyard studios, jewellery and furniture.

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Artist and social worker Emma Byrne and her partner, builder Tim McGurk, were instrumental in Rekindle’s growth and the Whole House Reuse Project. They chose to stay in their home city and bought an old church they are converting into a home.

‘For me, it feels like there’s a network of really enthusiastic people and the possibilities are enormous,’ says Byrne. ‘You can dream something up and you can do it. Because of the lack of facilities, arts organisations and galleries have built stuff outside on empty sections – big things that wouldn’t have fit in the centre of the city before. Things are temporary now and they can be fun and edgy because they’re not a permanent thing that’s been funded.’

Byrne says the city that she once knew isn’t there anymore. ‘It doesn’t exist. But there’s a different Christchurch now.’ 

Cathay Pacific flies to Auckland from Hong Kong 14 times a week. The airline now flies the A350 on the route

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