The city of Christchurch, or Ōtautahi as it is known in Maori, has always been an important one in my life. My mother was born in Christchurch and growing up I made several trips down here to visit family. It is where my parents got married, where my sister and many other family members currently live, and it is the birthplace of my niece. In 2008 I lived here for a year to attend the University of Canterbury and it was a visit I will never forget. It was the last time I saw Christchurch the way I had always known it, and it was the last time I saw the city I considered my second home. When I returned for Christmas in December 2014 (and even more so this time) I had to relearn the city, as things have dramatically changed since 2008. Coming back here to live has been strange, as the familiarity is not what it used to be.
Affectionately known as the ‘Garden City’, Christchurch was known for its gentle undulating topography and its resemblance of the the United Kingdom. While elements of this still exist, it is now known for something totally different.
Christchurch was hit by significant earthquakes on 4th September 2010, and again on 22nd February 2011. These dates will forever live in infamy. The second major earthquake caused the death of 185 people, injuring many more, and left a substantial portion of the population with damage to their homes and emotional scars. I was fortunate to not be in Christchurch at the time, but I remember the day vividly as I have several family members here, some of who were severely affected by the earthquakes.
When I arrived in Christchurch in December 2014 I got my first look at the city since the devastation of the earthquakes and was blown away at how damaged it was. I was told by my family that this was nothing in comparison to the damage there was immediately after the earthquakes and that is when it truly hit me just how widespread the devastation was. The central business district was unrecognizable from 2008 and there were several areas of the city abandoned because living there was deemed too risky. What stuck out the most for me in that two week visit however, was the attitude of the locals. There was no sense of a population that felt sorry for themselves. Instead there was a renewed commitment to building the city and making it even better than it had been before. The silver lining in all of this, is that Christchurch now has the opportunity to ‘start again’ and it is on its way to becoming a very modern city.
There is a Maori saying that became very prominent in Christchurch after the earthquakes. ‘Kia Kaha’ means to stay strong, and that saying really sums up the people of Christchurch through the last five and a half years. In some ways it would have been easy for people to leave the city, to have a fresh start elsewhere, but many stayed and helped with the rebuild. The number of people in the city stayed the same following the earthquake, and together they made it a mission to rebuild. It is not a quick process, as the project is a massive undertaking, but it has made significant strides in the last few years.
The opportunity to reconstruct a city is not one that comes around too often and there was a debate amongst the locals in Christchurch as to how this should proceed. Many looked to Kobe, Japan (which had been devastated by an earthquake in 1995) as an example of how to rebuild the city. Dr. David Edgington, one of my father’s colleagues at the University of British Columbia, has spent years researching this topic. Edgington, among others, called for ‘public involvement’ and ‘transparency’ from the government throughout the process. This led to town hall meetings and several public debates as to how things should proceed. One of the more controversial arguments was from another family friend, Dr. Katie Pickles, who suggested the earthquakes sped up the decolonization of Christchurch and the city was best off creating a new history, rather than revisiting its colonial past. Pickles’ ideas were strongly opposed by many in Christchurch as many wanted to restore the history and to rebuild landmarks, such as the Anglican Cathedral in the city centre.
Christchurch recently acknowledged the five year anniversary of the February earthquake. Although there is still plenty of work to do, the city has come a long way in those five years, and is growing very quickly. There are several projects in the central business district that are close to completion and there are parts of Christchurch that are as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than they were before. This is a slow process however and that can’t be forgotten. Many people are still waiting for homes to be rebuilt and there are areas of the city (primarily located next to the Avon River) that have been red flagged for residential use. This has led to the residents of these areas having to relocate.
Although there has not been anything close to the magnitude of the 2011 earthquake, there are still frequent earthquakes in Christchurch. On Valentine’s Day of this year, less than a week after I arrived, there was an earthquake registering 5.7 and weekly there are numerous earthquakes registering 2.0 and above . The people of Christchurch have learned to live with these for the most part – much of the talk following an earthquake these days centres around insurance claims – but the thought of another ‘big one’ hitting certainly is never too far from minds.
The next few years will be interesting ones in Christchurch and I look forward to being able to update you further on the rebuild and the continued growth of the city. It was heartbreaking to see the city suffer such a fate, but the attitude of people in the city and the Kiwi drive and determination to rebuild it has been great to see!
**Throughout this blog I have linked to several websites on Christchurch and the rebuild. If you’d like to read more about this topic please click on these.