Central Christchurch, one year after the earthquake

This is going to be a somewhat depressing post. But then again, central Christchurch is a somewhat depressing place right now. Besides, the post will lighten up towards the end, I promise. On 22 Feb 2011, an earthquake destroyed much of the city centre. Some buildings collapsed completely, many more were rendered uninhabitable. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I decided to visit Christchurch almost a year later. I had been told that there “wasn’t much to see any more”, which is true if you like historical buildings, and false if you like spray paint and cordons.

The whole of the city centre is cordoned off as reconstruction work has begin in earnest. This is Kilmore St near the centre, according to Google Street View:

This is the same view now:


The whole of the town centre is cordoned off, and accessible only to construction workers:


It took over two hours to walk around the circumference of the cordon. So much of the city looks as though time just stopped on the day of the quake. Through the dusty windows of cafes you can still see the coffee cups broken on the floor where they rolled off set tables during the quake. Most of the buildings still have a spray-painted sign saying which team checked them for survivors and when. This apartment building was checked by NSWTF (New South Wales Taskforce, a group from Australia) at 5.50am, 6 days after the quake:


The older buildings seemed worst affected:



And there are sobering reminders of the human cost:


However, there are things to be optimistic about. Famous for their ingenuity, the Kiwis have found a way to keep commerce going even in the stricken areas: shipping containers. When I first heard that there was a “container mall” in the town centre, I imagined a bleak corridor of metal bearing BP and Monsanto logos like some illegal Hong Kong gun market from an action film. The reality was pleasingly well executed (and unlike most inner city malls, there’s no shortage of parking space because of all the demolished buildings):


The cafe in the above pictures is light and airy, with sofas and cushions inside. There are banks, a food court and plenty of international clothing brand shops. Across town there was even a container bar with a passable whisky selection:


Yes, that’s a shipping container, heavily remodelled. The bar was full of locals and tourists and could have been in any world city. There was even a group of men in pink leotards pouring beer down the throat of their soon-to-be-betrothed friend.

Life goes on.

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5 Responses to Central Christchurch, one year after the earthquake

  1. James Clarke says:

    Hey Bernie – I’m a good friend of Jo Shone, met you way back at Oxford and just stumbled across your blog post via Jude’s tweet that used the “#eqnz” hashtag that I follow….6 degrees of separation, or something!

    It’s great to see that you’ve visited Christchurch and chose to write about it, they need all the help they can get! I was in Chch in April/May 2011 as my girlfriend’s Uncle & his family live there. They’d invited us out in Sep/Oct 2010 and we were all set to visit in the April/May of 2011 when the Feb 2011 quake struck.

    Their home was badly damaged in the Feb quake, but luckily we were still able to stay with them and spent 3 wonderful weeks exploring the Canterbury region, which is an amazing place and has so much to offer. It was inspiring to see how resilient the people of Chch were only two months after the big quake, and walking around the cordon was heart breaking – it had a long lasting affect on me.

    Aside from having no city centre, the residents of Chch are still living with regular aftershocks (we experienced many, including a 5.3 which was scary as hell!) and pretty much every aspect of their ‘normal’ daily life was affected.

    My girlfriend’s family were in the ‘residential red zone’ which consists of over 6,500 homes where the land has been so badly damaged by quakes and subsidence it has been deemed beyond repair for at least 5 years. The Govt. has slowly begun purchasing homes & land from residents and in November 2011 they had to leave the remnants of their 100+ year old home, which will eventually be bulldozed. They’ve now moved 30km west of the city to Darfield and bought a new home and business, starting again in their mid 50’s, instead of retiring as they’d planned to do!

    Many of their friends that we met are still living in limbo, in quake damaged homes that haven’t been fully assessed or classified one way or the other. It’s really hard to know that not only is the city centre off limits and going to be a completely different place when it is finally rebuilt, but entire suburbs will be wiped off the map too – the face of the entire city if going to change. The psychosocial scars are certainly going to take as long to heal (if not longer) than the physical ones.

    But even a couple of months after the quake, we left Chch with a great sense of hope, it’s a long road to recovery for them, but as your photos have shown 8 or 9 months after I was there – they’re a resilient bunch and Christchurch will rise again – and I plan to go back and see it!

    Sorry for hijacking your blog post, it’s just good to see someone else who has been there and seen what’s happening as it’s hard to comprehend unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

    Cheers, James

    • bernie says:

      Hi James,

      It’s a small world!

      We had a 5.0 quake while we were there, which was strong enough to wake us up. We figured if the YMCA hadn’t fallen down yet, it probably wasn’t going to.

      I likewise worried whether the city would be irreversibly changed, but I think populations have a way of getting over these things. Perhaps the recovered city will be different from the old one, but in any case I suspect in time this will just become another talking point on a open-top-bus city tour “This area that we’re passing contains one of central Christchurch’s few remaining intact neighbourhoods of late 1800’s housing, spared from the 2011 quake by the geological properties of the local area” or something like that. While kids pick their noses and wonder when they’re stop;ping for lunch, all the time not really making a connection between what’s being said and the implication that any local over 30 will remember something really horrible happening.

      Bernie :o)

  2. Nick says:

    They’ve just opened a shipping container mall in Shoreditch. Unlike the Kiwis, who have sensible painted theirs in nice colours, the designers have chosen depressing black. Why.


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