19th July 2012
NZ on the edge; the road to recovery after the quakes
By James White
This week I spent some time in New Zealand talking to our Kiwi clients. It gave me the opportunity to discuss with New Zealanders the continued impact of the earthquake in Christchurch. I also had my own little earthquake, a deep 7.0 magnitude shake as I was preparing for bed. It was no fun, but nothing compared to the 10,515 earthquakes that have shaken Canterbury since late 2010.
The earthquake, of course, has been a true economic and social disaster for the city and region. It cost 185 lives. It has wrought substantial devastation to the physical environment. Estimates put the re-build at between $20 – $30 billion (10% to 15% of GDP). In the city’s downtown area of 4,000 buildings, a total of 1,000 have been or are to be demolished. Of the city’s buildings greater than 5 stories high, 50% or 110 buildings will be demolished. In the suburbs at least 10,000 homes will have been demolished and over 100,000 damaged. Some of the damage is due to the quake and a lot due to liquefaction where water seeps into soil so that the soil loses its strength.
The earthquake has had a substantial impact on the lives of people in the region. Beyond the initial impact of such a devastating event life has fundamentally changed for all residents. It has also highlighted what it means to live in a developed world city.
Much of the pain associated with the earthquake in Christchurch has come, not just from the initial quake and the ongoing aftershocks, but from the changes forced on the lives of Cantabrians. For weeks, many households had no power. For months, there was no running water. As would be the case in parts of the developing world, households had to source water from communal water stations and use portaloos.
Out of reach
Even as essential services are restored, other services remain out of reach and a return to normal life has proved impossible. Families needed to consider where they wanted to live, particularly if their homes are now in the red zone and scheduled for demolition. Some decamped to the rest of New Zealand or perhaps down the road to Canterbury towns such as Ashburton which now overflow.
Businesses, found life hard. Very quickly, office space in Christchurch became very scarce, and very expensive. This led to businesses sharing office space through hot-desking or working alternate shifts. Alternatively, businesses have been established out of garages.
Achievement in adversity
Schools, too, have had to share space. Schools who have lost their buildings are sharing with other schools. For some children the day begins at 7AM and ends at 1PM or alternatively begins at 1PM and ends at 7PM. This has had some interesting effects. Not surprising for parents with teenagers, exam results show the secondary schools operating in the afternoon have attained better results. Most interesting, however, was the fact that all Christchurch schools attained results better than the national average in the National Certificate of Educational Achievement.
Innovation in a crisis
The council supported the establishment of a retail precinct called Container City where all the shops are made of TEUs. It has helped generate economic activity in Christchurch’s city centre, perhaps 18 months earlier than if traditional building was used. The project was built in two months with no water, no sewerage, no electricity, no gas and considerable co-operation. The organisers of the project ordered the containers before they had the $500,000 required to pay for them. It was supported by ASB.
Survival of a city
More broadly, the earthquake has been an existential crisis for Christchurch. The city had to ask itself two questions. Should it exist? And what does a modern city look like?
There’s no question New Zealand needs a city on the Canterbury plains, particularly given access to one of the few decent ports on the South Island’s east coast. But cities need people and there was a real concern that if re-building was too difficult or the aftershocks continued that people wouldn’t stay. Academics discussed the idea of a population death spiral. If Christchurch lost 3-5% of its population there were concerns that the population decline would continue and the city cease to exist. There were particular concerns that young people would leave.
Similarly, the continued existence of a red-zone, inaccessible to residents, meant that the city has had to change shape. Activity has shifted from the centre to the periphery and suburbs. This has proved particularly difficult for young people who no longer have a city centre to socialise in. Can a city exist as a doughnut? Christchurch seems to have been re-established as a series of inter-linked, satellite towns, without one unifying centre.
There is also the hope that Christchurch can do something revolutionary. Many argue that the city now has a blank canvas on which to create a city of the future. A city that is more liveable and enjoyable. This is exciting but ephemeral. For many residents getting back to normality, as soon as possible, is a more pressing reality.
Getting back on its feet
It’s expected that in the course of the next six months re-building in Christchurch will begin in earnest as insurance monies are paid out and the weather improves. In a way, Christchurch seems to be getting back on its feet. Importantly, despite all the tremors and the existential concerns people are coming back. School enrollments, for instance, are starting to rise again with many students starting to return from elsewhere in New Zealand. Rents, too, signal the returning populations. They are up 26% in the last year, while enquiries for leases are up 47% from this time last year, according to Trade Me. Christchurch is re-building and it probably wouldn’t mind a visit.