Three Years On: Christchurch After the Quake

New Regent Street, Christchurch

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It was 2014: we had just arrived in Christchurch and were sipping wine in New Regent Street. It was a sunny day and people were spilling out of the cafés and bars and onto the street, finding a seat wherever they could. I looked at the carefully preserved early 20th century buildings, their facades smartly painted in pastel shades, and watched a newly refurbished tram trundling past. But this was no ordinary city centre street. It was a road to nowhere, its ends stretching into rubble and wasteland: a legacy of the earthquake that devastated Christchurch three years earlier.

New Regent Street, Christchurch
A tram passes through New Regent Street

A Heritage in Ruins

We walked down to the old Anglican Cathedral, mostly intact at one end but collapsed at the other. This story was repeated across the city: once grand buildings whose former glory was apparent but which remained unsafe to enter. We saw grand colonial houses at Mona Vale and at Riccarton, houses that that were lived in by great pioneering families and later became part of the heritage of Christchurch, used as amenities by its citizens, but which were now closed and shored up by scaffolding.

Old Cathedral, Christchurch
The old Cathedral is badly damaged

Elsewhere, buildings that were still in use had tell-tale cracks across the walls and there were signs of damage in the road surfaces. Beyond Christchurch, where the hills separate the city from the sea, whole cliff faces had been secured to stop any further rock fall onto the buildings below.

Rebuilding Christchurch

Reconstruction work began immediately after the earthquake, starting with necessary repairs to the infrastructure, including the roads and sewage system. One of the first projects was the Restart Mall – a shopping mall built entirely from shipping containers and completed within a matter of weeks. The Mall was successful in attracting people back to the city centre: when I visited it had the air of a trendy leisure area, bustling with shoppers, market stalls and buskers.

Restart Mall, Christchurch
The Restart Mall is built from shipping containers

The Cathedral posed more of a problem. The church authorities planned to demolish it and to commission a new structure; campaigners fought to save the building, saying that it was an integral part of Christchurch’s heritage. In the meantime a temporary replacement was built – the pro-Cathedral, more popularly known as the Cardboard Cathedral. Even this was not entirely uncontroversial; when I visited St Michael’s Church (a wooden church dating back to 1851, the oldest in the city) a churchwarden told me that many people had expressed surprise that St Michael’s itself had not been chosen as pro-Cathedral.

Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch
The Pro-Cathedral, commonly known as the Cardboard Cathedral

Rebuilding is a long term project and the Filling the Gap project encouraged people to put forward interim ideas for the use of empty spaces. Walking around the city centre I saw lots of street art, sculptures and murals, creative ways of bringing life back to desolate areas.

Mural in Christchurch
A mural has been painted onto the side of a building

Looking to the Future

On our last day we went to Quake City, a museum that looks at the impact and legacy of the earthquake. We read about the ways in which the infrastructure is being repaired and building techniques are being developed to reduce the effect of any future seismic activity. It was both sobering and uplifting to hear the personal stories of those who had lived through the major earthquake of 2011.

Perhaps surprisingly, the exhibition ended on a note of optimism. It quoted the Maori concept of Te Ao Hurihuro – the forever changing world – which suggests that the past influences the present and the present influences the future.  One side effect of the earthquake was the unearthing of many previously undiscovered Maori artefacts. Another was the development of the creative projects initiative, allowing people to suggest their own regenerative schemes. The earthquake was a terrible, destructive force, but it also enabled people to reconnect with the heritage of their city.


19 thoughts on “Three Years On: Christchurch After the Quake”

  1. You've made me feel really sad. I don't want to ever go back – I just want to retain the wonderful Christchurch of my memories. It was my favourite place in New Zealand before the quake. All those places you mention I can clearly picture as they were. I'm so glad they are trying hard to rebuild the city and didn't abandon it, but it's not for me.

  2. I remember when this happened. I am glad they are trying to rebuild. It takes so long to do so that some places just may not find it worth the trouble.

  3. I really like the Restart Mall – what an excellent way to repurpose those containers. I used to do a lot of work in the shipping sector, so they would be a special thrill for me to experience! Very interesting post, thank you for sharing your story and photos.

  4. I remember these images…I also went to Christchurch after the earthquake and the city was still in ruins…Hopefully it is rebuild by now…or at least partly

  5. Love the filling gap project – this is the way we should work on reuse. The Restart mall is just awesome. I wish the world was full of these creative ways rather than concrete.

  6. Thanks for sharing this post. I can closely relate to this. I come from Italy, where earthquakes are frequent. Unfortunately, clientelism and bureaucracy mean that reconstruction work lasts decades. I love how creatively Christchurch is trying to rebuild itself, the pro-catherdral and container mall might not be everyone's cup of tea, but they are a great alternative to a big pile of rubble. I love NZ even more now.

  7. I was never really a fan of Christchurch (I was born in a town around 2 hours from there) but it's a shame about what happened. The shipping container mall looks interesting!

  8. Great post. I love how the cities come together times of great tragedy. The shipping container shops looks like the Box Park shops in East London. I haven't been to New Zealand but would love to see it some day.

  9. Nature catastrophes must be really difficult for local people. I cannot imagine how it was difficult for them to loose their houses. Always when I hear about earthquakes I feel so sorry about the people.

  10. Rashad Pharaon

    The first thing that hit me was–what?! This happened? It's saddening that such devastation wasn't even covered here in the Middle East media. I'm glad they are rebuilding slowly, albeit the scars of the past.

  11. Very interesting Karen. I've been hearing about Christchurch over the last few years. People telling me how it's been rebuilding. Seems like it is really shaping up quite nicely after such a sad occurrence.

  12. Lis Sowerbutts

    The earthquake was a natural tragedy, but the re-build – or lack thereof – is a man-made one. After the 1930 earthquake the whole city was rebuilt inside 3 years – no insurers , no public consultation – now we have one of the most beautiful art deco towns in the world.

    In Christchurch we will still be talking about it in another 13 years! There was the opportunity to do something really innovative, as a frequent visitor pre-earthquake the the CBD was nothing very significant overall- there could have been green space or something really different. Instead they will just re-build something similar. A huge lost opportunity

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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