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Christchurch is Still a Mess

Four years after Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, repairs to the city aren't going so great. Local advocate Deon Swiggs gave us a tour.
December 2, 2014, 10:05pm

​On February 22, 2011 a magnitude 6.3 eart​hquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand's most populous southern city. It was an aftershock from a quake the previous September, but it happened in the middle of the day, with an epicentre only 10 kilometres from the CBD. ​185 people were killed, many of whom were in the six-story Canterbury Television Building which collapsed and caught fire. The city's iconic cathedral spilled its bell tower onto the central square, while the quake's vibrations liquefied the city's foundations, swamping the place in groundwater. As of April last year, rebuilding Christchurch has been budgeted at costing NZ$40 ​b​illion.

This explains why four years later Christchurch has become a city of car parks. Around 1,500 buil​dings have been demolished, leaving a city the size and planning density of Adelaide full of open space. There are still a handful of skyscrapers around, but they're mostly boarded up and condemned. Steel frames hold smaller buildings in place, but with an emphasis on slowing degeneration, rather than reconstruction. That's not to say there hasn't been improvement, but you'd think from the lack of news that Christchurch is back to normal. The truth is that the city has scars, while the inner city is still far from normal.

To understand why this is, I went for a walk with a guy named Deon Swig​gs. At 28, Swiggs runs rebuildchris​tchurch.co.nz to provide updates on reconstruction. It's also a forum for victims to share stories and express their disillusionment over insurance payouts. His approach is grassroots and open-source, which he says annoys the local government, but reduces the red-tape in reconstruction.

"What most people don't realise is that rebuilding is in the hands of private developers," he says. "Developers build where people want to live or work, which is why there's been more development outside the central city than within." He explains that buildings in the CBD buildings were much taller, and subsequently more damaged, which makes the area a daunting investment for developers. An area of substantial rebuilding is the government office area, where public money spent on repairs has brought people back to work and encouraged the confidence of private investors. In short, investment follows investment, and the CBD is yet to be invested in.

In the heart of town is the church that gave Christchurch its namesake. It looks like this not because they ran out of money, but because the Anglican Diocese wanted to replace it with a more modern building. There was an inevitable outcry from the public and the church has been left to fill up with pigeons.

Above the city square is the Colombo Street building. It used to house airline offices including Emirates and Singapore, and with a Starbucks down the bottom. It's recently been sold and is possibly set to ​become a hotel.

The city police building, on the other hand, is being demolished.

The Rydges Hotel. According to Swiggs, they're unsure what to do with it.

This was the PricewaterhouseCoopers office, and the tallest building in town. It was pulled down two years ago.

There are occasional remnants of ground movement. From behind a fence, we could see this courtyard and I ask Swiggs about the quake. "I was at work," he says, and explains he was in advertising. "I was three stories up and we got chucked around. I'm a hobby pilot and it was kind of the same feeling you get when you go weightless in a plane. Then all of a sudden you pull up and get the g-forces. They think the earthquake's vertical acceleration was the highest to ever hit an urban environment, so can understand why it did so much damage."

We passed closed cafes and offices and I took photos through windows. The café had a time capsule vibe.

As does this. Natural disasters always ruin clocks.

"This was one of the worst hit areas," says Swiggs of the city's night club end. "The buildings were old and they fell apart." This is a photo from behind the street. At the front, building facades are pinned in place while the shops themselves disintegrate.

One tactic has been to tether heritage facades to shipping containers. This approach is happening all over the city.

A theatre. The stage has been demolished leaving the seating.​

As with all cities going through disaster, there's a sort of silver lining. New buildings have been restricted to seven stories, while redevelopments are using more modern, innovative designs. Swiggs points to the ​city's ​mural​ program​ as another reason to be positive. "Rather than looking at all these empty buildings, we've now got some colour." According to him, these developments forecast a fresher, leafier, and more humble Christchurch. "And you know, walking around, looking at all this empty space doesn't make me feel depressed," he says. "I like the idea that we're moving towards a better city. And honestly, I can't remember what it all looked like anyway."

Follow Julian on Twitter: ​@MorgansJulian