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Looking to the Future in Christchurch

Looking to the Future in Christchurch

Natural disasters remind us of the fragility of life. They strike indiscriminately in time and place and for the most part we are powerless to counter the effects of their might. The Christchurch earthquake which struck at 12.51pm on Tuesday 22 February has touched the lives of every kiwi in some way.

My Christchurch friend Jo Giles was in the CTV building during last week’s earthquake and, like many of her colleagues, is assumed to have died. Jo had been a jockey, a TV presenter, an ACT candidate, a real estate agent and had a passion for motor sport racing amongst many other things. About my age, she had an eventful life but it was cut short, just as it was for hundreds of others caught in the might of the quake.

Frustrated at observing the aftermath from a distance I went to Christchurch on Monday and volunteered with the “Farmy Army” – a Federated Farmers and Young Farmers joint initiative. I joined ‘work group 56’ to help with the clean-up. Most of us in the group had travelled from elsewhere in New Zealand. We were sent to Breezes Rd in Brighton (eastern suburbs), to shovel silt.

We moved silt, wet and dry from garages unearthing their buried contents as we went. We dug out backyards with feet of silt ready for diggers to come in and take the bulk away. We knocked on doors to see if residents needed help. I handed out home baking given to me by an Army officer on the plane from Wellington. We dug ditches and cleared a road so traffic could get through. I was lucky. I got to go home and have a shower that night. The people we were helping are still waiting for power, water and portaloos.

Yesterday the decision was made to move the focus from rescue to recovery. It signalled that the focus must now be on the future. The Christchurch of the future is going to look like a very different city. Historic buildings, once landmarks, have been destroyed and will be replaced with modern, purpose built structures. Suburbs, particularly those in the east of the city will have to be completely rebuilt. The make-up of the population may well be different too. Many have left, some will not return.

In disaster relief terms we have thousands of internally displaced people. At last count over four thousand Christchurch students were enrolled at schools around the country. Families have moved to holiday homes or to stay with family and friends elsewhere. Many of those that remain in Christchurch need help with the basics – food, water, power. The clean-up will take months, the rebuild, years.

Government has announced some help packages already. Six week’s pay for those who have lost jobs and assistance to employers who need some breathing space is a good start. But hard decisions about funding and how best to assist in the long term have yet to be made. Discussions have already started around changes to Working for Families entitlements to help fund the rebuild. Helping Christchurch to pick up the pieces will mean reprioritisation of current projects.

We are not the first to have to rebuild a city. There are plenty examples of how to do this well and even more of what not to do. The work will be painstaking, slower than we would like and it requires careful planning. The Independent Newspaper published an excellent article in 2010 about the rebuild of Port-au-Prince following the Haiti earthquake. (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/architecture/new-and-improved-rebuilding-a-disaster-zone-1948094.html). It asked what could be learned from the architectural reinvention of other ruined cities. There are lessons here too for Christchurch.

Christchurch is our second largest city and an important part of our economy. Once the emergency aid is delivered the work to rebuild begins in earnest. The lessons from other ruined cities are clear and shouldn’t be ignored. The process of making buildings and communities safer and stronger is perhaps the easy part of the equation. Experts can be engaged to deal with both.

Those who have spent time working in earthquake reconstruction have concluded that while any city can inevitably be rebuilt over time, the best results are achieved when governments act quickly and decisively.

The harder thing to get right is the engagement between government, business and the people. All have a vested interest but a city ultimately belongs to those who live there. It is to be hoped that government – both central and local – involve both the business community and the residents when decisions are made, especially about the look and feel of the new Christchurch.
If there is one thing to keep in mind it is this:

It wasn’t the earthquake that cost lives, it was the buildings. But ultimately it will be the people who will be the key to making sure these societies breathe again. (Robin Cross, Article 25, British architecture and construction aid charity).

Lest We Forget
The last US World War I veteran died in his home town of Charles Town on 27 February aged 110. Frank Buckles enlisted at 16 after many attempts at fooling recruiters about his age. He never saw combat in WWI but spent his war in England and France. As a civilian he was captured by the Japanese in WWII and spent three years in a prison camp in the Philippines. Frank spent his later years campaigning for a national memorial in Washington for the Great War veterans, a task not yet achieved but his battle will be continued by others. Frank Buckles was the last of his kind but the freedoms the western world enjoys today are their legacy to us.


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