February 22, 2011 will forever be etched into my mind. On that date our adopted city was rattled by an earthquake, killing 185 people and ruining most of the central business district. Fortunately my wife, myself, and our 2-month-old boy were out of town the day the earthquake struck, but we returned to a city overturned. Thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged. Vital pieces of infrastructure such as roads, sewers and power lines were crippled for weeks. Water service was disrupted for days and supermarkets ran out of food. Over the followingyear, hundreds of aftershocks (some ranging to 6.3 on the Richter Scale) continued to remind us of the precious essentials that we often take for granted: water, power, and toilets.
Certainly the community of Christchurch, New Zealand will never be the same. But in some ways they are better for it. The city itself had a straggling economy and marginally vibrant central district. Like many American cities, there was a surplus of office and hotel space built into skyscrapers. And although this meant prices were competitive, there simply was not enough tenant demand to fill the suites. The city sits on the edge of a once vast marsh, and the flat Canterbury Plain stretches its mantle under residential suburbs, farms, and scattered villages. The commercial towers that once stood downtown (70% were demolished due to structural damage) now represent the past. The city had simply built the central core too big. This is due largely to the failed attempts at revitalization over the previous 10 years.
The silver lining to the disaster is a clean slate upon which to rebuild. The City’s actions for the 9 months following the quake featured intense public outreach, master planning anddesign. The overarching idea is to create a greenbelt of parks around a new central city of low-rise buildings for a vibrant and populous core. (check out this short video). The people of the community approved the new plan and it was quickly ushered to the central government (our federal equivalent) for review and implementation.
The lessons from the Christchurch experience are clear. A city should build to its current economy with plans for growth, and not physically built to the potential or desired growth. By growing beyond its existing economic state, Christchurch was left with a high vacancy rate, little housing in the central core and a 10-year patchwork of failed revitalization attempts. This, New Zealand’s third largest metropolitan area, hopes to be the new, diversified economic and social hub of the South Island.