Christchurch Rising

By Brodie Blades. 

On 22 February 2011, the New Zealand city of Christchurch suffered the most damaging of a series of earthquakes that had affected the wider Canterbury region since late 2010 –a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck a mere 10km from the city’s centre.  Over ten fleeting seconds, the built form fabric of Christchurch was irrevocably transformed as structures collapsed and soil liquefied. Many buildings that did not instantly topple would soon fall shortly after, as structural safety audits and a rolling program of demolition transformed much of Christchurch’s downtown core into little more than rubble. 185 people from 17 nationalities lost their lives in New Zealand’s fifth-deadliest natural disaster.

Yet with every tragedy comes opportunity, and the tragedy of Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake is no different. Rather than allow itself to be defined and overcome by natural disaster, Christchurch is instead actively employing town planning and urban design to capitalise upon a rare opportunity  to completely reimagine it’s urban fabric. To better understand this, I’ve headed ‘on the ground’ to Christchurch to explore the key planning and urban design initiatives underway right now as part of Christchurch’s rising.

The Numbers

Natural disaster recovery is an inherently complex phenomenon to document. However, from a built form/property perspective, the gravity of the situation that faced the city of Christchurch post-quake is perhaps best understood through the following facts and figures: 
  • The estimated built form recovery price tag is $40 billion (as of April 2013), and approximately $33b of this is covered by insurance;
  • The ETA for complete economic recovery for the New Zealand economy is approximately 50 to 100 years;
  • 130,000 insurance claims arose from the February 22 event alone;
  • The latest available rebuild expenditure estimate is approximately $100m per week, according to the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce  (August 2016);
  • Approximately 100,000 dwellings required demolition (or, about 1 dwelling per 3 residents);
  • Approximately 45% of downtown Christchurch’s building stock of 3,000 had restricted access following the event; and
  • The official rebuild ‘end year’ is estimated as being 2026.
Most tellingly, however, is that the population growth of Christchurch immediately fell by approximately 2.4% (compared to a historic annual population growth of 1% per annum) – a trend that continued to ultimately allow the New Zealand city of Wellington to replace Christchurch as New Zealand’s second most populous urban area.

On the Ground

I touched down in Christchurch in early March 2017, more than six years since the events of 22 February 2011. Despite this time, the ‘on the ground’ condition in Christchurch still bears the scars of the intensity and tragedy of that day. Much of Christchurch’s central business district is still comprised of rubble, interspersed only by the occasional husk of a building yet to be demolished.

Top – Rubble within the core of downtown Christchurch
Centre – ‘185 Chairs’; an ephemeral monument to the 185 fatalities of the February 2011 quake
Right – The façade of a former building is braced precariously against a stack of shipping containers in downtown Christchurch
(Source: Blades, B. 2017)
Moving closer toward the core of Christchurch, the spire-less remains of Christchurch’s cathedral (perhaps the most ‘notable’ architectural victim of the quakes) remains hoarded off from the public, effectively preserving the structure in time as a snapshot of the gravity of the quake event.

Despite the conditions, there is still a strong sense of ‘normal’ within the core of the city as construction workers, office employees, residents and tourists alike continue to attend to their daily needs. The local tourist tram continues to run, and continues to proceed past new buildings cheek-by-jowl with rubble piles within the same streetscape.

The Christchurch tourist tram rumbles past rubble in downtown Christchurch. The remnants of the Christchurch cathedral can be seen in the background of this image
(Source: Blades, B. 2017)
The intangible ‘heart’ of central Christchurch is also evident within the broader central precinct centred on the Avon River, where the ‘Re:Start Mall’ (an interim but buzzing local centre crafted entirely from repurposes shipping containers) and the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial (recently opened in February this year) fulfil much-needed social and spiritual roles within the core of the city.

The Plan

Christchurch is capitalising upon the opportunity afforded to it by the tragedy of the quake event to reimagine its urban fabric and spatial design by way of the 'Christburch Rebuild Masterplan'. The masterplan aspires to achieve a 'low and compact' city and includes the following key elements: 

·       Parkland: The creation of a compact central city ‘framed’ by parkland (in much the same way as the Adelaide CBD). Known primarily as the ‘East Frame’ and ‘South Frame’, the two tracts of open parkland will combine with the river Avon to ring the CBD of Christchurch and ‘fix the glut’ of commercial space that characterised the downtown core prior to the quake event.

·       Building Heights: Building heights will be capped at a maximum of 28m (or approximately 7 commercial storeys), although some exceptions may be made in some areas subject to approval (such as for hotels where close to convention centre facilities);

·       Central Core: The heart of Christchurch will be centred on an existing pedestrian/tram mall, which will be promoted as the retail hub of the centre through flanking mixed-use development consisting of ground floor retail uses and upper storey commercial space;

·       Diverse Services: The masterplan will include a brand new state-of-the-art convention centre (large enough to host three events simultaneously), a replacement stadium, a new music centre and grouping of Christchurch’s emergency management services and health services into a separate, central precincts;

·       Places for People: Cathedral Square (home of the Christchurch Cathedral) will be retained as the civic heart of the city, but reimagined as a pedestrian space to include new grassed areas and landscaping and a new public library. The square will also be completely closed to vehicular traffic. Further afield, new pedestrian and cycling linkages will be created through closing roads to traffic (or slowing traffic in streets) and the banks of the Avon River will be upgraded to facilitate increased pedestrian and cycling linkages to the core of central Christchurch; and

Ingrained Design: Importantly, the implementation of the masterplan will be overseen by a panel of representatives from local authorities (Christchurch City Council, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Agency, and Ngai Tahu (Maori cultural body) to oversee every individual application for planning consent. 

The Christchurch Rebuild Masterplan (Source:,)
The Progress

Despite the sheer gravity of the situation faced by the people of Christchurch and New Zealand following the events of 2011, the ‘on the ground’ progress towards achievement of the plan is obvious and impressive. The ‘East Frame’ parkland has been cleared and reserved for its future parkland role, and distinct progress has been made toward the revitalisation of Christchurch’s central mall through new built form and public realm upgrades.

The River Avon has been woven into the core of central Christchurch through public realm upgrades that ‘invite’ interaction with the river, such as seating, sculpture and informal resting spaces.
The Avon River, with new public realm upgrades. New construction is underway in the background of this image 
(Source: Blades, B. 2017)

Importantly, the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial for the victims of the events of 2011 is now complete, and has been fittingly designed to occupy a secluded and central location within the heart of central Christchurch. 

The Canterbury Earthquake Memorial, on the banks of the Avon River
(Source: Blades, B. 2017)

Finally – and perhaps most significantly – there is little to suggest that the rebuild is ‘flogging a dead horse’. Rather, it is the opposite. The streets of Christchurch’s core are alive with activity despite the intensive construction program surrounding it. Shopfront vacancies did not seem atypically high (as one would perhaps expect, given the circumstances). There is nothing to suggest it would be uncomfortable or unsafe to move freely though the central city (with the obvious exception of demolition zones or construction sites). All of which are remarkable achievements for a city faced with the circumstances that Christchurch has endured.

Construction underway on ‘The Terrace’ in downtown Christchurch. Progress (left) verse the vision (right) 

With every tragedy comes opportunity, and – whilst tragic – Christchurch’s February 2011 earthquake has at the very least provided the people of Christchurch an opportunity to achieve a shared future through reimagination of the urban fabric.

Any design vision requires the buy in of diverse sectors, interests and demographics to effect change, and - whilst there is no doubt still a long way to go before Christchurch makes a complete built form recovery - the overwhelming impression of the rebuild is that Christchurch is a community completely committed to rebuilding a new, shared built form future.

That the people of Christchurch can show such determination in confronting circumstances to reimagine and implement their built form future is testament not only to the resilience and commitment of this community, but in some ways also testament to the potential of urban design and planning to unite and effect positive change.

Have you been to Christchurch since the 2010/2011 earthquakes? What has your experience been?

Further Reading:

-          The Christchurch Rebuild:


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