Christchurch was never going to be rebuilt quickly or entirely

Christchurch was never going to be rebuilt quickly or entirely.

Half a decade later it’s still looking like the remains of a city. It’s a shell of its former self with most of the CBD looking like a car yard or a tidier Chernobyl waste land.

In a way, the CBD is the perfect back drop for a post apocalyptic zombie flick: desolate and abandoned.

That some people are upset Christchurch hasn’t much transformed and are now lamenting the fact doesn’t surprise me. What did they expect?

Did they really think the city would be rebuilt in five years? Surely not? But apparently so.

What people in Christchurch are discovering is the grim reality that property developers all over New Zealand have known for a long time – that nothing happens quickly. For lots of reasons.

One reason is that everyone moves, including businesses that shift in the weeks after disaster to any working accommodation that can be found….. to become locked in long-term leases and unable to return to their old locations.

Homeowners discover more exciting new suburbs or decide to quit the city and haunting memories. Old suburbs lay forgotten.

Sure, lots of stuff has happened in Christchurch. This isn’t to ignore that. But it’s not back to its former glory. The CBD isn’t rebuilt. Key projects aren’t done.

But a lot of people were promising it.

The fact is that cities don’t transform quickly. It’s more like a slowly dripping tap.   

Bureaucracy, finance, design, consenting and limited custom drip feed the opportunities over lifetimes. Investors miss out. Some strike it lucky.

Property developers and investors scoop up the dregs of what they can pull together when the opportunities come and the rest of the time they wait. That’s the cycle. That’s how cities are built. In a piecemeal fashion over a long time.

Christchurch shouldn’t be a surprise. It should be a stark reminder of how hard it really is. The city is a new canvas awash with insurance cash and residents’ needs and where plenty of vacant land sits ready to rebuild upon for commerce and residential.

All the vacant land loudly advertises itself as opportunity. But the grim reality is that rebuilding a city is such a slow-moving feast that one would wonder if it is opportunity at all.

So what’s my point?

Well it got me thinking about Auckland: a city that hasn’t been ruined by disaster and where every piece of land is used for something. Auckland is busting at the seams but it’s not really changing any faster than it has in the past.

Auckland’s change is piecemeal and sporadic. It’s not momentous.

If it’s hard to rebuild Christchurch, then it’s plenty harder to transform Auckland.

No land sits idly by in Auckland ready for someone to develop. The city even has a Council that is harder to work with. At least in Christchurch they want something built.

So how’s a compact city dream for Auckland meant to happen?

Christchurch is our living example of what really happens. And the truth is – not a lot and certainly not a lot quickly. It’s a painfully slow process that will take decades. If not longer.

Which leads to the nuts of this….

In both cities the expectations don’t match reality.

In part that’s because reality isn’t a great story to tell. For our country and civic leaders it’s much easier to sell a dream, and for residents it’s also comforting to hear.

What it isn’t is true. And the truth isn’t pretty – cities don’t change fast. They take lifetimes to change.

After World War 2 much of urban Germany was still undeveloped into the 70s. It took decades to rebuild. And that’s a country with a massive economy.

Christchurch will still have plenty of vacant land about for decades. And Auckland will still be struggling to become something else. Neither is going to happen quickly because cities don’t transform quickly.


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  • Keeping Stock

    One thing that has to be factored into the equation is the continued seismic activity. As recently as Valentine’s Day this year there was a significant aftershock.

    There were lots of underground repairs done immediately after the September 2010 ‘quake. They were of course rendered useless in February 2011, and the money spent on them was largely wasted.

    Christchurch is getting better and brighter every time I visit (and I’m due to go down there again in May), and although the centre of gravity of the city has shifted west, the CBD is improving all the time. It’s definitely a long-term proposal though.

    • Chinaman

      Some cities can be built fast..just down the road from where I live is Shenzhen which was a fishing village before it was decided to be the site of the first ”open area” for outside investment in the 1980`s.

      Now Shenzhen is a top tier Chinese city with a population well over ten million and very modern infrastructure.Now to prove that the central planners did not have the final say on everything (like in NZ)..something like 40% of the buildings in Shenzhen are illegal!

      New Zealand needs a bit more on the Chinese ”can do” attitude..funny thing is in a lot of ways there are more freedoms here in ”communist” China than in the”free” West.

      • Really? Well I don’t see or hear of 10 million people a year trying to get into China. How many are trying to get out?

        I’m fed up with this “Chinese are superior” attitude that is prevailing everywhere and hiding itself from criticism by pulling the up veil of racism to cover it, that the Chinese are hard working, super intelligent, dedicated, loyal and thrifty.

        NZ was built on a “Can Do” attitude. We are famous for it. Numerous cultures and people from all over the world including to a large extent China contributed to it.

        What we are not famous for is shoddy workmanship, tax evasion, corner cutting, false qualifications, corruption, bribery and blackmail to name but a few of the things we’re NOT famous for.

        Want to have a guess who is?

        • Chinaman

          You need to get out more in the Pearl river delta it is full of expats from all parts of the world here for the business opportunities and jobs.

          And I guess you won`t lower yourself to buy any of the Chinese ”shoddy” products? must be hard work avoiding them!

  • biscuit barrel

    The opposite happened in Napier in 1931. There was then no insurance for earthquakes and those same insurance companies refused fire payouts because of the fine print. Government money was available but very little was used.
    They did have a special court to prevent business going bankrupt or creditors closing them down
    “In November 1932, Hastings celebrated its reconstruction, and in January 1933, almost two years after the earthquake, during the New Napier Carnival, Napier was declared officially ‘reborn’.”
    Certainly they did a lot more rebuilding in the 5 years afterwards and unlike Christchurch which had government policy to buy and clear the land for a large proprtion of the CBD, the city centre was rebuilt exactly the same location and covered the same area.

  • R&BAvenger

    Thanks for a good well reasoned article. As a Christchurch born and bred resident I’m happy enough with what’s happening in my city and grateful for the support we have had from the government and other NZers far and wide.
    Early on the rebuild was being spoken of as a 20 year minimum project, based on the experiences of other cities and comments from people flown in from these cities to Christchurch to have a look and give their comment/perspective.
    Considering this city would have evolved over a period of 150 years, the expectation that after demolishing a huge chunk of Central city buildings, everything would be rebuilt/transformed by now, is completely deluded.
    It’s easy though to make these statements and have them reported on by the media party as a means to kick the government.

  • Monty’smate

    Come on, there is a massive amount of rebuilding and development work going on in central Christchurch. The fact that there are empty (often neatly grassed over) plots of land is surely because there is a deliberate and reasonable policy of shrinking the size of the retail area. The law precint is well underway, the arts precints is well underway, the work on the Town Hall is well underway, the Margaret Mahy playground is bringing hundreds of families to the central city each weekend, there are a host of often interesting new buildings already completed, the Bridge of Remembrance was completed in time for ANZAC Day, the new Bus Exchange is in use, and a real sense of regeneration and renewal in the city. I am extremely grateful to central government for the role it has played and pleased that the Mayor is wise enough to see that old style parochial politics is not the way forward for the city.

    • Nothelen

      There is a tremendous amount of building activity out west also. Hornby has been transformed and it is obvious that this will continue unabated for years to come. There has been vast areas of both residential and industrial/commercial development spring up. To be fair much was pre-planned and under consideration prior to the quakes but Wigram was transformed in just years.
      Having the land available, and earthquake rated, certainly helped.

      • Duchess of Pork

        The recent airport upgrade and associated commercial development of the environs has transformed that area as well.

  • Orca

    The town planners are making sure that Christchurch will never grow back again. They are making the same mistakes there that they are trying to make in Auckland, a compact city with access mainly by bike and public transport. A business would be crazy to build in the new CHCH CBD under the new plan.

    Under the new transport plan the major roads are proposed to be prioritised for buses, with cars forced off onto smaller secondary roads, on which cyclists have priority. The central city will be prioritised for pedestrians and cyclists, with some access for cars, and a maximum speed limit of 30km/h in the whole central area. Forget parking, that’s mostly gone.

    I suppose all of the businesses will have to bring their goods in and out on thousands of cycles, instead of one or two trucks. Sorry CHCH, unless you can ditch the new City Plan, you will never be rebuilt, because no business could survive under those conditions.

  • RobT

    The central city is very much a “Chicken and Egg” situation. If you currently have or open a shop or outlet there…..The amount of foot traffic is not really going to make it viable to sustain profitable turnover. That being the case not too many shops are open or are game to open.
    Thus the city is variously stagnant. The few places that are open like the restart area are catching mostly tourists and the odd resident going in for a look instead of their usual foray to the booming malls on the outer areas.

    • Miss Phit

      Doesnt help with little to no parking (lots of new cycle lanes instead of parking) unless you want to pay a fortune for an hour (3.20 per hour and for what)

  • localnews

    In my opinion, Christchurch should be planning for a growing population. Auckland will eventually become too big, and we had the perfect opportunity to lay out Christchurch to be a city of a million people. There is plenty of land, but I cant see any big vision.
    I also believe that the town hall decision will be a sad legacy for a council who should have had an eye for the future, and not cared if Sir Miles was upset.
    The cathedral should be long gone.
    I also think that letting hipsters get involved though the gapfiller stuff is pretty tacky, and stopping real development, but just my five cents worth…

    • Miss Phit

      There were some clowns moaning a while ago about the developement ruining all the little spaces they had created – Just crazy talk from nutbars.

      The anti progress clowns are holding up our redevelopement. We get to do what no one gets to do with a city. Take what you have and have another go at making it better than before, but we have a a huge group who (like has been said) want it back how it was and are willing to stiffle the rebuild to have their say. The council (and others) red tape is crazy here with some planners changing their mind after building has started and the developers have to foot the bills for the changes. The gough developements on the Avon were a bright spot in the first splurge of movement but they have ground to a halt (red tape again).

      Lots of businesses moved out after the quakes and after having too much time with no chance of moving back they have settled into their new locations and most are probably happy to stay put.

      The ideas of a new stadium and water parks etc are great but like all great ideas they will be pared back to a budget and we will end up with a manky pond and a token effort of a stadium.

      I wish they would just get on with it, but as has been said progress is slow and maybe slow and steady is better.

  • Tom

    You can add to that the number of people who moved location totally and bought in other towns, Nelson is a prime example. I sold my property to an ex ChCh resident just too fed up with the aftershocks.

  • OneTrack

    Why is there a need for a CBD, especially in Christchurch where another earthquake will knock it all down again? Wouldn’t satellite “cities” be a better bet? Apparently what is already happening anyway? It obviously is for Auckland, but the 19th century lefties want their steam train so 19th century city planning is where they go.

  • Left Right Out

    Half the problem in Christchurch is sentiment…… people what it to be like it was, sadly she will never be so they fight and argue on true to make her like she was….. The Cathedral debacle is a classic example, along with the town hall.

    I admit, I’m no dead in the eye cantab but I certainly call this place my home and she means far more to me now than before the quakes. I see a blank canvas…. a chance to forge a city for ourselves, others live in the past.

    Opportunity is a wonderful thing, but the more they squabble the smaller the opportunity becomes. I’m just stoked they are now sealing North parade.. I know it’s a small thing but man it means so much….. Yes, I wan’t new stadium and a sports hub… a convention centre and the redzone water park looks awesome… sadly we have groups like the greens that don’t want these things to happen so keep trying to delay them…… sadly

    • Nyla

      totally agree … hanging into history doesnt move us forward, no matter what it is , and youre right the righteous people are costing millions and millions every time they delay something. another thing is that the quakes are still happening and making decisions difficult as well, they need to get it right in the rebuild

  • Asian_driver

    When I go to work in the morning , I look at the new buildings in CBD all Lawyers , and accountants , cafe’s and Bars. No room for manufacturing warehousing or tradetype employment, they have all moved west to sockburn , hornby and Roleston

    The council spends money like a drunk urinating against a wall. Goughs tower is the slowest building site around. Property investment companies avoid having churchur in the investment mix, Palmerston North is better prospect , who would have ever thought that !

    I still like it here, Sydenham and Addington are great, some of the real Christchurch is still there.
    When they have finished the new police /Emergency/Court building they could stop there , i struggle to see the need for the other so called anchor projects spending billions of other peoples money for probably no return.

    • biscuit barrel

      More cute names than harry potter