Re:STARTing the recovery

Chris Pritchard

Last February’s devastating earthquake exacted a heavy toll on the picturesque city of Christchurch. But one year on, innovative reconstruction initiatives are restoring business confidence, writes Chris Pritchard 

The earthquake jokes keep coming. Bob Parker, the mayor of Christchurch, quips that the tourism industry’s recovery is aided by visitors who come because they want to experience aftershocks – of which there have been many. Even a quake that killed 185 people, triggering shock and grief, hasn’t been able to de­stroy the locals’ whimsical humour. 

“People say you’re the only person smiling in Christchurch,” a supporter tells Paul Lonsdale, a business leader who has spearheaded the city’s Re:START recov­ery project. But Lonsdale counters that he isn’t unique. He points to an upbeat mood on the streets combining a posi­tive attitude with gritty determination to rebuild this beautiful city, which, with a population of 350,000, is the largest on New Zealand’s South Island. Lonsdale, bubbly and energetic, argues the alterna­tive to grinning is glumness. “You could stay in bed or you could try to make a difference,” he says. 

The earthquake (6.3 on the Richter scale) that struck on 22 February last year was among the worst natural dis­asters ever to hit the so-called ‘shaky isles’. Aside from the large number of fa­talities, the financial impact of the earth­quake was devastating. The loss to the economy is estimated to be NZD20 bil­lion ($15.5 billion) and economists raise the possibility of higher rates of interest and inflation nationwide, as a result of Christchurch’s reconstruction. Fortu­nately, public opinion overwhelmingly supports this expenditure. Local offi­cials forecast completion by the end of next year. Recovery has been slowed by greatly toughened building regulations and engineer-recommended delays until aftershocks are more widely spaced. 

Re:START’s highest-profile initiative is the pop-up City Mall – a complex of 27 garishly painted shipping containers in downtown Christchurch. The area has itself become a tourist attraction, along with a colourful, but temporary, events centre for concerts and exhibitions in the central Hagley Park. 

Christchurch Square remains off-lim­its because of a danger that abandoned buildings could collapse. Nearby his­toric monuments were destroyed and the square’s now-forlorn landmark cathedral lost a spire. Restoring this iconic build­ing, estimated at NZD50 million, has been deemed too costly, so the cathedral will be dismantled down to a shell three metres tall. The modern-style Grand Chancellor Hotel – downtown’s tallest building – tilts precariously and engi­neers determined that it too could not be saved. Instead, it’s being carefully demolished. 

Tourism is the area’s main economic activity, followed by sheep farming (wool and meat production), cattle rear­ing and wine production in the Canter­bury region’s rolling countryside. And still-pretty Christchurch continues to call itself the “most English city outside England.” It’s difficult to argue with this moniker while sitting beneath the wil­lows on the grassy banks of the city’s winding Avon watching students punt by with tourists aboard their gondolas (an activity that has now resumed).  

Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism chief executive, Tim Hunter, reveals that 47 percent of New Zealand’s visitors in the year to last September 30 spent a night in Christchurch or elsewhere in the Canterbury region, a drop of only 9 per­cent on the previous year. Economically vital tourism has been affected less than officials feared. 

Several hotels have recently reopened, pushing available beds (6,500 pre-quake; 2,260 post-tragedy) to near 4,000. The high-profile Latimer Hotel, damaged and demolished, is being rebuilt, while the opulent and antique-filled Otahuna Lodge, just beyond the city’s edge, used modest damage as a chance to restore this historic former homestead. 

A bullish mood is most evident at the international airport where extensions and improvements – scheduled to fin­ish by the end of the year – weren’t jet­tisoned. “We’re taking steps forward all the time,” says Mayor Parker, echoing Hunter’s description of the post-quake city as “dynamic and vibrant.”


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