Wednesday: The Garden City

Today we’re headed to ‘The Garden City’ aka Christchurch. I’m intrigued to see this city after what I’ve been hearing along with my pre-conceptions.

Christchurch was crippled by several massive earthquakes 5 years ago in 2011. People have told me that some areas have been abandoned and stand in the same state as when the earthquake happened – sort of frozen in time. I find myself comparing this situation to say, what my perceived response would be if this had happened in say, America. I think that the affected city would have been rebuilt, there would be an annual memorial and life would resume.

5 years on, I’m told the city is still in pretty bad shape. I’ve heard people left after the earthquake and that the main priority was the residential and housing areas so they’ve been the main focus. Plus considerable fundraising is required for the older and larger, central buildings that have the potential to be saved versus being pulled down. 

I’m in a place called Geraldine and it’s the second time in two days that my mind is wandering to the Vicar of Dibley. Funnily, it has begun to rain. It’s grey, cold and damp – a lot like home!

Christchurch is known as the garden city because of how many green spaces and parks there are. The city is described by my driver as ‘the most English city outside of England’, as many streets are named after places from home.

My driver then started giving more background to Christchurch and the ensuing earthquakes. And I quickly realise how little I understand about what happened here and how long lasting the consequences have been, and will be, whether the city is rebuilt immediately or not. I realise how quick I have been to assume, instead of educating myself.

Christchurch used to be the second largest city, but it’s now the third. 80,000 people have left in the last 5 years. There were four major earthquakes, October 2010, February, June and December 2011. With the one in February the most powerful earthquake in the world. Ever. It was a vertical earthquake, it killed 189 people, mainly in one building. We’re told that one building stood seven stories high, but was reduced to half a meter in a matter of mere seconds.

There are now red zones. Areas that will never be rebuilt on. The people of Christchurch asked for additional green space and for no buildings to ever be built more than seven stories high. It’s very sad to hear about the disasters and to see the effects in real life. Particularly as this is five years on, and the rest of the world carries on oblivious. Although, my driver mentioned that the Foo Fighters held a fund raising concert in Auckland a few years ago.

I’m told: There is a monument of chairs for the disaster. Each chair represents a life lost. The families of each victim got to pick a chair to represent their loved one to make it more personal. 

We’re told: Everywhere you see a gravel area or a space, a building used to stand there.

Although New Zealand is famed for the numerous fault lines it sits on, no one realised how dangerous the fault lines under Christchurch were. But now they know how bad it is. 10-12 buildings are still waiting to be pulled down due to structural instability, and others remain in a state of disrepair while a decision is taken as to their future.

Quake City: It costs $20 to get in, but if this goes at least some way to rebuilding this city, it’s worth it. I couldn’t help but notice a ‘drip drip drop’ sound coming from the side of the statue. Was I imagining it? No. There was water dripping inside the building. 

In the past five years, there have been roughly 15,000 earthquakes, but the ones in October 2010 and 2011 were significant. New Zealand has a turbulent history when it comes to earthquakes, not just in Christchurch, but nationwide.

4th September 2010 – 4.35 am 7.1 caused much structural damage to properties built pre-earthquake code, most notably, many mason chimneys toppled on to whatever lay in their paths.

22 February 2011 – 12.51 pm (lunchtime) 6.3 magnitude

The real life footage from the time (security cameras) is haunting. One minute, the weather is clear, a building is standing, people are walking. The next minute, there’s a cloud of dust, a pile of rubble. Confusion. After 2011, a state of emergency was declared for 10 weeks as search operations continued.

185 people died

52% of urban sealed roads are predicted to have been damaged and need repairing. 70% of the buildings in the city centre have gone.

Liquefaction, the process of sand, silt and seawater bubbling up to the surface, occurred all over Christchurch, in homes, backyards and streets. Other naturally occurring side affects include: river beds were squeezed together, silt and sand was deposited causing the water levels to rise and floodplains have become shallower.

Even as I see the photos, I watch the video footage and hear the accounts from people from that day, I still can’t imagine the horror. What it would feel like to wake up in a dystopian style movie set? To see buildings I’d known my whole life crumpled and crumbling to the ground. I can’t comprehend what the people of Christchurch comprehended in 2011.

The damage by these earthquakes was unprecedented and unique because as each fault line was hit (multiple were), aftershocks rippled out from each causing unpredictable damage and after effects. 

I’ve had this realisation, about my earlier thought of ‘if this was anywhere else, it would be rebuilt’. Well, actually, they haven’t finished pulling down the unstable buildings yet, and honestly, 80,000 people have left the city in the past five years… I don’t know if it will ever be rebuilt to what it was, because I’m not sure if this is necessary?

I’ve heard mixed views on Christchurch, some people say the vibe is run down and unsafe, others love it. Personally, I think it’s probably a great time for creative people. The city is being reborn as we speak. I’m just not sure I could trust Mother Nature, knowing that this will surely happen again, probably within the next 5-15 years. 

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