Christchurch Revisited: Two Years After the Quake

by  Elissa Garay | Feb 21, 2013
Christchurch, New Zealand
Christchurch, New Zealand / travellinglight/iStock

Passing through Christchurch, New Zealand, last week, I couldn't help but feel like a bit of a rubbernecker, a guilty gawker feeding a morbid curiosity as I gazed out over the veritable disaster zone. Sure, the destructive duo of earthquakes that hit here in September 2010 and again in February 2011 (it was the latter one that delivered the ultimate blow – and claimed 185 lives) sent out enough shock waves to make international headlines, but nothing short of being here could really prepare a visitor for the magnitude of the devastation.

Christchurch's core is in the process of being slowly, and almost entirely, dismantled. Already partly leveled, the city’s cordoned-off center (dubbed the “red zone”) is filled with irreparably damaged buildings readying for systematic demolition. Some two-thirds of the city’s heritage buildings will ultimately be lost, and the city is in the throes of (literally) picking up the pieces.

But look only at the dismal surface, and you’ll miss the subtly rising phoenix – a city revving to rebuild from the rubble, a movement led by impassioned locals oozing such resilient spirit that you can’t help but join in on the cheering squad for this little city. After all, how could you not get behind a place that’s created its own “Ministry of Awesome,” developed by residents eager to ignite creative new projects throughout the city?

Coming up on the two-year anniversary of the February 22 disaster, Christchurch’s post-quake redevelopment has started peeking through, most evidently in the form of a sweeping “pop-up” phenomenon. Local Kiwi creativity has spilled over into vacant lots in an effort to fill a void in the city with temporary outdoor art installations (helmed by the folks behind the Gap Filler project) and green spaces (part of the Greening the Rubble initiative), that have ranged from the installation of an AstroTurf soccer field to a cycle-powered cinema to a “dance-o-mat” alfresco dance floor.

The most successful manifestation has come in the form of the Re:Start container mall, which has helped revitalize the city's central business district with colorful shipping containers repurposed as temporary retail units for both emerging and displaced local businesses – the result has been a funky alfresco district of 50-plus shops, cafes, and eateries that have become a symbol of Christchurch's renaissance.

Christchurch (c) John Garay / John Garay

But New Zealand’s second largest city isn't just looking for short-term fixes. With a blank canvas for rebuilding, Christchurch is eager to reinvent itself with modern innovations that will showcase the latest and greatest in international architecture and urban design. Bold blueprints for the city’s redevelopment have showcased a “city in a garden” model, with low-rise modern buildings clustered into a compact city center, fringed by green spaces and anchored on a reinvented Avon River waterfront lined with shops, eateries, and bars; a brand-new stadium; a state-of-the-art convention center; and more.

While the city’s beloved Anglican cathedral remains in a state of disrepair, plans for an innovative Cardboard Cathedral, a temporary structure composed of cardboard tubes, is scheduled to open this spring. Launched last week, the Quake City museum features multimedia displays designed to educate visitors about the earthquakes and their staggering effects on the area.

Then there’s the bevy of new and reopened restaurants and bars emerging on the scene, like Fiddlesticks Bar and Restaurant, touting locally sourced fare and an indoor-outdoor dining space; funky pop-up Smash Palace, with its makeshift bus-cum-bar; and CBD Bar & Pizzeria, touting tasty wood-fired pizzas and craft beers.

Plus, the Garden City's generous green spaces (the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park rank supreme), punt rides along the Avon River, classic London-style double-decker red bus tours, and attractions like the Canterbury Museum and International Antarctic Centre, ensure that tourists will still find plenty of pre-quake mainstays open for business.

Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!

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