By William J. Siembieda, AICP, and Laurie A. Johnson, AICP
Christchurch, New Zealand, got a one-two punch five years ago. First came a magnitude 7.1 earthquake (in September 2010), then a magnitude 6.3 quake (in February 2011). The second earthquake caused 185 deaths and heavily damaged Christchurch's central business district and residential areas, particularly its northern and eastern suburbs. Aftershocks rattled the Canterbury region, causing additional damage for more than a year afterward.
In all, the losses were immense. More than half of Christchurch's central business district, thousands of residential parcels, and hundreds of miles of below-ground infrastructure (water, sewerage, and storm sewer) were damaged or destroyed, and the earthquake-related land deformation caused some parts of the city to rise, while other parts subsided by as much as a yard. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 residents initially left — some waiting for the aftershocks to subside and living conditions to improve and others never returning. There were many planning challenges: what to rebuild, where, and when, and how to direct the reconstruction process.
The big decision
The national government appointed a special Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery after the September 2010 earthquake; it then created an independent agency — the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority — reporting to the Earthquake Minister after the February 2011 earthquake. Both have specially legislated powers to address the complex issues of rebuilding in a timely manner. With the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act (2011), the national government had spoken: If it was to pay, then it would take the lead, with the Earthquake Minister and CERA guiding much of the recovery process for cities, regional agencies, and national ministries.
Some context: The Resources Management Act (1991) and the Local Government Act (2002) and their amendments establish the national policies for environmental and land-use planning. Cities develop district plans (akin to general plans in the U.S.) that respect the national policy statements, the New Zealand coastal policy, and the regional policy documents. Special attention is also paid to Maori (indigenous) traditional and treaty interests within regional and city settings.
Permits to build are only given by local governments accredited to do so by a national agency. This oversight function demonstrates the control the national government exerts on local affairs as there is no state-level government equivalent to Australia's or the U.S.'s.
Christchurch recovery process
Geotechnical information has been at the forefront of land-use and reconstruction policy in rebuilding Christchurch (post-earthquake pop. about 341,000). Cities and residents now have extensive geotechnical information, paid for by the national government, that directly influences what gets built and where. This information is incorporated into regulatory documents and guides the mitigation options for seismic, geotechnical, and flooding hazards, reducing the city's vulnerability and significantly increasing its resilience.
To lower future risk to the nationally backed residential disaster insurance program managed through the Earthquake Commission, the national government acquired, through a voluntary purchase program, 7,500 properties in residential areas with extensive ground failure damage, known as "residential red zones."
This program also helped lower the costs of road and infrastructure repairs for the local and national government. Insured residential property owners inside these red zones were given purchase offers at 100 percent of the local property valuations as they existed before the first earthquake in 2010. Noninsured residential and nonresidential property owners were given a 50 percent valuation offer, which has since been overruled by the courts. CERA is now soliciting public input on a new buyout offer for these properties.
To address the complex infrastructure damage, a public-private partnership was established, using an alliance model. The alliance, Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team, is composed of three government entities (Christchurch City Council, CERA, and the national transport agency) and five construction firms.
The firms work as a collective enterprise for the design, scheduling, and rebuild of water infrastructure, wastewater, stormwater, bridges, roads, and retaining walls. The government bodies approve and fund the projects. Lacking competitive bidding, the collaboration has operated efficiently and generated strong support from the communities served. SCIRT is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2016 and transfer its responsibilities back to the government bodies.
CERA's authorizing legislation is also set to expire in 2016, and in early 2015, CERA began the transition to become an agency within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Headquartered in Christchurch since 2011, CERA has taken action on many fronts: managing the 2.5-year cordoning and building demolition process in the central city, establishing a separate unit for the planning and reconstruction there, managing the voluntary residential acquisition and clearance process, and expediting the planning for new residential developments to offset the housing losses.
In 2012, CERA adopted a Recovery Strategy, a statutory document of 23 programs that guide recovery efforts in multiple sectors. However, CERA has decided on much of its work unilaterally, frustrating many — and leading to some public skepticism about expected outcomes. The time-consuming, deliberative RMA planning processes have also been expedited for land-use activities necessary for the rebuild, for example releasing land for new housing construction and acquiring and consolidating land in the central city.
In 2011, the national government directed the Christchurch City Council to develop a reconstruction plan for the central city. The resulting draft plan that was delivered to the Earthquake Minister has been internationally recognized for its public participation process. While the Earthquake Minister supported the plan's general concepts, he set aside all the transportation-related elements and the regulatory and implementation framework. In April 2012, he ordered CERA to create the Central City Development Unit and devise a new blueprint plan. This step effectively transitioned leadership for the central city rebuilding from the local to the national level.
Both plans propose a greener, more accessible city with a compact core and a recognizable built identity. The plan documents follow urban design concepts proposed in 2009 by Jan Gehl, FAIA, the Danish architect renowned for fostering pedestrian-friendly cities.
The CCDU blueprint does this by using a precinct approach, with precincts having defined functions: health, government, performing arts, convention center, and retail. In doing so, it defines the central city form, outlines locations for major projects, and provides block plans to show what the city could look like. A "frame" of public space and housing bounds the precincts, defining the edges and reshaping the area to promote a compact center city.
To help implement the plan, the national government will build anchor projects, including a new hospital, a central bus station as a transport hub, and a sports facility. It is also bringing more than 1,700 government jobs into the central city and participating in the construction of a new convention center and the horizontal infrastructure repair based on a cost-sharing agreement reached with the Christchurch City Council in 2013. Private investors have been slow to commit, however, and most anchor projects have been delayed, reflecting the challenges of reconstructing a city in transition. CERA expects the entire set of precincts to be functional by 2024.
Also within that transition is a great deal of innovation and creativity, motivating global travel guide Lonely Planet to rank Christchurch sixth on its "Top 10 Cities for 2013." Among the innovations is Re:START, a temporary shopping mall in the CBD, made from shipping containers.
A number of community organizations are engaged in addressing post-quake issues and needs. Among them is the Canterbury Communities Earthquake Recovery Network, an alliance that came together in the aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake. It has been credited with holding communities together, even after they had been dispersed, and effectively advocating for the inclusion of communities in recovery policy making and implementation.
Organizations like Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble have also worked with city planners to create a series of people-centered temporary uses on vacant land in the CBD. These feature live music, outdoor films, public dance floors, gardens, food vendors, and temporary art. (See "Creativity Follows Catastrophe," January 2014.)
The road forward
Christchurch has a vision for rebuilding resiliently. People are more aware of risk and what is needed to rebuild, and are trying to influence outcomes. The city and regional governments are embracing climate change and geotechnical risks. The infrastructure alliance experience is successful and can be used again as needed.
Community organizations have taken an active role and are learning how to engage with the national government. They likely will influence the final reuse of the residential red zone lands along the banks of the Avon River. There is also a more realistic view of the time needed to draw private investment back to the city.
In the meantime, Christchurch proper had 7,000 fewer residents in 2013 than in 2011 and 3,000 fewer residential electrical connections in 2014 than in 2011, while the Canterbury region continues to grow due to relocation of jobs and housing. Some schools have lost students and will close, while new suburbs need more schools.
Twenty-two percent of respondents to the 2014 CERA Well-being Survey report high levels of stress from disruptions in their daily lives — reflecting the complex nature of recovery. Christchurch residents are also facing property tax rate increases for at least another three years as the Christchurch City Council searches for ways to finance its NZ$1.9 billion (US$1.5 billion) bill for earthquake recovery and infrastructure costs.
Among the city's many lessons: Pre-event recovery plans (and ordinances) can help cities better manage recovery while also helping to instill confidence and facilitate collaboration among the many partners needed for large-scale disaster recovery. Local level leadership is essential for effective and timely recovery. It is best to develop such leadership before a disaster occurs. As Christchurch and New Zealand's leaders have found, disaster recovery is a collective action process.
William J. Siembieda is a professor in the City and Regional Planning Department at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Laurie A. Johnson is an urban planning researcher and consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both have been researching Christchurch's recovery since 2011.
Images: Top — Christchurch Cathedral, damaged in the earthquake disaster, remains the iconic symbol of the city. Despite calls for its reconstruction and preservation, the Church of England has yet to decide the structure's fate. Middle — One anchor project in the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan will use acquired land to create a 'green frame' around the city's central business district, which was destroyed. Rebuilding of the CBD is still under way. In the meantime, a temporary mall made of shipping containers, called Re:START, was opened in 2011 in an effort to draw people back into the Christchurch central city. Bottom — The structures on historic Regent Street were heavily damaged by the earthquake. The Christchurch City Council worked with owners to repair and reopen the mall, which is also part of the theater and arts precinct outlined by the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan. Photos by Laurie A. Johnson.