This week I was in Christchurch, New Zealand (my first ever trip there) speaking at the PR Institute of New Zealand’s (PRINZ) annual conference. It gave me the opportunity to visit the city devastated by the earthquake in 2011.
It was an eerie as well as uplifting experience. As you can see from the pictures below, the centre of the city has been largely flattened as the buildings not destroyed in the quake and the many aftershocks, but rendered unsafe, are now being demolished. That job has not quite finished and the constant sounds of machines and falling and crashing masonry in an otherwise quiet place are a disturbing soundtrack. This was the eerie bit.
In the middle of the day in this country’s second biggest city, the centre was more or less deserted and there were vast open spaces where buildings had once been. Imagine that in Birmingham or Chicago. Occasional mounds of rubble still to be cleared away were heaped neatly behind wire fences like little graves to dead structures. Which I guess is what they were. Some of the shops, like the Starbucks in the picture, still had their furniture and fittings inside, as if they had only been freshly abandoned.
For an idea of the suddenness and violence of the quake, watch this little video.
The uplifting bit was my conversations with various locals who are now at the stage of just looking forward to the rebuild and a new city. To a person they were determined that Christchurch would rise again. The council seems to have been very creative about trying to breathe life into the centre before the rebuild (which could take up to 20 years) by setting up a container mall (literally a mall of shops) each housed in a brightly coloured shipping containers (pictured below). It is utterly brilliant. As are the free performance spaces and the museum of the story of the quake that chronicles the courage of the people of the city and the rescue services.
The re-build and recovery plan itself are hugely ambitious and of course controversial as any plans of this scale would be. The Mayor, Bob Parker, addressed the conference before me and was hugely impressive, and whilst he has his critics, I was struck by his natural communication skills and was told by many that they had been very important in knitting the community together during the early days of the recovery.
A city without a centre is a very odd thing, but this one has certainly not lost its heart. If you get the chance visit.