By Jack Briant
This post is the first in our “What I Learned from…” travel series based on the experiences of built environment professionals and city enthusiasts as they discover urban landscapes around the world
A holiday to New Zealand over the Christmas/New Year’s break was a great experience. As we drove around the South Island, we got see many breath-taking views and stunning landscapes. One of the most significant things that had a lasting effect on me was seeing the damage and devastation firsthand of the Christchurch Earthquakes. Being from Brisbane, I have not experienced a natural disaster on such a scale as the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011, which killed 185 people and destroyed homes and businesses of many of the residents of the city. The city still has clear wounds from both the 2011 quakes and more recent tremors.
When I first arrived in the city centre I saw firsthand the struggle to rebuild and the destruction that the earthquakes had caused. Only a small number of high rises now remain, with many buildings within the CBD either half demolished, vacant, boarded up or gone entirely. In their place are empty gravel lots, which are a feature of almost every street block. They now serve as car parking while the city rebuilds.
Most striking was the city centre, the Christchurch Cathedral Square. It was once a centrepiece of the city but is now in ruins. Many other significant heritage buildings and churches around the city are in a similar state, fenced off and deserted, either to be eventually rebuilt or demolished. The city centre now feels like a ghost of its former self with a long rebuild process still ahead of it.
Despite the devastation, the fortitude and resilience of the city’s residents has only strengthened. You can see it in the creativity and innovation that flourishes on Christchurch’s streets: from engaging pop-up installations, such as the world’s first giant, outdoor arcade game system, “Super Street Arcade” to innovative use of building materials such as the world’s first cathedral made primarily from cardboard and other eye catching art installations, both permanent and temporary.
One place that stood out for me was the “Margaret Mahy Family Playground”, a large urban park where buildings once stood. We visited the park around 9pm and it was still buzzing with activity. The park was vibrantly lit and featured a flying fox, climbing walls, skate park, water features and food trucks. The activity of the park was in stark contrast to the deserted and destroyed buildings across the road.
While the rebuilding process is slow and a heavy burden, the city’s ability to attract and embrace innovation is breathing new life back into the CBD. The pop-up installations, adaptation and activation of parks and public spaces, and engaging local events together give the city a new energy that is innovative and rejuvenating. In his book, “Start-up City” Gabe Klein deliberates that cities no longer have the luxury of time to spend on regulatory hurdles and risk averse management, with this approach clearly working to improve Christchurch’s public realm.
It’s this ‘start-up city’ approach that Brisbane and other new world cities could benefit from, being able to adjust and adapt to the rapid pace of change, leaving room for experimentation, adaptation and ongoing evolution.