Lonely Planet has released their top 10 must-see cities to visit in 2013. Christchurch, in the South Island of New Zealand is #6 on the list. Christchurch is a city dear to my heart as I have visited there many times. Christchurch is also known as the Garden City because of its many parks and large Botanic Gardens in the city centre. It was a very beautiful city, featuring many old heritage buildings of Gothic Revival architecture, giving Christchurch an old English feel.
All this changed after a series of earthquakes. The first earthquake with a magnitude of 7.1 struck at 4.35am on 4th September 2010. It caused severe building damage, but miraculously no loss of life – mainly because at the time of the earthquake, most people were asleep at home. However, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake at 12.51pm on 22nd February 2011 caused significant destruction, injuries and 185 deaths. Even though the February quake was smaller in magnitude, it was more damaging because it was at a shallow depth of 5km, had an epicentre within 10km of the city centre, and it happened in the middle of a work day when people were out and about.
The power of the earthquake is similar to that of a nuclear weapon. For instance, ‘Fat Man,’ the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II had the power of just over 20 kilotonnes of TNT (1 kiloton has an explosive force equivalent to 1000 metric tonnes of TNT). In comparison, the 4th September Canterbury earthquake released energy equivalent to 671 kilotonnes of TNT.
The February 2011 Christchurch earthquake is the most damaging and costliest earthquake in New Zealand’s history. It destroyed Christchurch’s Central Business District (CBD). So far, I have only written about footwear for humans, but our furry, four-legged friends sometimes wear shoes too. Police dogs working in dangerous locations like collapsed buildings in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake wore booties to protect their paws from the rubble. Dogs were used to look for survivors and to look for bodies after the earthquake.
Immediately after the February earthquake, a cordon called the Red Zone was placed around the worst affected parts of the city centre. The Red Zone is an area that is closed off to the public because it is still too dangerous, with unsafe buildings. Before the area can be open to the public, it needs to be made safe, either by making sure no masonry or glass is going to fall down or by demolishing condemned buildings. It is estimated that 80 percent of buildings within Christchurch’s CBD will need to be demolished. In the immediate aftermath of the February earthquake, the size of the Red Zone in the city centre was 387 hectares, or an area the size of about 50 city blocks. Slowly, as areas are made safe, the cordon is lifted. Two years after the February 2011 earthquake, the Christchurch Red Zone is still in place in the CBD, but has shrunk 90% to an area of about 38 hectares.
So why has Lonely Planet put Christchurch on its list of must-see cities? Who wants to see a city in ruins? To find out, I recently spent a weekend in Christchurch, the first time I’ve been back since the earthquakes. I now understand why Christchurch is on Lonely Planet’s list. Christchurch is an exciting city to be in and offers an experience found nowhere else on earth (except maybe in Concepción, Chile and the Northeast coast of Honshu, Japan – both areas also rebuilding after massive earthquakes). It is an exciting time to be in Christchurch because change is happening right in front of you. It feels as if you are a pioneer in a Wild, Wild West town.
Humans are resilient and adaptable. The earthquakes wiped out the main retail area in Christchurch’s city centre, but Christchurch has already begun its rebuild with a new mall called the Re:START mall on Cashel Street. This mall was built quickly and the shops are made of shipping containers painted in bright colours. They may be made of shipping containers, but the shops have electricity and facilities to pay by card. There is also free WiFi. There are 27 retailers in the container mall. Two of these are shoe shops. Maher and Head over Heels are two shops in the Re:START mall offering high quality shoes. There’s also a stall operating out of a tent, selling socks made of New Zealand merino wool.
Currently in Christchurch, you can see a lot of innovation and evidence of human ingenuity. Many uses have been found for shipping containers, for example the shopping mall. Ballast-filled shipping containers are stacked and placed in front of crumbling buildings to protect people from falling rubble. They are also placed at the bottom of unstable hillside areas to protect from falling rocks. A shipping container open at both ends can serve as a covered pedestrian walkway.
At the moment, Christchurch looks like one gigantic construction site. This has resulted in innovative use of space. What’s called a gap filler pops up in empty spaces where buildings have been demolished. Some gap fillers are art installations. There’s a Dance-O-Mat, a makeshift dance space complete with hanging mirror ball on Oxford Terrace. Prince Charles tried out the Dance-O-Mat during his recent visit to Christchurch. Other gap fillers include a small football field made of fake grass and also a book exchange housed in an old fridge.
There is a bus tour run by Red Bus and the Canterbury Museum that takes the public into the closed-off Red Zone. I found it informative and also an emotional bus ride, but very well done and not in bad taste, given the circumstances. In my opinion, I thought that the right-hand side of the bus got a better view. The 30 – 40 minute bus tour includes a guide providing informative commentary and also video footage. During the February 2011 earthquake, 8 people died on a city bus when surrounding buildings collapsed onto the bus crushing passengers, so safety is definitely NOT guaranteed and passengers must sign a waiver when they go on the bus tour. Once the bus starts, no one is allowed to get off. Passengers must wear sturdy, closed footwear to go on the bus tour. You will not be allowed on the bus if you are wearing slippers, sandals, high heels or open-toed footwear. If a bus tour sounds too dangerous, there are also helicopter flights that fly passengers over the Red Zone.
It is an exciting time currently in Christchurch and a time of great change. It will be interesting to return to the city in a few years’ time to see how it is rebuilt. Metaphorically, it is like seeing a phoenix rise again from the ashes.