The ambitions of a city? Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch is the second largest city in New Zealand, and is known by most because of the major earthquake and many aftershocks, which devastated the area back in February 2011.

I hadn’t originally sought to spend any significant time here – especially with a tight schedule to see only a few of the grand natural sights of New Zealand. Having spoken to a number of people about their situations and hearing of the impact the earthquakes had on them, I was easily persuaded though to spend some more time there – and I was so glad that I did.

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Prior to my arrival I spoke with someone back in the UK about the differences to the area I might find when I arrived. ‘But how will you know? You didn’t see it before, so you’ll have nothing to compare it to.’

For anyone who has visited Christchurch recently they will know – as I do now, what a redundant point that actually turned out to be. It is impossible to visit Christchurch – regardless of whether you knew it beforehand or not, without being blown away by the stark impact of the quakes.

As I drove into town the traffic was slow and a series of frustrating single lane road works directed me through a few cordoned streets towards where I was staying. Like anyone new to a city, such diversions were naturally disconcerting and more than a little frustrating as I tried to navigate this new place. Only later, when I was walking around the city that evening, did I realise there were in fact road works everywhere; all still because of the quakes which happened two years ago.

And perhaps that was what threw me most of all – the sense of a normal city just not feeling quite right. Walking around the downtown area on a warm summer’s evening there was just so very few people about – it literally felt like a ghost town. Similarly, it took me a while to realise that whilst I was passing numerous buildings, very very few of them were in fact inhabited. As such, there was the illusion of infrastructure but in fact most of the buildings were just shells, and had not been entered since the quake – surrounded by fences to ensure people didn’t go exploring on into them.

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Taking a closer look, the area was adorned with scaffolding, trying to secure the fragile buildings, and there were also large storage containers everywhere; put in place to ensure that if further quakes came (and there were hundreds of aftershocks) that the shaky buildings wouldn’t then fall onto people passing nearby. These containers, if anything, have come to symbolise much of Christchurch’s predicament; a short-term measure to prevent further destruction whilst the gradual and long-term rebuilding goes on.

Because that was perhaps what shocked me most about the situation – the longevity of it and the impact it was so clearly continuing to have.  For example, the central tram had only just returned to operation and it was a long time after the quake before the Army was not a constant presence on the streets. In fact, immediately after the earthquake there was a nightly curfew in the city. How do you react suddenly to that?

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As I mentioned above, some roads had only recently reopened and so if driving through the centre of town your available route would often only be known to you when you in fact arrived in town each day. As a result many people now avoid driving through the downtown area altogether; reinforcing the peculiar empty feel to the place. Things also changed so rapidly that at times slightly bizarre situations developed – my friend for example spoke of attending a work meeting only to leave the building a few hours later to find the road had been cordoned off; the first part of her journey was then spent moving a street full of traffic cones so she could even drive her car away.

And it was these combinations which I found so fascinating; people constantly having to adjust to ongoing change. 

And so how do people’s individual ambitions change when their entire environment completely changes? Similarly, in a setting that is both so familiar, and yet so alien, how do people’s behaviours change? I’ve already wrote an article about Peter who I met working on the railway and who now always carries cash with him in case the machines stop working. What else might change for the residents of Christchurch?


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