City of reinvention

Isaacs: "The opportunity for creating something new and future-proofing Christchurch is a rare event."

Rebuilding Christchurch three years after a disastrous earthquake.

Attractive family homes with pretty gardens line the route from the north-west, which takes in the city's main green space – Hagley Park  – and along the quaintly named Avon River. Cars and pedestrians flow as they do in any city. Then you enter the city centre: for those unfamiliar with earthquakes, it looks like an abandoned wasteland.

Cranes punctuate the skyline once occupied by high-rises, while the scrape and roar of bulldozers and the thud of jackhammers fills the air of what is otherwise a silent downtown. There is a lot of grey empty space, blocks littered with rubble and enclosed by cyclone fencing. Buildings lie abandoned while bureaucrats, insurers and owners argue about what to do with them. Others are in the frustratingly long process of being demolished. Think of a construction site in the heart of a city, perhaps a new bank or art gallery: in central Christchurch, there are literally thousands of them.

Most deaths occurred at the Canterbury Television building.

Most deaths occurred at the Canterbury Television building.

The devastation was created by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the city and surrounds at lunchtime on 22 February 2011. It claimed 185 lives and wrought its damage in about 20 seconds. Much of the built heritage the city is famous for was wiped out. The cathedral lost its spire, businesses were abandoned, family homes damaged, hotels, sport facilities, cultural centres – barely a feature was spared. To add to the tragedy, much of the city was just getting back on its feet following a 7.0-magnitude earthquake just five months earlier.

 Rebuilding the city centre from the ground up is the mammoth task assigned to Warwick Isaacs CPA. The chief executive of Canterbury regional council, one of the most thriving areas in New Zealand, Isaacs arrived in Christchurch at 5am the day after the quake and didn't go home for a year.

 "The way this event will change the face of the city is that more than 1000 buildings have been lost so the opportunity for creating something new and future-proofing Christchurch is a rare event," Isaacs says.

His role grew incrementally as the needs of the wrecked city unfolded. Much like New York City in 2001, New Zealand had emergency and natural disaster plans, but none that covered the scale of the Christchurch disaster.

A state of emergency was declared and civil defence took control. Isaacs was chairman of civil defence for the Canterbury region and was among those in the first line of response.
"We devised strategy as we went, but it was very much response and more tactical than strategic," he recalls.

"We literally had the cordon around [the damaged buildings] and there was a lot of tension with the owners of buildings and businesses who couldn't get through because it was too dangerous for them to be in there.

"But their lives, their homes, were destroyed. They had folk they knew who were injured or had passed away as a result of this, so they were under a lot of stress."

 Isaacs and his colleagues decided to work through the area block by block to get the city reopened. It was such a painstaking task that it was not until June last year that the last remnants of the cordon were removed – almost 2½ years since the earthquake struck. Thousands of homes in the city's east were destroyed and today many of those families remain homeless.

During that assessment and make-safe process it became apparent a final plan was needed to rebuild the city centre – without a heart, there could be no city. That job fell to Isaacs and he gave himself 100 days in which to do it. He recruited an international consortium of urban designers, architects, transport planners, resource planners and lawyers. At the end of that 100 days, the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) produced the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, in conjunction with the City Council and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA).

"When we released the report in July last year it was aspirational and inspirational, but at that stage we didn't have a lot of money behind it," Isaacs says, which partly explains the flat and frustrated mood felt by some of the city's population of about 377,000.
The redevelopment plan was subject to the New Zealand Government's budget, and funds weren't approved by cabinet until March 2013. The cost-share agreement with the Christchurch City Council also needed to be negotiated and that took five months.

Christchurch cathedral lost its spire.

Christchurch cathedral lost its spire.

"There's no question that it was frustrating," Isaacs says. "When I'm out in the street I always get asked if I'm happy and I say ‘I'm never happy, I want it to go faster'. One of the lessons we've learned is that we should have had a couple of small NZ$5 million to NZ$10 million projects that we could have just got on with – got funding immediately and shown momentum. Our enemy has really been the time it took to get absolute money behind it."

The construction phase will take time, too. It can take the world's major cities years to pull together a $200 million sporting facility, for example. "We've been tasked to have the majority of these things done within five years and we didn't have the funding in essence for the first year … so we've got four years," says Isaacs, who holds the dual title of director, CCDU and deputy chief executive, implementation, at CERA.

"There's some validity in people saying there's not enough momentum, but I think that changed about six or seven months ago.

"I look out my office window and there's about NZ$300 million worth of private sector reinvestment and that's what we're here for – to drive the regeneration of the central city through private sector investment, to provide the jobs that people need to have. Public spend on public facilities doesn't drive an economy." The rebuild plan focuses on an area of the city framed by four main avenues. That frame serves to define the physical space of the new city centre and espouses the community vision for a green, distinctive, vibrant and accessible city.

It turns out that New Zealanders are risk-averse and have been raised in a culture of insuring themselves. Many insurance payouts have come from international reinsurers and that has injected some much-needed funds into the local and national economies. A huge proportion of the NZ$40 billion cost of the recovery is coming from offshore reinvestors, Isaacs says, and the public spend may account for about NZ$15 billion.

The flight of capital from the city was driven by genuine fear immediately after the tragedy. Certainly some investors have received their insurance money and have bought elsewhere, but Isaacs says Christchurch is a 150-year-old city with strong family roots and investors, and the vast majority have decided to stay. The Canterbury region accounts for 12 per cent of national GDP. Picturesque, with proximity to wine regions and ski fields, it relies heavily on tourism. Global hotel chains have said they will rebuild, as have many of the incumbent international businesses.

A clever decision made soon after the quake has also encouraged locals to stay. A joint venture between the Chamber of Commerce, the national government and some employer-related bodies saw businesses paid a subsidy that enabled them to pay their workers and keep their businesses going if possible.

A significant part of the planning process has been community consultation. Christchurch City Council launched a website, Share An Idea, which is now being heralded globally as one of the best examples of public engagement of its kind. More than 100,000 responses helped plan the finer details for rebuilding the city centre – greater public access to green spaces and the river, more focus on pedestrians and cyclists, and, poignantly, a preference for low-rise rather than tall towers.

The people also asked for the city centre to be brought to life. Consequently, the government has spent hundreds of millions on buying land in the heart of Christchurch, with plans to build accommodation for about 20,000 – far more than the 8000 who previously lived there. About NZ$100 million has been spent on reinvigorating the river, building boardwalks, cycleways, integrating restaurants and shops.

A key feature of the changing city landscape is a soon-to-be-built playground, because right now, aside from interest in the innovative shopping mall and food court erected from colourful shipping containers, there's not a lot of reason for children and families to come to the city. "We need those children to have a memory of the central city so as they grow, they want to come back to work and be entertained and educated," Isaacs says.

New Zealand's building code was recently rewritten and the Z factor – a scale of one to four which refers to a building's strength in an earthquake – has been raised from two to three for new constructions in Christchurch.

"There's no question that land owners and developers are building much stronger buildings." Isaacs says. "If there is a quake they will get some Gyprock damage, but the buildings won't demolish."

His mammoth task is not helped by constant aftershocks and tremors. In one aftershock he was caught on the street with a team of engineers as buildings crumbled around them.

Another, on 23 December 2011, shook more than the city's foundations. "That one set people back a wee bit. They thought they'd got through the worst of it for the year, they were looking forward to Christmas then that came. We got through it, it's just part of existence here. It just reminds us we're still alive."

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