How has Christchurch changed?

I was asked recently “What does Christchurch feel like when returning after a period away?”

I was absent from Christchurch from mid-August until late September.  When I returned I was keen to see & photograph what had changed.  In 2011, an absence of six weeks would have seen a significant change in the CBD as the frenzied demolition machine gobbled up so much in its path. 

However by August 2013 most of that activity had finished & the CBD was quietly welcoming folks who had watched from the cordon fences for years and tourists who took the city as they saw it.image

A walk around the Square & adjacent Streets at the end of October thrilled me as such a wealth of local talent was everywhere. Artists & craft people had been hard at work transforming the central city to make it a bright & cheery place to visit. image

The Cashel Restart Mall was busier than when I’d left. It wasn’t a dead-end street anymore; I could walk through it and into Colombo, High, Hereford & down to Lichfield Streets.image


Several hotels in the centre were open or just about to. Such good news.  The work on buildings such as the Heritage Hotel (aka Old Government Building) and Cathedral Junction have restored those heritage buildings to high standards of both strength and beauty.

When I revisited the residential red zones of Bexley, Avonside, Burwood and Horseshoe Lake it was a very different scene.  Now, there is everywhere a huge number of  empty and forlorn sections & every street had workers demolishing houses or in a few cases preparing them for removal and relocation.


In the few areas where all the houses had gone, CERA had fenced the area, removed the fences & any outbuildings remaining after the demolition crews finished their job, and sowed the area in grass which was now a lovely light green.  In particular CERA had made that area around New Brighton Road where it meets the Avon River almost look attractive. A big improvement on how it looked a year earlier.image

How you view the changes in Christchurch depends upon where you stand and what you look at.  If you work in the construction area, new housing is very busy out to the north, west & south of the city.  With regard to the big commercial buildings that are needed to really get commerce fired up, although planning is well advanced for a number of building projects, there isn’t much for us to observe yet in the central city.  If its retail you’re looking at, your impressions will be different depending upon whether you are looking at the central city, surrounding areas or retail complexes further out such as the beautifully restored Tannery in Woolston.  And if you’re an artist, there is plenty of scope for your imagination to continue to enliven the city and many blank canvases, if somewhat unusual ones.image

I’m encouraged & excited with how the city is being transformed. It’ll be such a buzz watching & photographing the myriad of changes each time I return.

On the other side of the camera

In May we spent a few days in the company of some Broadcasting students from CPIT.  The result was this documentary which they submitted for their final year project.  It was an interesting experience for us to be on the other side of the camera.  It is a record of our last visit to the central city red zone, before the cordons came down.  It also includes coverage of our work in the residential red zones, recording how things are changing there.  Thanks to Conor and Michael who helped us to tell the story of what we do, and were good company over the days we spent together.  


Watch the documentary


An A-Z of gratitude for the Transitional Cathedral

“Informative, cheerful and hopeful”.  Back in 2011, a viewer described our FB page, CHCH EQ Photos, with these words.  I loved it, it summed up exactly the tone I was aiming to achieve.  In 2013, it can sometimes seem a real challenge to maintain that tone, even though the environment is surely more hopeful than it was in 2011 while the aftershocks were still a regular occurrence.  There are so many cynical and/or negative comments, that some days I struggle to maintain a cheerful outlook. 

As my children were growing, some days when our family needed a more positive focus on the world we would play “A-Z of gratitude”.  So here is what Ross and I came up with as our “A-Z of gratitude for the Transitional Cathedral”.  We’ve left a few holes for you to fill in – please feel free to add your own comments. For this post, nothing negative please.

We are grateful for:

  • Inspirational Architecture
  • The Bishop who has led the process for the Anglican Church of thinking about what kind of buildings a 21st church community needs
  • Church buildings throughout the world which sooth our souls
  • The Determination of those who got this building finished,
  • Exciting architecture
  • Futuristic design of a church that allows it to be useful for other community activities as well as worship
  • Great design
  • The layeris of buildings upon this Historic site where St John the Baptist used to stand
  • Innovative architecture and use of building materials
  • Joyous – who can see that light filled interior and not be exalted
  • Kinship of everyone working together to build a better Christchurch with a brighter future
  • the Light in the interior
  • Memorable building which is already drawing attention from tourists
  • Naylor Love – the builders
  • Open-minded people who accept this building for itself
  • Parish church that this building will revert to once there is a rebuilt Cathedral in the Square
  • Quality workmanship
  • Rebuilt buildings which are making our city seem like a city again
  • Shigeru Ban, internationally renowned architect who gave his time, skills and energy to design this building for us
  • Transitional buildings such as this one, that give so much dynamism to our city centre
  • USAR crews who spent the days after the quake based in Latimer Square and passing by this site on their way to assigments within the central city
  • The Transitional Cathedral providing a Venue for concerts and other events
  • World class architecture
  • eXcellence in the design and execution
  •  the 50 Years (at least) this building will stadn as a beautiful reminder of how Christchurch picked itself up and rebuilt  
  • Zest for new beginnings

Sustainable transport for Christchurch

Christchurch has such an extraordinary opportunity, given to very few cities, to rethink how to create a central city that is more people friendly with sustainable transport options.  By world standards, Christchurch is a small city in terms of population although it sprawls across a large geographic area and is sprawling more with the shift to the west from the badly damaged suburbs of East Christchurch.  It does not have enough population to sustain a metro system, but it is certainly big enough for a good public transport system, well integrated with human powered transport (HPT) such as commuting cyclists.

So we were particularly interested on this trip to Europe to visit cities that have developed sustainable, green transport systems.  Only 50% of Parisians have a car and Amsterdam is well known as a cyclists heaven.  Gothenburg and Uppsala in Sweden have also achieved green transport systems, despite their severe winters.  All these cities provide safe, fast and efficient routes for commuting cyclists with easy parking.  The use of cars is dis-incentivised with more roundabout routes, and more difficult and expensive parking.

The physical separation of HPT users from both pedestrians and cars is an important step in improving safety which is a key concern for all HPT users.  Cities such as Amsterdam and Gothenburg have divided their main thoroughfares into lanes for trams, cars, bicycles and pedestrians with buffer zones between each to allow each means of transport to move safely at their different speeds. That space that could have hosted 3 lanes of cars now provides more sustainably for buses, trams, bicycles, scooters and pedestrians with only one lane for cars.

We noticed that cycling is treated as a business-as-usual activity with more work-a-day bicycles and no special clothing.  The bicycles are simpler, easier to ride and maintain and adapted to carry children as well as shopping or goods.  The cyclists wear the same clothes to ride as they wear to work, including high heeled shoes.  Helmets are not mandatory and seldom worn by commuting cyclists.

Another green transport initiative we observed is where the city provides a car hire scheme for citizens without cars to allow them to hire a car at reasonable rates for occasional journeys.  Paris has a particularly popular scheme with small electric cars with designated parking & charging spaces.  Many cities also have similar bike hire schemes.  Paris’ version is called Velolib and is so popular that we saw many Parisians on the distinctive Velolib bikes and empty bicycle ranks, especially one fine Sunday afternoon.  These two green transport systems have contributed a lot to the popularity of Paris’ current mayor.

In comparison to these green transport initiatives, Christchurch’s plans for transport for the new Christchurch seem very conservative, with only small changes from the current arrangements.  We would like to see much bolder moves towards sustainable transport options that make the city safer and pleasanter and more oriented towards people rather than cars.  What are your dreams and hopes for transport systems in the new Christchurch?

View more photos of green transport

Aging Gracefully

Maybe it is because New Zealand is such a young country that we struggle with aging gracefully and find it difficult to see beauty in ruins.  So we pull down aged and damaged buildings, rather than honouring and treasuring their history.

What would Europe be without its romantic ruins steeped in story and historic context.  They are usually honoured and cared for, surrounded by gardens; places of peace and tranquility.

Think of all the abbeys, dissolved by Henry VIII or the castles that are no longer required for defensive purposes.  The ruins are part of the landscape, now cherished and cared for, places that people visit to reflect and contemplate their historic role or just to enjoy as attractive places to be.

Is there anywhere in Christchurch where we are planning to preserve a structure as a graceful ruin that will show future residents and visitors what kind of damage earthquakes do to buildings, or simply serve as a place for reflection and contemplation.    A place for us all to remember these years of extreme change and turmoil.

Can we learn to age more gracefully and to honour our history and our stories more?

Arts Centre

A quote from Lord Rutherford is painted on the wall of the Arts Centre “we do not have much money, therefore we must think”.   The thoughtfulness of the approach to the work of restoring the earthquake damaged Arts Centre is clearly evident at many levels.

The governance of the Arts Centre is a Trust Board that has includes representatives from the University of Canterbury, NZ Historic Places Trust, Ngai Tahu and individuals with a range of skills and perspectives.  Someone very intelligent re-negotiated their insurance policy after the September earthquake with the result that the gap between the cost of the 7 year restoration programme and the insurance cover was reduced to $100 million.

Further evidence of the thoughtful approach is the concept of minimising the cost of restoration work by designing the strengthening required for the restorers to work safely so that it can be included in the permanent structural strengthening.

The restoration programme will take 7 years, but is progressively staged, so that buildings will open as they are completed.  The Registry building is a few months away from opening.

Over the decades there were intrusive additions  to the Arts Centre complex.  With the scale of the work required during the restoration programme it has been possible to strip away these additions and restore the Arts Centre to a more original form.  Historic decorative elements, such as finials and  chimneys which were removed in earlier years as earthquake hazards, can now be restored using today’s technology.

Across the site, the care for the heritage building they are working on is evident, despite the complications caused by a work environment which is an active seismic zone.  Almost all of the stone that came down is numbered, paletted and protected from the weather on site, with only a few large pieces stored offsite.  The oldest buildings in the Arts Centre, which are also the architectural gems, such as the College Hall (aka the Great Hall) are receiving the most careful restorations. 

Finally the Arts Centre has done a good job of communicating to Christchurch residents and visitors about what is going on behind the barricades with large noticeboards on the fences explaining the restoration programme.

While 7 years may seem a long time for the restoration programme, rushing the repair programme is the antithesis of a careful historic restoration.  Intelligent planning by a well integrated team of skilled engineers and architects with the involvement of specialist heritage architects followed by careful implementation of the plan by a team of multi-skilled craftsmen holds the best hope for a restored Arts Centre that will be a source of great pride to the City.  Congratulations to CE, Andre Lovett (who usefully is an engineer by qualification) and all the team contributing to the restoration.  I think Rutherford would have approved of the thoughtfulness of your work.

View more photos of the Arts Centre

Why is it taking so long to repair the houses in Christchurch?

Many people have asked this question or complained about how long it is taking.  So for several weeks, I’ve been exploring what the issues are with fixing housing and why it is taking so long.  Here’s what I’ve learnt.

There are three main contributors to the length of time it is taking to fix the housing in Christchurch.

1.The scale of the increases in major building repairs and in the number of new houses being built.  

2. The complexity of the insurance issues caused by 16 separate earthquake insurance events. 

3. Challenges in ramping up the level of construction resources (labour and materials) to meet the big increase in demand. 

1. The scale of the problem

There is a massive increase in the demand for home repairs and new home construction, over a relatively short time period. 

Pre-earthquake the usual number of house renovations in Christchurch was 3000 per year.  Now there are about 110,000 Christchurch houses requiring major repairs, about 30 times more than the usual demand.   The recently released ECan report on land use indicates that “91% of the 190,000 dwellings in Christchurch were damaged by the earthquakes”, so there are about another 60,000 houses requiring smaller repairs.image

The usual number of new home consents for all of New Zealand is about 15,000 per year.  Now Canterbury alone, is expecting to build 30,000 new homes by 2016.

There are also about 10,000 house demolitions which draw upon a similar pool of labour and construction machinery.

2. Insurance complexities

The Christchurch/Canterbury earthquakes are the 4th largest global insurance event ever.  The 16 earthquakes that caused enough damage to be rated as separate insurance events have considerably increased the complexity of resolving insurance claims.  While householders are mostly insured with the same company right through all the earthquakes, insurance companies have changed their reinsurance partners over the time period of the earthquakes.  Reinsurers audit the insurance claims and expect good quality supporting documentation.  In other large global events reinsurers have withdrawn from the market, which has not happened in Christchurch.

About 30% of the claims have been paid out, leaving just over 2/3 of claims still to be settled.  While homeowners wait for their claims to be settled they are unwilling to progress home repairs, in case that compromises their claims.  Since insurance money is likely to be forthcoming eventually, other sources of potential funding for fixing housing are limited.

There are challenges in ramping up a workforce that is sufficiently skilled to conduct the assessments and evaluations.  

3. Construction resource constraints

It is a challenge to increase the construction labour force and the availability of construction machinery and building materials quickly enough to meet the sharp increase in demand.  The resource requirements to build and repair houses are also competing with the requirements to support commercial construction, repairs, and demolitions and the workforce needed for insurance evaluations and assessments. 

New programmes have been added to train more construction workers, but will take some time to deliver enough skilled NZ labour.  Recruiters are turning overseas for the necessary workforce which also avoids an oversupply of construction labour once the level of construction returns to lower levels in Canterbury.image

View more photos of the new housing estates.

Residential Red Zone


The land damage caused in residential areas by the September 2010 earthquake and then again by the February 2011 earthquake created issues for both property owners and the government, which had never been encountered in New Zealand before. Nearly two years after the February earthquake, those issues are on the path to resolution, with some key decisions made and some processes well established. Other processes are still evolving and the important decision about the future uses of the land is not yet made.

The residential red zones (RRZ) face a different set of problems from the central city red zone with many more property owners and insurers as stakeholders and a lot more emotion involved in the decision making. The homes that were here represented hopes and dreams of families as well as being the single largest financial asset of most.


Residential red zoned property in New Brighton Road showing impact of liquefaction.

So how is progress and what’s happening in the residential red zones across the city and in Kaiapoi, Brooklands and Pines Beach?

The numbers

There are 7207 properties within the RRZ, whose owners have received an offer from the government. Of these, 5479 property owners have settled. 1403 homeowners chose option 1, and sold both the house and the land to the government while 4076 homeowners chose option 2 and sold the land to the government and the house to their insurance company. In some cases, although the land was damaged, the house was deemed repairable from an insurance point of view, so CERA is managing these cases. In cases where the house is either repairable or relocatable, CERA will seek settlement of any land claim with EQC and the house claim with the insurance company.

Just over 2000 property owners have not finalised their arrangements for a variety of reasons. Many will do so in the next month or so. A small number of property owners have decided not to accept the government’s offer and are waiting to see what the government’s next move will be. The number of properties with homeowners or tenants still living in them is a subset of the 2000 homes where the arrangements are not yet finalised. From observation, very few of the RRZ streets are entirely empty.

CERA as property owner

CERA is currently managing the properties purchased by the Crown as settlements occur, with around 5,800 properties with 5,800 lawns to mow, hedges to trim and rates to pay. About 25% of the houses across the RRZ have been demolished with the percentage demolished varying quite markedly in different areas.

The RRZ offer was complex and it took most property owners some months to understand fully the implications of the various choices, decide which option to take and negotiate the final details. The announcements about which properties were categorised as RRZ were made in tranches over a period of nearly a year.

Demolition is managed by the insurance company for the properties which are deemed a total loss. The demolition is of all damaged insurable structures, which may include garages and driveways as well as the house, or may not include the driveway or the garage if they were not insured or deemed undamaged. There are several insurance companies involved, making a variety of arrangements with different demolition contractors, leading to the range of outcomes that are observable in the RRZ.

Land clearance

Taking Kaiapoi as an example, Courtenay Drive is the first sizeable group of properties (23 properties) where enough properties have been settled to allow the land clearance to proceed to the next stage where boundary fences and shrubs are removed. Large trees/shrubs have been recorded on a GIS database and have been left. CERA is looking for ways to make it more cost effective to keep the RRZ land well maintained and free of rubbish and ‘fly tipping’.


Cleared land in Courtenay Drive, Kaiapoi.

In the Golden Grove area of Kaiapoi, the RRZ streets have had many houses demolished. There are sufficient final settlements in large enough groups to commence clearing boundary fences, remaining structures and residual vegetation.  The process for dealing with the vegetation is contained in the report developed by Boffa Miskell in November 2012. (

Future uses of the land

At this stage CERA is focused on helping property owners make their decisions about their preferred options and move into homes elsewhere. In parallel there are consultations happening with stakeholder groups about what will happen to the land. Once decisions are made about the future uses of the land, a number of other decisions will follow such as what will happen to the streets, and to the distribution systems for water, stormwater, sewage, electricity and telecommunications.

New Brighton Road near Locksley Ave, where the road has been diverted onto the gardens of RRZ properties now owned by the government.


The deadline for RRZ property owners to settle under the present offer has been extended from April to June 2013. When that deadline is reached, there will be more streets where all the properties have settled, so the demolitions can occur followed by the land clearances. However, some property owners have decided not to accept the present offer and see what the government’s next move is. Some of those property owners have declared their intention of taking their case to the courts. We can expect it to take many more months for these issues to be resolved, as although the number of property owners in this situation is a relatively small percentage, nearly all the cases are different and will take different paths to resolution.


The issues caused by the scale of land damage to residential homes are complex and challenging to resolve. Firstly it was complex to complete the geotechnical assessments to make the decisions about which properties should be categorised as RRZ. Secondly it was complex to decide what the government offer should be, given the variety of insurance arrangements and the types of damage to houses that had occurred. Thirdly it is complex to manage the 5,800 empty properties and to try to keep the RRZ streets secure and safe. Still to unfold are the complexities of the remaining property owners who have decided not to accept the government offer.

Much of the external focus has been on what is happening in the central city red zone, with New Zealanders from outside of Christchurch and even those who live in the much less damaged western suburbs relatively oblivious to the painful choices facing red zoners. While red zoners would like more awareness and empathy for their situation, they do not want any more attention from taggers, people dumping rubbish in empty sections, criminals and arsonists.

And another story for another day, is the plight of property owners whose homes and/or land is badly damaged, but who are not red zoned, and therefore face a different set of issues.

Christchurch comparisons

Three times recently, people posting on CHCH EQ Photos have compared Christchurch to a war zone or to a developing country.  There is understandable frustration at the slow progress of recovery in the residential red zones, and sorrow at the number of buildings that are being demolished because they are either so damaged they are deemed unsafe by CERA or they are considered uneconomic to repair by their owners and insurers. 

During 2012 I visited Lebanon, a former war zone, and Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in Asia.  The resemblance of Christchurch to either a war zone or a developing country is superficial.  War zones and developing countries are untidy and ugly and they share that characteristic with the red zones in Christchurch – both in the central city and outlying suburbs.  There the resemblance ends.

The demolition sites of Christchurch are orderly, there are health and safety signs, cordon fences to keep out the unauthorised, friendly army officers at the cordon helping tourists navigate to their destinations.  The demolition workers deftly handle very large machines and sort the piles of demolition rubble into different kinds of material for recycling.  This is a very different environment from war zones where the bullet holes are still evident, or the developing world  where there are few controls on worker safety or how to deal with demolition rubble. 

Everywhere construction and demolition workers exhibit skill in the work they do.  Our demolition workers have heavy machinery to assist them in their work, whereas in the developing world far more of the work is done manually without the assistance of machinery.  We are often mesmerised by the skill of the heavy machinery operators as they deftly sort demolition rubble.  The demolition and construction workers that Christchurch needs so much, often work in difficult, noisy and unpleasant environments.  Sometimes their work environment is dangerous as well.  They deserve our respect for the work they do.

Frustration at the slowness of progress in some areas, disagreement with the direction of the development plans, anger at the decision makers who choose to demolish rather than repair – these are all reasonable responses to the situation.  Comparing Christchurch to either a war zone or a developing country  is an unfair comparison.

Return to the Central City Red zone

Today, we were back in the red zone after our trip to Vietnam, where Moira was teaching a librarianship course at the Hanoi University of Culture.  Spending a few weeks in a completely different environment  has given us a fresh perspective on the central city.  How long ago it seems that CERA was telling us that they hoped to open up the cordon entirely by April 2012.  The centre of the city is still an active demolition zone with the sound of heavy machinery all around. 

It seems that the number of buildings still to be demolished stays about the same number, as new buildings are added to the demolition list, as fast as others are demolished.  With so much gone, the centre of the city is becoming see through, with surprising vistas right across the city, where there never used to be a line of sight.