Rising from the Ruins



In 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. The quake struck in February, ripping apart the country’s second-largest city and killing 185 people. The center of the city, which is home to much of New Zealand’s cultural heritage, was decimated by the initial earthquake and the flooding it caused, as well as the aftershocks, which continued for nearly a year. Experts’ estimates of damages exceeded $40 billion. Even the structures left standing weren’t safe. About a quarter of the buildings in the “four avenues”, the central business district, were expected to be demolished due to safety concerns.

Mural at one of the many new car parks

 Visiting nearly three years later, I saw a different Christchurch. As we drove through the outskirts of the city, it was hard to spot any damage. The streets were busy and clean—it looked like nothing had ever happened. By the time we had parked near the center of town, however, I could see what one of our hosts had meant when she described Christchurch as “a massive car park”—there were parking lots on every block, likely where buildings had been demolished.

Re:START shopping center, housed in colorful shipping containers

We passed quickly through the bustling Ballantynes – Christchurch’s department store – before exiting into the city’s newest shopping center. Dubbed Re:START, the district features upscale shops housed in repurposed shipping containers. Anchored by Kathmandu, New Zealand’s leading outdoor store, Re:START stresses Kiwi products, with boutiques such as HAPA and Ruby featuring local designers. Many of the retailers in the project were previous downtown establishments, like Scorpio Books and Johnson’s Grocery. As we stepped into the square, we caught the tail end of a Maori dance group’s performance. The crowd dispersed into the admittedly tempting food court, which featured a few adorable coffee shops, woodfire pizza, and sushi.

Christchurch Cathedral's reconstruction

Just a few blocks away, we came to one of the hardest hit areas of the city: the Christchurch Cathedral Square. Fronted with scaffolding and beams, the cathedral had been gutted and its masonry crumbled inward. Despite the destruction, the square was dotted with visitors. Several large public art projects had been placed around the square, covering some of the damage with streaks of color. In front of the cathedral, covered in flowering plants, was a living church that mimicked the shape of the building. A cage of signed rocks showed visitors’ and residents’ best wishes for the city’s recovery. And a large, vase-like metal sculpture of interconnected flowers blossomed towards the sky.

Messages of support on rubble.

As we walked back through downtown, I was struck by the large amount of graffiti—these were not angry messages but entire murals that stretched across buildings. Art even bloomed in the chain-link fences ringing new construction, in colorful squares snapped on in geometric patterns. Although Christchurch still has a long way to go, the city center is already starting to see revitalization. As the city recovers, many residents we have talked to expressed hope for the future and the new city they can build. Christchurch may be a blank slate, but what locals have done is already impressive.

Public art in Christchurch Cathedral Square


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