The first time I drove into Christchurch, New Zealand, I was underwhelmed. McDonald’s lined the streets, stretches of strip malls bordered the streets of downtown and a looming gray sky blanketed the small city. But it wasn’t until I drove deeper into the city center and learned a little about the city’s history that I realized Christchurch was a model city, rooted in community-based activism with a persevering sense of hope and creativity.
Any major urban area in New Zealand has a lot to live up to, especially in the South Island. The truth is, most tourists visiting New Zealand aren’t drawn to the country for its cities to begin with. Not only do New Zealand’s cities have to compete with glorious coastlines, dense subtropical rainforests and the endless spine of the snowy Southern Alps running down the entirety of the South Island, they also have to compete with an intricate web of hiking trails, making the country a utopia for every hiker or nature enthusiast looking to avoid the city. Fortunately for most of these South Island cities, at least one of these natural attractions is nearby. As for Christchurch, however, none of these attractions are in the immediate area. So the question is, what really makes Christchurch so special?
On an early afternoon in February almost nine years ago, Christchurch was struck by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, killing 183 people and injuring thousands. Heritage sites were permanently destroyed, historical buildings came crashing down and entire neighborhoods were demolished. When I walked through Christchurch for the first time, it was impossible not to feel the effect of this earthquake, even nine years later. Wide, large and empty city blocks disrupt the bustling city center, still empty from building demolitions. There are very few rising skyscrapers or even multistory buildings, and modern cement buildings randomly fill the cracks between old brick ones, disrupting any type of “European” charm the city has left.
What may be the most symbolic feature of the earthquake’s destruction is the Christchurch Cathedral, a Gothic Revival-style cathedral built in 1865 and located downtown. When the 2011 earthquake hit, the cathedral’s spire came toppling down, as well as the majority of the cathedral’s walls and stones. Today the cathedral remains a restoration project, an unmissable landmark of this catastrophic event. These empty spaces, open blocks and rubble-filled corners of the city remain as evidence of the earthquake’s devastation, reminding locals of the event every time they pass and educating visitors on the city’s history.
So, how did the Christchurch community respond? The list is endless. But what I found to be the most interesting part of the city’s restoration was the innovative and creative projects that saw more than the earthquake’s destruction — but an opportunity to recreate the city of Christchurch. One example: The Māori led initiatives to reclaim land that was originally theirs. The Māori people are New Zealand’s indigenous population, living in New Zealand, or “Aotearoa” (the Māori name for New Zealand, meaning land of the long white cloud), for more than 1,000 years. With the arrival of British colonization, however, the Māori people were subjugated to Western law, ultimately limiting their access to their own lands.
When I walked through Christchurch I noticed the amount of Māori-inspired artwork and design embedded in the new city walls, benches and buildings. Much of this was inspired by a postearthquake initiative to incorporate Māori design into city architecture, embedding the Māori culture in the city canvas. Māori communities saw the rebuilding of the city as an opportunity to decolonize the city from a “little England,” viewing architecture and design as an opportunity to express their culture and identity.
Another way the Christchurch community has responded to the earthquake is through Greening the Rubble, an organization that takes spots in the city that suffered damage and revamps them into public green spaces. This project works to rejuvenate empty city spaces into places for families, volunteer work and urban gardens. Similarly, Gap Filler, a community group and now public trust, was formed after the earthquake to create projects that can temporarily fill empty space. One example of its projects is a vending machine in the city center that is connected to an online database. Christchurch locals can add free ideas to the database about places to go and see around the city, such as a good tree to climb in a park or a great piece of art to check out.
Before I was aware of the multitude of community-led renovation groups, I was struck by the amount of art on every wall and corner of the city center. After the earthquake, an influx of New Zealand artists were drawn to the city to recover the city’s colorful personality. This art still remains there today. On every street you walk, you will find a new installation or mural, bringing even more life to a city that never lost it in the first place.
It’s true, New Zealand is famous for other reasons. It’s the set for the epic “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It’s a hiker’s wonderland. It has the best savory pies. And of course, it’s home to the nationally ranked rugby team, the All Blacks. But fame aside, New Zealand is also home to a city that does not allow itself to be defeated by devastation. The people of Christchurch took destruction and transformed it into renovation and captured hope to inspire innovation. Christchurch is everything but underwhelming.