Cathedral Square, Christchurch on September 28, 2011, six months after the February earthquake (Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

We have another ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to rebuild. Will we squander it again?

The Christchurch rebuild should act as a cautionary lesson as we contemplate the upcoming post-Covid recovery, writes James Dann.

In uncertain times, it can be reassuring to look back at history as a guide. As the Christchurch earthquakes – the first just shy of a decade ago – were our last major disaster, and one of the biggest in our modern history, a number of articles have recently looked back at the rebuild for lessons that can be applied to our post-Covid recovery. Given the scale of the disaster, and the number of people whose lives were affected, there are plenty of lessons that can be learnt from the quakes – but what you learn from them will depend on where you look.

What the virus and the lockdown has done to the economy is a multi-billion-dollar question. The cost of the Christchurch rebuild was huge – upwards of $40 billion – and was a big economic stimulus as the economy emerged out of the 2008 global financial crisis. Today construction is again being touted as an economic stimulus, with the government looking for “shovel-ready” projects.

The big difference is that no one, aside from a few cranks, was arguing about whether we should rebuild Christchurch after the quakes. Insurance, EQC, and the government put billions into repairing and rebuilding houses, roads and other critical infrastructure. Putting the central city and the problems with repairs to the side for a moment, this aspect of the rebuild was pretty simple.

Members of Canterbury University volunteer army clean up liquefaction on February 24, 2011. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

Thousands of people were employed to fix the problems created by the earthquakes. Joanna Norris, former Press editor, now head of ChristchurchNZ, described the effect of the building boom as “an artificial sugar hit that disguised the fact that the economy wasn’t fundamentally changing over the long term.” We fixed the houses and the roads, and built new offices to replace the ones that were demolished. We put the city back together again, but we didn’t really change what it does.

Building projects will be critical for the recovery after Covid, but if the rebuild has taught us anything, it is that we need to build things that have an economic impact beyond just the activity of construction itself.

Writing for The Spinoff, Roger Dennis looks at one of the important splits in that construction spend. He contrasts the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT), a public-private alliance tasked with rebuilding the below-ground infrastructure in Christchurch, with the Earthquake Commission (EQC). SCIRT’s partnership model was successful at getting the job done with minimal fuss, Dennis says, while EQC’s arcane bureaucracy led to court cases, Campbell Live campaigns, and ultimately a public inquiry.

Many in the city thought the EQC was worse than the quakes, with one submission to the inquiry summing up the mood: “The earthquake didn’t break me. EQC almost did.” If there is a lesson here, it is that a partnership approach – between local and central government, along with big private players – can be more effective than one super-charged government agency that lacks accountability.

Gerry Brownlee, pictured during the visit to NZ by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Of course, the man in charge of the EQC through this period, Gerry Brownlee, would disagree. He was dismissive of the inquiry report, despite admitting he hadn’t even read it. Brownlee’s name has become the one that people associate with the rebuild, for better or worse. This in itself is a lesson about leadership in a disaster, and should be a cautionary tale for Jacinda Ardern.

As Sam Sachdeva writes on Newsroom, following the quakes then-mayor Bob Parker fell back on his media experience to lead the city through regular briefings. Once the TV cameras had gone, however, Parker found the day-to-day operation of the council more challenging. The government had to intervene when the council was unable to process the mountain of building consents that were required by the rebuild. The council’s draft recovery plan was presented to Brownlee, who waited for four months before announcing the development of the government’s hundred day plan, which largely sidelined the council. Parker struggled so much with the fallout from the quakes that he didn’t even bother to seek reelection.

Through the rebuild, the government was given extraordinary powers to respond to the extraordinary situation. While these were clearly necessary to get the job done, they weren’t without criticism. Brownlee became known as the “Earthquake Czar” and plans were held increasingly tightly; it became impossible to get information out of some agencies. Though democracy wasn’t suspended, the public often felt disconnected from the decisions being made for them. One example was “Share an Idea”, a massive public consultation held by the Christchurch City Council asking residents what they wanted from the rebuild of their city. More than 100,000 people submitted ideas. These helped to inform the council’s Draft Recovery Plan, which, as mentioned above, was largely sidelined by the government in favour of their own plan.

One of the only aspects of Share an Idea that made it into the Blueprint was the visual language. The bright colours and speech bubbles of the council’s plan reappeared in the government’s version, but instead of saying things people actually wanted, like “greener spaces” or “fewer cars”, they now spouted the government’s agenda with phrases like “justice and emergency services precinct” and “innovation precinct”. According to designer Matthew Galloway in the essay collection Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch,  Share an Idea became less about generating actionable ideas and more about “an attempt to soft sell concepts of change through the veil of democratic process”.

Writing for Newsroom, Esther Marshall calls for a national Share an Idea, but we’ve already got one. It’s called the general election, and one is coming up in September. The Green Party has already put out their stall for what they think the economy should look like; hopefully other parties will outline their own visions as the campaign gets going. Our democracy is far from perfect, but unlike Share an Idea, public participation can’t just be ignored if it doesn’t suit the government’s agenda.

Prime Minister John Key sits in a digger in Cashel Mall during a earthquake recovery update visit on August 12, 2011. (Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

To take any lessons from Christchurch, we first need to better understand where the city is in 2020. Roger Dennis’s conclusion is about right: “After the Christchurch earthquakes, the government of the time failed to take advantage of what was New Zealand’s largest infrastructure spend in memory. Instead of a city that was fit for the 21st century, that attracted talent, and benefited from foreign investment, taxpayers funded a slightly better billion-dollar version of the old city.”

I worry that even that slightly negative take is too optimistic. The partially rebuilt Christchurch of 2020 could be more vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19 than any other New Zealand except Queenstown. Due to the increased cost of building to a higher standard, and the restriction of land supply that was a key part of the Blueprint, commercial rents in the CBD are unrealistically high. There are still huge swathes of land, especially east of Manchester St, which are nothing more than gravel carparks, and are likely to stay this way for years as we head towards a recession.

A gravel-filled site on Colombo St, Christchurch, May 5, 2020 (Photo: James Dann)

There was already an oversupply of hospitality (for example, the food court that I mentioned in this piece 18 months ago was only half-tenanted before the arrival of Covid-19), and the retail stores were struggling to compete with the offerings from Christchurch’s true love, giant suburban malls. Tourism was key to the central city, as the numbers of people who live inside the Four Avenues remains stubbornly low.

And speaking of tourism, the two biggest anchor projects – the convention centre, and the stadium – are both highly dependent on the tourism dollars that have completely disappeared for the foreseeable future. Te Pae, the $500m convention centre, is all but ready to open, so the question now will be how to repurpose it so that it at least makes some money. The stadium (at least another $500m) is not yet under construction, but despite both professional sport and touring events being completely borked for the short to medium term, the council has insisted that the project will still go ahead.

There are absolutely lessons to be learnt from Christchurch: Construction is important for stimulating the economy, but we need to ensure that the investment lasts beyond the construction itself. Government needs to work with local councils and the private sector, and to genuinely engage with the public, rather than imposing order from Wellington. Leaders can build a huge amount of trust in a crisis, but it is how they spend that political capital in the months following that really matters. Democratic participation is important as long as it is genuine.

When the quakes struck, we had the chance to rebuild Christchurch as the first city of the 21st century, but instead we chose to put it back together as the last city of the 20th century. After the pandemic subsides, we won’t have to rebuild, we will have to reshape. We’ve got a second “once in a lifetime” opportunity to rethink the city, only a decade after the last one. Let’s hope the city, and the country, doesn’t squander it again.



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