Eight years after the Canterbury and Christchurch earthquakes Christchurch is far from being rebuilt. It’s not a big, busy, buzzling city like Singapore or Melbourne either, quite the contrary. It’s calm and relaxed. Some might even call it boring. Why would you want to visit a place that is still recovering from an earthquake? What is there to see? To me, Christchurch is a place that impresses in its very own way. Let me tell you why.

What caused the earthquakes?

You might know that New Zealand belongs to the Ring of Fire. You can draw a line around the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand via Indonesia and Japan up to Russia, crossing over to Alaska, following the Pacific coast of the Americas all the way down to Chile. Along that line several tectonic plates meet – and clash.

In case you slept during science class, tectonic movement is usually a cause of trouble. While it created volcanos and underground magma bubbles on the North Island, the South Island is especially prone to earthquakes. Most of them are so weak you won’t even notice. But every few years a mayor earthquake occurs – sometimes with devastating consequences.

At the beginning of this decade two strong earthquakes happened on the South Island. While in the Canterbury earthquake in September 2010 many buildings were heavily damaged, the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 one was fatal. 185 people died, more than half of them trapped in the office of the local TV station. Many houses which were damaged in the previous earthquake were beyond repair, leaving many families without a roof above their heads.

Impact of the Christchurch earthquakes

I vaguely remembered hearing about the earthquakes on the news back then. But once it was no ‘hot news’ anymore, it disappeared from my mind. You might feel shocked when you hear about it, but life goes on. We usually do not realize what a huge impact such an event has. How is it to live in the aftermath of such an event?

A city of contrasts

At first glance there is nothing odd about Christchurch. It has a very relaxed atmosphere, a nice mix of old and new buildings, a lot of green and some nice street art. They just recently opened a new library, which – to be honest – our libraries back home cannot compete with.

Places that impress: Christchurch 8 years after the earthquakes - A city of contrast
A city of contrast: Quirky New Regent Street vs. the ruins of the ChristChurch Cathedral

But right across the library is the ChristChurch Cathedral – well, what is left of it. It is still half down and behind fences. The Anglican Church originally wanted to tear down the ruins, but many people were against that. They even took the matter to court. In 2017, it was finally decided to rebuild the cathedral, which will take about 10 years. In the meanwhile, the church community gathers at a provisional church, the Cardboard Cathedral (fully made of cardboard tubes, timber and steel).

After standing in front of the ruins of the cathedral, I suddenly realized that the Christchurch earthquakes have left many more marks on the city. You start to see cracks in facades. Fences do not hide building sites, but demolition works. Too many houses are abandoned. This city has a lot of green parks and open spaces not because it was planned like that. It’s because the buildings that used to stand there don’t exist anymore.

Living in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes

And yet, although the damage is in plain sight you easily overlook it. I knew the earthquake happened, but it did not touch me emotionally – yet. What you see is physical damage, nothing that can’t be repaired or rebuild. Until you start talking about it with people.

Can you imagine using a drop toilet in your garden for 18 months because that’s how long it takes to restore the canalization properly? Or having to move out of your house because it is slowly sinking? Or living in a building site for several years because the insurance company refuses to pay so that you can get your chimney fixed?

In the east part of Christchurch entire neighborhoods had to be locked down. The so-called Red Zone is about 1.6 times the size of Central Park. The Christchurch earthquakes had weakened the ground in such a way that these neighborhoods were slowly sinking. Some houses sacked more than 1.5 meter within one year. This area is not suitable for housing anymore. The government bought all the land, the people moved out, the houses were torn down.

“The residential red zone was mostly like a bankrupt golf course – grass occasionally mowed, but the trees neglected and the bushes in need of a prune.”

Will Harvie wrote about his strolls through the Red Zone in Among the ghost houses: Walking Christchurch’s residential red zone

What’s left must be a ghost town: empty streets with signs and streetlights, sidewalks which are slowly taken over by nature, no people. No one mowing the lawn, no kids playing on the street, no dog strolling around. I regret that we never went for a walk there. It must be quite an experience.

When numbers become faces

Let’s be honest, how much do we still feel when we hear about another disaster on the news? Or do we just note the number of death and injured before going back to your daily routine? But when numbers suddenly become faces, it can be a slap in the face (one I probably needed).

Oi Manawa Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial

The realization, that these numbers were real persons who are loved and missed, came slowly, step by step. We strolled through the city center of Christchurch and walked down some stairs to the riverside. We found ourselves in front of a long, high, stone wall.

The 111-metres long memorial wall is part of the Oi Manawa Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial. Here the numbers became names: The names of all 185 victims are engraved in the wall, in English and their mother tongue. You find English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Hebrew, Arabic, Serbian and Russian names. The memorial is a peaceful area, a space designed to grieve and reflect on both earthquakes.

185 White Chairs

Four blocks from the National Memorial is another monument that remembers the victims of the Christchurch earthquake. For the first anniversary local artist Pete Majendie collected 185 chairs, painted them white and put them on a square. What was intended to be a temporary installation, has become a permanent place of remembrance.

Places that impress: Christchurch 8 years after the earthquakes - Oi Manawa Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial & 185 White Chairs
Places to remember: Oi Manawa Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial and the 185 White Chairs

Although the 185 White Chairs do not specifically represent one person, they represent their uniqueness and diversity. You see a bar stool, an armchair, a baby stroller, a wheelchair. It is not hard to imagine that whoever owned it just got up. Except that they won’t come back.

Quake City

If there is a museum that is worth its entry fee, it’s Quake City – even if you don’t like museums. How come that in 2011 so many people died although the 2010 quake was heavier (Mw 6.2 vs. 7.1)? Why did the houses suddenly start to sink? How could people get financial help to rebuild their houses, and why did some requests take so long? It helped me to connect the dots. But most importantly, names became faces.

Hearing personal stories and seeing original footage from the street cameras is no piece of cake. But it’s a good reality check. You might wake up tomorrow morning and your world has turned upside down. I left Christchurch with the reminder to not take life for granted. Appreciate the little things and enjoy every second (even if this sounds cliché like the message in a fortune cookie).

Places to visit

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Places that impress: Christchurch eight years after the earthquakes

What’s left to say? Christchurch might not have the highest towers, buzzling traffic and breathtaking rooftop views like the metropolises of this world. But I left deeply impressed. Don’t skip Christchurch when you visit the South Island. Take some time to discover the city. Talk to people. Go to the museum. It is an experience not many cities can give.

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PS: Which place has left a lasting impression on you? Tell me about it in the comments!