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Christchurch, New Zealand – Christchurch contemplates an uncertain future after earthquakes

Engineers consider how and where Christchurch City in New Zealand should be rebuilt

The humanitarian catastrophes notwithstanding, recent events in Libya and Japan point out the folly of dependence on nuclear power plants in geologically unstable regions or oil peddled by unstable governments.

It appears as though the 1970s oil crisis and Chernobyl meltdown are being replayed, which should give urban planners, architects, engineers and politicians all pause for thought. This is particularly the case in New Zealand, which is faced with the task of rebuilding the heritage city of Christchurch after two major earthquakes. The country is an anti-nuclear nation but car ownership is vital, since there is no extensive train network.

For its national economy, the aftermath of two Christchurch earthquakes and many aftershocks has been compared to 9/11. Does it make sense to rebuild Christchurch, known as the ‘Garden City’, on a site that has proved geologically unsafe? Earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee has set his priorities: human life comes before the preservation of heritage buildings, dating back to the city’s establishment by Europeans 160 years ago. Of 1,000 historic constructions assessed so far, 50 per cent are unsafe for use.

Surveys conclude that 100,000 homes are in need of repair and 10,000 homes face demolition due to liquefaction, where sub-soils have morphed into quicksand. Engineers are faced with the nearly impossible task of attempting to build a raft foundation, as bedrock for the city, or finding a safer location for a new Christchurch City. Who will insure any rebuilding on the present site?

In March, insurance companies put a stop on new policies, while raising present premiums and deductibles. Following last September’s earthquake, the Christchurch mayor, Bob Parker, was in favour of repair work in situ. But now he admits the plan calls for re-examination. The city is worth resurrecting, just not exactly where it once stood.

Before last September, Christchurch had 400,000 residents, making it the second largest city in the country after Auckland. Among its former inhabitants are Nobel Prize laureate Ernest Rutherford, writers Ngaio Marsh and Keri Hulme, and New Zealand prime minister John Key. Along with the Canterbury and Otago university campuses and a polytechnic, it’s a centre for ‘new economy’ firms, a NZ$ 9.5 billion tourist industry,
and sheep and dairy product distributors.

Lyttelton port exports most of the country’s coal. The international airport serves 6 million travellers a year, with direct connections to Asia, Australia and the South Pole. The city is home base for the International Antarctic Centre. New Zealanders, in their characteristic pioneering spirit pride themselves on being able to fix anything with a wire coat hanger and a pair of tights.

Their invention has won war medals and science prizes, but the majority of the country’s 4.3 million population are no longer farmers but urbanites. Cities of the 21st century need long-term planning, strict building regulations and must be able to run on low-cost, energy-saving systems.

Only these measures can ensure stable economic growth. Fearing for their global brand, business lobbies want reconstruction ‘as was’ and ‘asap’. They have no expertise in building fresh solutions. There are models, however, such as Abu Dhabi’s carbon-neutral city Masdar, or more modest ones in the vibrant Pacific Rim, where New Zealand architects also work. They have enough experience to seize this opportunity at home, and to
initiate a New Christchurch City Corporation, along the lines of post-1945 New Towns in the UK.

This is not the time for business as usual, but for a sustainable city that looks to the future. At present, emergency needs should take priority but at the same time strategies have to be formulated. Mark Binns, chief executive of Fletcher Construction, estimates that Christchurch’s recovery will cost NZ$ 30 billion and focus activity in this area for the next decade.

The Green Party warns the collapse of some building firms has caused qualified trade workers to leave to go abroad. If a lead isn’t taken soon, there will be a shortfall of skills. Governments fear unpopularity. They are not construction experts but, if politicians were brave and decisive enough, they could forge an enduring image. This would not only lead to a more sustainable city, but also reinforce New Zealand’s international reputation as a non-nuclear, pro-Green and environmentally friendly nation.

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