Photo essay: Finding both hope and devastation in Christchurch

Art reflecting the thoughts of the residents of Christchurch

I didn’t expect to spend any time in Christchurch, but after a change in my flight time I found myself with half a day to explore it, and I’m glad I did. 

I had heard about the earthquake of February 2011 on the news but in all honesty I had never paid that much attention to it. Yes it was tragic and it made me sad, but like everything else you see on the TV I felt completely removed from the situation.

Although this wasn’t the first earthquake Christchurch had suffered, it was the second most deadly natural disaster New Zealand has ever seen and it claimed the lives of 185 people.

It did not just destroy lives, but the heart and soul of the city. It wasn’t the countryside or the less visited suburbs that were worst effected, but the city centre of Christchurch. It is estimated that around 60% of the historic city centre was destroyed by the earthquake.

A map of the centre of Christchurch. The red section represents the area closed off to the public due to damage from the earthquake.

What was once the heart of the city is now closed off and abandoned

High street shops and malls on the main shopping stretch – it was surreal and eerie to see them completely empty

Of the 3,000 buildings inspected within the Four Avenues of the central city by 3 March, 45% had been given red or yellow stickers to restrict access because of the safety problems. Many heritage buildings were given red stickers after inspections and One thousand of the 4000 buildings within the Four Avenues were expected to be demolished. Even in the suburbs it was estimated that 10,000 houses would need to be demolished, and liquefaction damage meant that some parts of Christchurch could not be rebuilt on.

A destroyed building in the city centre

More destruction

It was the strangest thing seeing shops and offices left exactly as they were after the earthquake. Pens, files and computers were still on desks and merchandise was still in the shops. No one would even step foot on the unstable ground to steal it. The best way I can find to describe it is similar to the first scene of 28 days later. The lead character wakes up to find London completely empty and abandoned. Even just watching the film, it  feels wrong. That’s what Christchurch felt like.

A book store left exactly as it was after the earthquake. Above this there was also an office block and you could clearly see pens, files and computers on the desks.

So many wasted books…

Christchurch was set to host five pool matches and two quarter finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. However, damage to AMI Stadium, as well as infrastructure, hotels and training grounds put this in doubt. The city was unable to host the matches and the quarter finals were moved to Auckland. It seems that this was just the beginning of tourists being drawn away from the city.

I travelled through New Zealand with Kiwi Experience, and I was informed that after the earthquake the company began offering passengers the option to travel from Queenstown straight to Kaikoura – skipping Christchurch completely. Only a handful of people chose to get off the bus in Christchurch. It saddened me as it’s obvious a large part of New Zealand residents have completely given up on the city, so much so that new visitors to the country don’t even feel the need to give it a chance.

This was highlighted by a man I met while I was traveling up the east coast of Australia. Christchurch was his hometown. I told him I was visiting the city and he gave me these words of advice – ‘Go there, witness the destruction for yourself and then leave – there’s nothing else to see’. 

Random art installations are dotted around the city, some more negative than others

My friend and I were sharing our dorm room with a man who had just accepted a job as a project manager to help rebuild parts of the city centre. I was interested to hear about it the time scale he would be working to. He told us that it wasn’t just about rebuilding fallen structures, but about reinforcing the ground beneath them. We were informed that it would be 10-15 years before Christchurch would be resurrected to it’s former state. And that that was only on the basis that there were no more earthquakes in the meantime.

Since last February, Christchurch has suffered thousands of tremors and two further quakes in June and December, although none caused as much damage as the February earthquake.

A tribute to the drivers and passengers killed on a bus that was crushed by falling debris in the earthquake. it was weaved into the railings near the scene of the accident.

The bus that was crushed

These were the glasses of a small child, weaved into the railings next to some flowers. This made me cry.

However, amongst all the gloom there were clear signs that some people have not given up hope and that they still remember the city as it once was.

Inspirational quotes and art are dotted around the railings

I was looking for potential presents for my friends and family and I got talking to the owner of a jewellery stand. He asked me where I was from and what I thought of New Zealand. I told him I loved it so much I had even been thinking about living there one day. He asked me where I would move to and seemed genuinely surprised when I didn’t mention Christchurch. As a long term resident of the city, he clearly didn’t see the misery that I saw. He spoke about the city with love and affection and it was refreshing amongst all the negativity. The art around the railings highlighted that he wasn’t the only resident who held that opinion.

Proof that residents of the city haven’t given up yet

Proof that it’s not just residents of Christchurch that hold it in high opinion

The day I spent in Christchurch was one of the most miserable days of my three and a half months away, but also one of the most meaningful. The dark, gloomy weather that day mirrored my thoughts about leaving a country I had loved so much. The air of sadness and loss effected me in a way that I will never forget. But I also took something positive away from it, and that was finding hope in the darkest of situations.

Inspirational art

I love how the tributes will be kept as a memory, not only of the earthquakes but to mirror the thoughts and feelings of the people effected.

Since returning from my trip I had a discussion with one of my friends about Christchurch. She told me she had stayed there for almost a week and had loved her time there. She had several nights out and described it as very lively, which is what I would expect from the second biggest city in New Zealand. It took me a while to realise she was talking about Christchurch before the earthquake. It made me so sad to contrast her experience against mine, and to realise what a beautiful, energetic place it must have been before all the devastation.

While I was there I was informed that a few streets around the centre had been reopened – another glimpse of hope in an otherwise dying city. There was also an area they called ‘the recovery zone’ which is a temporary shopping centre. Re:START created the project in order to stimulate economic recovery and tourism in the city center. The precinct currently features 27 shops, including a variety of retailers and two cafés.

A shopping centre made out of shipping containers

A building site in the city centre – a positive indication of things to come.

I can only hope myself that they rebuild and regain the energy that my friend described. This country meant so much to me and Christchurch means so much to New Zealand. I for one, hope to go back some day, give it a second chance and try and look beyond the misery. I really do believe that there is enough hope alive in the city to make that goal achievable, and that against all odds Christchurch will someday rise to it’s former glory.

Love never dies

Feeling the love for Christchurch

I visited Christchurch in May 2012. My original blog entry about that day can be found here

This article was written with help from the 2011 Christchurch earthquake wikipedia entry

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13 thoughts on “Photo essay: Finding both hope and devastation in Christchurch

  1. Cool post, but it actually claimed the lives of 185 people – I’m from New Zealand and worked in Christchurch in the aftermath.

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