By Melinda Collins
In case you missed it, our city seems to be in a state of limbo as its deconstruction comes to an end and the rebuild starts to kick in; both undertakings which have presented more than the odd problem.
But as we look forward to what lies ahead, as opposed to what we have just lost, mayor Bob Parker tells Build and Renovate Today just what it will take to make Christchurch one of the greatest little cities in the world.
How do you envision the perfect Christchurch?
I think the vision the community laid out in Share an Idea, which is the document used to inform the government’s final cut on the city plan, was an incredibly powerful document; a repository of the community’s ideas filtered through a lot of highly experienced people and signed off by the council.
My vision of the perfect city is still fulfilling the vision that our community has expressed. In terms of the broader city, we are relocating entire suburbs, so my vision there is to build stronger communities for the future. What we have discovered is that the best protection comes from the strength of the community.
Having lost large portions of the city, I want those communities to be better serviced, better served, have richer amenities and a better outcome. We have to take something positive out of the terribly difficult times that have been and that many people are still going through.
What are the council’s top priorities in order?
Our priorities are to ensure that our core infrastructure is brought back to the levels of service that help us stand out as a city. So, superior parks, amenities, networks and improvements in the roading system, but delivered in the most cost effective way in New Zealand.
We want to build a community that is more sustainable, that resonates with the world we find ourselves in now, as opposed to the city that was when it was laid out. The world’s a different place now.
Some areas in the city are being declared no build zones, areas have suffered massive liquefaction from the earthquake and with sea level rise a reality, we’re taking this opportunity to build new areas that will be able to sustain communities well into the future.
The areas we’ve identified with issues of ground stability or ground strength will be resolved by A: not building in the most high risk areas and B: by ensuring modifications are made where appropriate, such as foundations and building standards.
Our vision is for a much more sustainable Christchurch, attainable by taking advantage of technologies and knowledge we have. We’re much more aware of our environmental impact than we were when the city was laid out.
We have a chance to fix many of those things. A great example would be how we treat rainwater; we have very high standards around the way we collect rainwater in our suburban areas. We’ve been working with Environment Canterbury to put in a really good protocol around storm water upgrading and we’ve been able to accelerate that since the earthquake.
So coming out of this period there is the opportunity to accelerate the city’s progress.
One of the issues of all cities in the OECD of about half a million people is decay of the old central business district. That was very much the case in Christchurch, now we have a massive economic bubble taking place.
Our existing economy has proved to be very resilient; more than 90 percent of the businesses that were running in the city prior to the earthquake are still running. We have to make sure that what we rebuild gives us the framework for prosperity into the future.
In order to have a vibrant heart we have to reintroduce, in a quality way, residential occupation. The city will never be filled in the way it was in the golden days, with manufacturing and retail; it has to be a city for people, not just a city for business.
What a city does, how it’s laid out, the facilities it can offer a community and its relationship with the needs of the 21st century, are what make a city great. Strength of community proved to be one of the great survival factors in the face of a very difficult time. I want to strengthen that and we’ll do that through good design, good provision of community facilities and rethinking the way we deliver things.
Where do you see the city in six months?
In six months it’s going to be hard to show huge moves in the commercial heart of the city because we’re still getting to the end of the demolition phase and some of the major infrastructure projects, such as the Convention Centre, performing arts areas and sports facilities take a while to plan.
We’ve identified where the priorities are and those projects are moving ahead. We’re not very far off making announcements around who has won the opportunity to be involved with the Convention Centre. We’ve embarked on the Avon River Park which has strengthened the central city landscape and we’ve also embarked on a lot of new development programmes for small suburbs and centres, including Lyttelton, Sydenham, Richmond, Sumner, Brighton.
In the residential area, Fletchers has just announced it has spent over a billion dollars in residential rebuilds and repairs and we can see how that’s ramping up every day. It will still take another two years or so to complete the repairs in the residential fabric of the city, but in six months time the rebuild will be in full swing and we will have seen about another billion dollars of spend in that area.
The large scale physical changes in the city will begin to emerge over the next 18 months to two years. By two years you will begin to see a number of core projects coming to fruition.
You’ll see the population growing and you’ll see unemployment dropping even further.
There will always be people for some reason who are unable to find employment, but it won’t be for lack of opportunity.
This boom, which will run for a decade, will drive the GDP of New Zealand to a degree that it will show up, so maybe 1 to 1 ½ percent.
What that means is if Canterbury is 20 percent of GDP and you’re putting 30 or 40 billion into that market, imagine what that’s going to do for our local GDP.
This is a time of tremendous opportunity and not just for construction firms; if you think about what you put into a house, at least 14,000 houses have to be rebuilt just to replace pre-quake housing and those houses also require all their furnishings. Every aspect which goes into that house is a business opportunity, for existing or new businesses. That ripples through the whole community. In one sense it was a terrible tragedy that struck our city, on the other hand there’s a counter cyclical opportunity here for which we are grateful.
How much scrutiny have yourself and the council come under since the earthquake?
I think we’ve all been under huge scrutiny. Life is not as it was; you go through the city now and your transport patterns are changing on a daily basis. We’re currently spending in the order of $1.5 million dollars a day on horizontal infrastructure – that’s an awful lot of road works, that’s an awful lot of pipes and machinery. That raises stress levels.
The government is watching us closely, we’re watching them closely, the community is interested in the outcome, people are concerned that the scale of the rebuild will put rates up through the roof. Add to that the natural tensions that just happen from being exposed to 11,000 earthquakes and losing friends and houses; there isn’t somebody who hasn’t had some form of damage and we should never underestimate the psychological damage.
Nobody in my lifetime has ever lived through anything like this before in this country; it’s utterly unique, it’s unexplored territory. We just don’t know how anything is going to turn out and as a result we are focused on our own personal areas of interest. It does make it a more difficult time for everybody, but we can understand why.
Incrementally it’s getting better for someone, somewhere in the city every day and eventually that becomes a great snowball rolling down a mountain getting bigger and moving faster. That’s the situation we’re currently in and that snowball is starting to roll now and make a real difference.
Why was writing your book ‘Ripped Apart’ important to you?
It was important for me to try to give an insight to my community about what it was like from where we were standing. I realised there was a period of months where my life, and the lives of the people I work with, were unlike just about anything else you could imagine.
We were just nose to the grindstone, from the earliest hours to late at night every single day, non stop. There was so much to do, to be involved in, decisions to be made, meetings to be attended in an organisation which had essentially lost all its normal facilities.
The day after the earthquake on the 22nd February we didn’t have a computer system, a phone system, a place for our staff to work, so as well as meeting all our expectations and all of the responsibilities we had to meet, we had to solve all of those problems. It’s remarkable that after the February earthquake that took all those lives on the Tuesday, the next week our rubbish collections were on schedule, we paid our staff, which was incredibly important, we had computers and we had phones. And that’s the way we kept working. We never got out of that disaster mode; we were just working so hard.
I wanted to tell that story for the community so they could have an understanding. I had been approached by a couple of publishers and I thought it was probably just a big ‘to-do’ and I couldn’t devote the time to it. Then a friend of mine who I worked with several years ago, came to me and said “you have to tell this story, it’s part of what’s happened”. I said I was just too busy so he said he would sit down with me when I had time and stitch it together. So that’s what we did.
It became a bit of a therapy because, looking back I was confusing the two quakes in my head, I would think ‘did that happen after September or February?’ It really helped me to, not only organise my own thoughts, but also to remember how extraordinary the people we were working with were.
It was also an opportunity to raise money for the Spinal Trust, so I agreed to do it on the basis that any royalties I would have received would go to that charity. I think there were more than 11,000 injuries that day outside of the people we lost, but for many of those people their lives have changed in ways that can’t really be repaired; you can’t give somebody a leg back or repair a broken spine.
Those things really concern me greatly because I feel they, as a group of people, have largely been forgotten and I wanted to do what I could to help them in some way.
If you could get any message out to the residents of Christchurch what would it be?
The simplest answer is that the way you will get through any great disaster or massive community trauma is going to be dictated by the preparation you have done. Although nothing in civil defence can ever be predicted or plays out exactly as you rehearsed, it really does make a difference.
The preparation we had done through Civil Defence in emergency management and with the Lifelines Project to ensure we were protecting vital services against earthquakes and floods, most of that paid off.
Although it’s chaos after an emergency, the systems or basic structures we had came together pretty quickly in those first hours. The buildings we used may not have been the ones we had thought we would be able to use, but the systems we had to identify and satisfy the needs of the city at that time all came from the preparation we had done. My wife and I have an emergency kit with fresh water, a grab bag; it sounds like a massive overreaction, but we’ve learnt those are the things that can make a difference. Those who think about it will be those who survive and who can help other people. So prep, prep, prep.
What is the most important thing you have learnt from the earthquakes?
I have learnt that as a community we underestimate the resilience of our people. You heard after the earthquake in Christchurch, the bush fires in Victoria and from the flood victims in Brisbane and along the coast, that they are resilient people.
I believe that in everybody there exists a capacity to be more; to be braver, be faster, be stronger, more loving and more considerate than we ever get to exercise in our normal everyday lives.
I’ve seen how much capacity we have to search inside ourselves to make the world a better place. It’s a shame it takes a disaster to find this, but we should all be incredibly grateful. No matter what, people will rise to the occasion when it’s needed – that’s what I’ve learnt.