Skip to content >

‘Tomorrow starts here’: earthquakes, heritage, and the rebuilding of a city

Building work in Christchurch, © Jennie Morgan

On the 22nd of February 2011 I was woken to hear my husband speaking on the telephone. It was clear from his serious tone that something was not right. As he hung up the receiver he told me: ‘there’s been another earthquake in Christchurch. It’s on the radio. It’s a really big one’.

Christchurch in New Zealand is the largest city in the rural region in which my family and friends reside. This 6.3 magnitude February Quake was not the first major earthquake to have occurred. Earlier, on 4th September 2010, there had been a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, followed in the intervening months by a series of ‘aftershocks’. Many of these were significant events in their own right. While these earlier earthquakes had damaged buildings and city services, remarkably they had caused no loss of life. In contrast, the February Quake struck at 12.51 pm local time. The city centre was busy with shoppers and workers on their lunch breaks. Already weakened buildings could not withstand the shaking. The result was tragically different with 185 people from seventeen different nations dying as a result. Accompanying this human tragedy, shaking and liquefaction caused widespread disruption to city infrastructure, a prolonged closure or ‘red zoning’ of the Central Business District (CBD), and extensive damage to buildings and homes. According to official figures more than 50 per cent of the buildings in the CBD were severely damaged and over 100,000 houses required repair or rebuilding.

Since the February Quake I have visited Christchurch four times, with the most recent trip in July 2015. Through these visits I have perceived a nation, city and its residents dealing with the immediate aftermath of a crisis and working towards recovery. It is only now – five years since the start of the Quake sequence – that I find myself moving beyond a highly personal response, and starting to apply my Heritage Futures interests to what has happened. Certainly, both heritage and futures are at stake as the city is being reassembled (or in ‘transition’ to use official rhetoric) through its rebuild. A wide-range of stakeholders are debating and responding to future-keeping questions and realities. More directly, the heritage fabric of the city has suffered loss and damage. Known pre-earthquakes for its built heritage (including renowned examples of Victorian neo-Gothic architecture) official figures indicate that approximately 40 per cent of Christchurch’s listed heritage places have been severely damaged or demolished.

‘There’s been another earthquake in Christchurch. It’s on the radio. It’s a really big one’.

As I explored the streets during my July visit, my attention was thus drawn to the fragments of a past Christchurch I had known before the earthquakes, and promises of a new city emerging through planning and building work. Photographs below illustrate this by showing construction work; a salvaged heritage façade; and signs promising new CBD precincts. With visible demolition, preservation, and building occurring at pace, I found myself wanting to know more about what buildings, sites, and public spaces are (and are not) being salvaged to take forwards into the ‘future Christchurch’ – and why?

As I explored the streets during my July visit, my attention was drawn to the fragments of a past Christchurch I had known before the earthquakes, and promises of a new city emerging through planning and building work.

Damaged heritage facade in Christchurch, © Jennie Morgan
Sign advertising new precincts ‘coming here’ in Christchurch, © Jennie Morgan

While I will not attempt to answer these questions (that is, perhaps, for another post), in Christchurch we see how a natural disaster like a series of major earthquakes foregrounds questions about future-keeping in especially tragic and acute ways. It does so, also, within unique affective, temporal, political, and social spaces. Decisions about what is being retained for the newly assembled city; what strategies are used to ensure it is pushed into the future (e.g., demolish, rebuild, replace, or restore buildings); and who is making such decisions are, unsurprisingly, topical, highly charged, and in many cases contested. Ongoing debate about what will become of the extensively damaged Cathedral illustrates this well (see here for an example of an opinion on the debate).

Earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral, © Jennie Morgan

Beyond the formal recovery, this recent visit made me also think about what is becoming of heritage on more personal and intimate scales in the aftermath of the Quakes. What kinds of things did people salvage from the damage and what were their reasons for doing so? Does the experience of the Quakes (and the ongoing potential for these to destabilize envisioned futures, and to punctuate everyday life with uncertainty, disruption, and disorientation) play into how things are valued and cared for? If tangible connections to the past have been lost through the destruction and demolishing of key landmarks, sites, and/or possibly treasured things, how is the past and the future being newly – perhaps creatively (here I think of projects by initiatives like GapFiller) – linked by the city’s residents?

The suddenness of the Quakes, the scale of the damage, and the urgency with which recovery needed to be enacted was without precedent in the region. This situation continues to emerge, with a recent large (yet far less damaging) earthquake occurring on 14 February 2016 just days before the fifth anniversary of the 2011 February Quake. Like the Profusion theme, the rebuilding of Christchurch offers a chance to better understand the values that individually and collectively shape what is available to become the heritage of tomorrow. And, perhaps too, the ways that these values are in process of being reassembled at individual, local, and national levels through the reconstitution of – and imagining of future possibilities for – the city. Rather than seeing the ‘transition’ of Christchurch to be a temporary state, it seems crucial to me to acknowledge the variety of entities that are being (re)built (and intended to have longevity) in all sorts of planned and unexpected ways. Buildings and places certainly, but identities, socialities, values, moralities too, out of which the future Christchurch is becoming.