When disaster strikes somewhere, we all struggle to find a reason to return. In recent years it has happened with Bali and its terrorist attacks, and Japan with its nuclear crisis. And then there is Christchurch.
On the 4th of September 2012, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the city, and although no one was killed, the city’s buildings were heavily damaged, so that when the 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit on the 22nd of February 2011, buildings weakened by the previous shake came tumbling down, and 185 people died.
An area which was from then on referred to as the red zone, was closed off. Businesses which could relocate, such as banks, did so. Other businesses, like casinos, restaurants and bars, even if their buildings were still structurally sound, couldn’t operate because they were surrounded by unstable ones. Many people lost their jobs and left the city to seek work elsewhere. Many other people lost their homes or were without basic facilities for months. The city was full of sights like the following…
…and these sights still exist – churches without steeples, homes still holding together with scaffolding – but they are not what defines Christchurch. Yes, the red zone is still there, but it is much smaller than it used to be, and it is being reclaimed step by step. Yes, you can still see damaged churches and buildings slanting at weird angles, but colour, dazzling, bright and joyful, has crept back into the city, and it’s welcoming and full of hope.
Like most other CBDs around the world, Christcurch’s used to be thickly clustered with buildings on this prime real estate area. Now, the cityscape is regularly punctuated with empty, cleared-up and tarmaced lots, which is where the Gap Filler project comes into play. Gap Filler’s mission statement is to ‘temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city’. The emptiness of the spaces left behind by collapsed or demolished buildings is replaced by something beautiful and useful to the community and its visitors – a turfed football ground, an abstract painting on an empty wall, a summer pavilion built by donated and recyclable pallets painted a warm blue, a dance-o-mat powered by your ipod, 2 dollars, an outdoor dance floor and 4 club-style speakers, complete with overhanging disco ball – Gap Filler projects are helping to transform the city back into one of joy and excitement, and they are all set up by volunteers and put together through generous donations.
As the city decides on how its many empty spaces should be rebuilt, other temporary structures are taking over. Still surrounded by a few fences and empty spaces now serving as parking lots is a shopping area where stores and coffee places are housed in containers. Benches, tables and chairs are painted the colour of the rainbow, and so are the overhanging canvases which provide shelter from the elements, and whose bright, bold colours I could see even from up high during a helicopter ride, amongst a small sea of otherwise grey. Street performers and live music fill the streets with tunes and laughter.
Then there are pop-up bars and restaurants housed in old buses and containers, and decorated with cleverly recycled materials like bits of old doors and scratched metal chairs. And through all these projects and initiatives is the uncontainable feeling of a city which, while it waits for decisions to be made on the city’s new layout and permanent structures, isn’t ready to stop having fun.
It is definitely important to know of the realities of Christchurch after the earthquake. There are parts of the city which have been found to be too unstable to ever be built on again, and will be turned into parkland. There are many people who will not be able to go back to the suburbs where they grew up and raised their families. But Christchurch is also now the safest earthquake city in New Zealand thanks to the fact that all structurally unstable buildings have or will be demolished to give way to better engineered ones.
But in the end, the important thing is that one doesn’t go to Christchurch to see the remnants of the disaster which made it famous on world news. One visits to see how an incredible people are putting the pieces back together, and creating a safer, better and beautiful city for posterity to enjoy without fear. Christchurch is more than ready for your visit.
-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @www.theartofslowtravel.com. All rights reserved.