• Sat. May 27th, 2023

Resilience of Christchurch, New Zealand amid its recovery from 2011 earthquake

Its scars are still painfully obvious, but Christchurch’s resilience and heart shine bright.

It was a chilly Wednesday night, but the small city’s CBD was humming with foot traffic.

The cheery laughter and conversation poured from the doors, windows and balconies of establishments at its eclectic food and wine district – the air of wonder and positivity something to rival cities the world over.

Christchurch broke, fell and rebuilt itself for this, and now in it, it proudly basks.

The ever-friendly local Cantabrians took any chance they could to boast about how far their city has come, with the terms “blank canvas”, “rejuvenated”, and “improvement” thrown around in almost every conversation.

New Zealand’s third-biggest city of around 400,000 people has come a long way from the tragedies it suffered back in 2010 and 2011, when devastating earthquakes and aftershocks ripped through the area.

An initial earthquake on September 4, 2010, with a magnitude of 7.1, caused widespread damage to the Canterbury region. But it was an aftershock – with a magnitude of 6.3 – on February 22, 2011, that had the most impact on the city.

That earthquake saw 185 people die, with another 6659 severely injured in the first 24 hours after the event.

As a result, 10,000 homes needed to be rebuilt, and 3500 were totally demolished.

Today evidence of the traumatic page of the city’s history is still prominent – though it is largely out of the city’s control.

Numerous large multi-story buildings sit like swollen skeletons around the city, surrounded by fixed or temporary security fencing. In some cases, large cracks and smashed windows remain unattended well over a decade later.

Despite the nation’s and the city’s best efforts, many of these derelict commercial buildings and empty lots have merely been land-banked by the local and foreign entities that own them – with demolition, upkeep or repairs simply too expensive or onerous.

Both levels of government – national and local – continue to work on a plan to deal with the sites they consider “a barrier to the regeneration” with massive rate penalties and the possibility of enacting “last resort” land acquisition powers.

Local tourism operator Riwai Grace worked in emergency services at the time of the quakes and shared a profoundly positive view of the tragedy.

“Before I was in tourism, I worked in emergency services for over 20 years. I have worked nearly every event over that time that put Ōtautahi Christchurch on the map for perhaps the wrong reasons,” he told news.com.au.

“I watched the city fall down and watched it rebuild. Everyone and everything has a powerful and beautiful story to share.”

“I had to enter the cordon every day. Cate [Riwai’s wife] would drop me off at work and be escorted out by the army or demolition crews.”

“We didn’t know it then, but this really helped with our healing as we could see that the central city was not safe and had to come down.”

Riwai fondly reflected upon the collaborative efforts that went into the city’s rebuild.

“There was a lot of consultation and planning that went into the rebuild, and this included locals, local government, and our local Māori tribe [iwi] working together to bring Māori culture back into the central city,” he said, further expressing more positivity from the rebuild.

“My favourite part of the rebuild is what has been done to the awa [Māori term for river]. When I grew up here, it was nothing more than a dirty creek. Now it is a central focus of the city, and we have watched the return of the river’s natural environment.”

“As a new Indigenous operator, it is so great to have the newest city in the world to showcase. Not many people can say that.”

Despite the untold hurt of the seismic tragedy and the scars it still carries, Christchurch has found plenty of ways to rise from the rubble.

Typically not a mecca for tourists travelling to New Zealand, the city is hard at work, and I am convinced succeeding, at trying to change that attitude.

I arrived in the city on a sunny late-April Wednesday, launching straight into the day’s activities.

I emphasise sunny, but I’m told, for the most part, Christchurch and the surrounding Canterbury region are among the driest areas on New Zealand’s South Island.

Chill – Explore With Us guided bike tours were my first port of call for an introduction to the city, where newly designed architecture seamlessly integrates with surviving heritage buildings, creating a harmonious blend.

And before you worry, Christchurch is super flat, and they kit you out with all the gear.

The two-and-a-half hour tour takes in the CBD with great local insights on the city’s amazing revitalisation.

While riding around, we took in parts of Hagley Park – one of the biggest city parks in the world.

Cycling and pedestrian accessibility have formed a significant part of the city’s redevelopment, and Chill – Explore With Us has perfectly integrated the purpose-built cycleways that caress the Avon River into its tours.

Like most locals, the guides are very knowledgeable about the city’s history pre-earthquake and appear to relish showcasing its recovery.

When it comes to eating and drinking, there’s no shortage of options in Christchurch.

“Anchor projects” and precincts were key recovery initiatives after the disaster and hoped to encourage other development and attract people into the central city.

The result – a massive chunk of the city’s dining, drinking, shopping and entertainment venues are now all located within a short, leisurely stroll of one another.

In other words, this is a tremendous pub-crawling destination if you’re anything like me.

However there are countless options, including the unique Tramway Restaurant, popular with tourists, which combines sightseeing and dining aboard a historic city tram.

That Wednesday night I was taken on a cultural food tour with Riwai and Cate’s labour of love, Āmiki Tours.

Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of the tour is that the experience doesn’t require you to push the envelope when it comes to your food adventure.

Instead, Riwai asked what I was into, and he tailored it around my taste – assuring me it is what he does with all of his tour groups.

A truly special element to the story is the integration of cultural stories and the narratives of the people who now call Ōtautahi Christchurch home.

As well as food and wine, Riwai focused on sharing an understanding of Christchurch’s Māori and settler heritage and the area’s recovery in recent years.

Āmiki focuses on tasting the best of what the city offers while touring “hidden gems” they think you might be interested in – and he was bang on during my trip.

Our first stop was Cellar Door in the city’s iconic Arts Centre.

Once a cramped university wine bar, it held on to the cosiness of its small rectangular space, filling it with spectacular art and serving up fine wine and food.

We settled in for a curated wine flight consisting of local products chosen by the team on the night.

And Riwai was more than tuned in on what we were drinking as we toured New Zealand’s vineyards in the cosy space over a plate of some warm olives, local sourdough and chicken liver parfait.

We finished our flights and left to find something more substantial.

The next stop was Kaiser Brew Garden, a relatively new addition to the inner city Riverside Market.

Riverside Market, a heaving bar and dining precinct itself, did not exist merely two years ago but now bumps with cheery patrons all through the week.

As the small nation to our east does in sport, New Zealand punches well above its weight in terms of craft beer with internationally recognised brands like Panhead and Garage Project.

And Kaiser’s, the Bavarian-inspired microbrewery, fits right into the mix, showcasing its multi-generational family beer recipes.

A $NZ30 ($A28) tasting paddle buys you six generous samples of the in-house range of lager, ales and porter.

A menu of share plates stars beer nibble favourites like fried chicken and brisket, as well as a selection of pizzas.

A nightcap on the balcony of King of Snake – just around the block – capped off the Āmiki Tour.

It was at this point I was reminded I was actually on tour – not out having dinner and drinks with mates – and that is precisely the vibe Riwai said he strives to capture.

Riwai does not shy away from his deep connection to the city and his passion for sharing its stories, shaping Āmiki Tours into an exceptional experience.

Reflecting on the decision to start Āmiki Tours, Riwai shared his personal motivation.

“I moved into tourism because I am proud to be Māori and proud to be a Cantabrian,” he told me.

He emphasised the importance of helping visitors connect with the city.

“Our main appeal is that we offer visitors a genuine connection to our hometown,” he said.

“All of our guides are passionate citizens of Ōtautahi Christchurch and weave Māori, settler, and multicultural stories into every tour. Sharing kai [food] and the stories of where it comes from all the way to the plate is also an important aspect of what we offer.”

Speaking about his bread and butter – the Christchurch culinary scene – Riwai explained that its sustainable food scene is central.

“Our region has so much to offer, combine that with some wonderful multiculture and world-class chefs calling Ōtautahi Christchurch home, and that is an evolving food scene that puts us up there with many of the greatest food cities in the world,” he said.

“We have a climate that covers the four seasons, which brings us an abundance of seasonal produce.”

Riwai and Cate encapsulate the spirit of Christchurch’s recovery, pride, and culinary excellence and effectively share it through their tours.

During my nights in Christchurch, I was lucky enough to experience both the super-modern accommodation options with a night at The Mayfair and inside the walls of one of the city’s longest-standing buildings at The Observatory Hotel.

The Mayfair offers up reasonably priced rooms (from about $A250) without cutting back on modern comforts, with the boutique hotel oozing elegance and luxury – you will feel like you paid more.

And for those not up to the 10-minute stroll to the eateries, the adjoining Majestic at Mayfair offers three meals a day, high teas, and its cocktail bar serves well into the evening.

Alternatively, The Observatory Hotel offers a stay in a building with a history like no other.

Forming part of the original University of Canterbury campus – now the Arts Centre – built in the 1800s, the Observatory Hotel once housed the Townsend Telescope – a refractor telescope made by Thomas Cooke and Sons of York in 1864.

The scope was gifted to university in 1891 and was in the tower since after it opened in 1896.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the building, and indeed the entire Arts Centre, which is free to roam, is that much of the archaic complex was severely damaged during the 2011 quakes – but has been almost completely restored.

And if you’re eagle-eyed enough, you may even be able to spot intricate details of the immaculate restoration of the Arts Centre, such as century-and-a-half-old stone monuments partially recrafted in the most honest and delicate of ways.

For those keen on a wander, it’s worth checking out the city’s globally lauded street art.

The works, some commissioned and some not, are widely acknowledged by locals to have brought colour and vibrancy back to Christchurch after the quakes.

Kaitiaki (the Māori word for ‘guardian’) by Irish artist Fin DAC sits atop the YMCA building opposite the Arts Centre and showcases Māori culture and mythology elements in a stunning symbol of protection for the city.

Rone’s poignant portrait of Australian model Teresa Oman, unveiled amid the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, stands as a powerful symbol of resilience and uncertainty. The depiction, gracing the exposed brick wall the Quest Hotel once shared with another building, has become an iconic representation of the city’s recovery, overseeing transformative changes in the surrounding landscape, including the nearby Christchurch Cathedral and Cathedral Square.

The art is near-impossible to miss while roaming Christchurch, with hundreds of stunning installations across the city. But while visitors will no doubt stumble across it, Watch This Space offers guided tours and even a free online map with detailed directions and information packs for those opting to guide themselves.

When I asked about the pride and optimism that felt so present in the city, Riwai assured me the vibes I was picking up were very much intentional.

“The city has drawn on all sectors and has thought about how the city as a whole hosts visitors,” he said.

“We have grown by building partnerships together; Local iwi, council, RTO [regional tourism organisations, government, and businesses, operators, and local people.

“We’re all working together to be a great place to live and attracting visitors who want to be part of the buzz and cool vibe we have going on here.”

As a visitor, it’s hard to leave without an overwhelming sense of fondness, positivity and inspiration for the city and its people.

In my books, Christchurch is proving itself a big-hitter in NZ tourism and an immensely worthy addition to any New Zealand travel itinerary.

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