I’ve now been living in Christchurch, New Zealand – my new home – for about 10 days. It’s been fun to get out and experience the city and its surroundings a bit. I started work on Monday, so I’ve been getting acquainted with a new job as well. Here’ are my initial impressions of the city.
The 2011 Earthquake Looms Large
On 22 February, 2011, Christchurch was devastated by a large earthquake. 185 people were killed, and large parts of the city were destroyed. Christchurch’s city center was especially hard hit, with most of the large buildings damaged beyond repair.
Six and a half years later, those scars remain. Most of the damaged buildings have been demolished by now, but some – especially the historic structures – remain standing in various states of collapse and shoring.
The Christchurch cathedral is the focal point of the city. It was very heavily damaged in the earthquake and, due to disagreement about its fate (i.e. whether to demolish it or attempt to restore it) and who should pay for the repairs, it remains in its partially-collapsed state, the most visible reminder of the quake.
Because of the number of demolished buildings, there are many open lots scattered throughout the central city. Many of the lots are used for parking, which, I suppose is a good use of open space, but it feels out of place to have so many open lots in the middle of such a busy city.
…But the City is Being Reborn
With all that, you’d expect this to be a somewhat depressing place to live. Indeed, when I first visited Christchurch in February of 2014, it felt like a ghost town. Parts of the central city felt eerily abandoned. Today however, that feeling is gone, for the most part. The city center has a burgeoning vibrant scene. Many new buildings have been built, and there are many more being constructed. The newer buildings are sleek, modern, and earthquake-safe.
The shopping and entertainment districts have come back to life and on a Friday night, you pass packed bar after bar walking through some parts of the city.
A large number of empty lots remain, but many of those have been filled with unique ‘gap filler’ projects, including art installations, food truck gatherings, even a pop up dance floor.
Shipping Containers are Everywhere
I had no idea there were so many creative uses for shipping containers – they are used here for everything from shoring up unstable buildings, to small standalone structures like coffee shops, to an entire shopping mall that was built after the earthquake from containers. I went to a bank a few days ago to get my bank account established (and finally get a pin and chip credit card!!) and yes, the bank was in a shipping container.
It’s Nicknamed the Garden City With Good Reason
Springtime in Christchurch is beautiful. Flowers abound and the air smells perfumed. Coming from Denver, which is pretty, but limited by its arid climate, it’s amazing to see such a green city with so much color in the spring. I took a few hours to walk through the city’s botanical gardens last weekend, and they were gorgeous.
There’s a Gear Shop on Every Corner
Seriously – I pass four different gear shops every day on my daily ride to work. I guess being located within an hour’s drive of every conceivable outdoor activity feeds some big-time gear addictions.
It’s a Bike-Friendly City…Mostly
Although most people own cars, biking is a far more common form of transportation than I’m used to in the United States. As I don’t have a car yet, I’m commuting to work on my bike every day. I’m not alone – many of my coworkers also bike in.
The Christchurch City Council has worked hard to make the city friendly to bikes – there are numerous on- and off-street bike lanes, special bike signals at many stoplights, and the drivers here seem courteous to bikers.
That said, there are a lot of headaches with biking here. Being in the midst of the post-earthquake rebuild, construction is everywhere. Even in my short tenure here so far, it has not been uncommon to find streets closed or the bike lanes blocked without warning. Many of the streets are in poor shape due to heavy construction traffic. In fact, many choose to commute on mountain bikes to deal with the poor road conditions.
Still, the city is doing the right things from a planning perspective. Planning bike-friendly infrastructure has been a core value in the rebuild. The city has 13 major cycleways currently in place, under construction, or in design. Once these routes all open, the city will have a second-to-none bicycle-specific network.
The Verdict: Christchurch is a Work in Progress
It’s amazing how much more alive and vibrant this city is now than it was just three years ago. There’s no mistaking the fact that the city is still has a lot of work ahead of it. But it’s a good place to live – and it’s only going to get a lot better. When I look at what has been accomplished here and the trajectory of where it’s going, I’m optimistic that this will be a great place to live, and a great place to raise kids.