I’m going to add my voice to the concerns being expressed widely in Christchurch about the approach the authorities (meaning the NZ government) are taking to the broken city’s reconstruction.
My wife and I spent last weekend in Christchurch, mainly for a big family celebration but also to see for ourselves, for the first time, some of the damage to the city we lived in for years and to catch up with a few close friends. It was our first trip there since February 22nd, and yes, we did experience the large aftershock on the Saturday evening.
In (very) brief, we saw how the events of the past seven months have so profoundly shaped the attitudes, thinking and day-to-day lives of our friends. We saw how and why the earthquake events have become the on-going major topic of all conversations. We saw how the people there (the ones we met, anyway) are doing what is almost unthinkable to us who learn about it only through the media – trying to get on with some sort of normal living when the whole atmosphere wrapping around the city is a giant fog of question marks.
I have frequently wondered over the past two months how I would have managed to stay positive had we still been living there. Our old house, as we saw, is still standing strongly – one of what appears to be a minority in the neighbourhood – but the surrounding suburban area is messy and only partially operating in the way we remember. And our weekend conversations were filled with stories about people who knew people whose lives have been turned on their heads, and are now trapped in a series of circumstances – disruptions to house, work, business, finances, toileting habits, families – which no longer resemble what they had in mind this time last year. I simply don’t know how I would be coping if it were me there.
These people have guts and patience, that’s for sure, and somehow they’re going to have to rely on those qualities to see them through at least one cold winter and hot summer ahead, and maybe a few more. What else can they do? Those with property commitments that cannot be cashed up simply have no alternative.
But back to my commentary on the future there, and the part that will be played by the new government-run authority, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera). It’s to be run by a politician whom I (along with most everyone I’ve talked with recently) have never respected, Gerry Brownlee. The government’s main “do as I say, I won’t tolerate any backchat” man.
Brownlee aside (for my concern would be much the same even if the politician in charge were someone I admired), I’m one of many who fear that the whole top-down, prescriptive approach to the decision making and planning that Cera is tasked by the new law to do will fail.
Physically, the city can be reconstructed in time – no doubt about it. To do that you do need a “tsar” (as the media is calling Brownlee’s role) who can decide everything and simply say what will be built where and when. Returning unviable suburban areas to nature, remaking sewers and water lines, building roads, houses and places of business. With the money and the workers, that’s no big deal for any first-world country.
But if you don’t take the people with you, if you don’t involve them in the decision making, it will almost certainly fail. Why? Because the city is the physical structures and the people.
As I talked with Christchurch people last weekend – most of them born and bred there – it became apparent that if they are not involved in the new development work, if they are expected to sit and make do for five years while the new city is designed and built, they will lose heart, interest, contacts, and the will to do their bit.
With the bulk of the population sitting on the sidelines, not taking any official part in the planning (except through the 20-person community feedback group, all appointed by Brownlee), businesses will decline in number and importance, people will leave, schools will shrink, fewer teachers, fewer pupils and parents, fewer jobs ….. It becomes a negative spiral. In five years time Christchurch could be comprised of a hard core of those who somehow managed to live well despite the events plus a few thousand tradespeople no longer needed after major rebuilding is over.
Five years down the track, all the physical structures will be there but not the people, and not the attitude of ownership that a great city requires of its inhabitants.
I really hope the Cera process somehow works, but as time stretches out before us and the wider picture is becoming less foggy, and particularly as the authorities make it clear that they won’t be wasting time talking with the communities that make the city, I’m increasingly, sadly, pessimistic of the outcome. Christchurch may never again be the glorious little city it once was.