Making Christchurch so remarkable it can't fail

Last updated 13:49 03/01/2013
Toni Gillan
Punting: Care to go glide on the River Avon with me?
Christchurch revisited
Toni Gillan
Christchurch revisited
Christchurch revisited
Toni Gillan
183 white chairs symbolise the lives lost in the Canterbury earthquakes
Toni Gillan
Christchurch revisited
Christchurch revisited
Toni Gillan
Christchurch revisited
gap-filler letterbox library
Toni Gillan
Gap-filler letterbox library
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Blenheim writer Toni Gillan visits Christchurch to see how the city is rebuilding its tourism image.    

It must be difficult to keep calm and carry on as 80 per cent of the old CBD in the ruined garden city of Christchurch is demolished and laid bare. The city has lost its cathedrals and almost all of its heritage buildings. It's the largest deconstruction of a modern city anywhere in the world. With 12,000 aftershocks, a generation of people will not live in high-rise buildings. It's almost too much to think about.

But now the Governments' ambitious think big blueprint for the urban village rebuild of inner city Christchurch is finally on the table with expressions of interest sought worldwide. The challenge is to rebuild a new inner city so remarkable it can't fail.  All the while creative forces have worked tirelessly to re-engage and boost exhausted morale, bringing life and energy to this transitioning city. 

I was in Christchurch as a tourist to check out businesses that have risen from the ashes, regrouped tourism ventures and evolving angles of interest in what is perceived as a challenging visitor destination. My first port of call is the relocated Christchurch i-Site, now found beside the entrance to the Canterbury Museum. 

I browse the brochures of familiar choices. The museum, botanical gardens, bike tours, inner city walks or punting on the Avon. Further out there's shopping malls to consider, Riccarton Market, Christchurch Farmers Market, the Air Force Museum, Antarctic Centre, Willowbank Kiwi and Maori experiences, Lion Parks, hot air ballooning and such. 

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But first off for old time sake I walk into the museum to discover the museum runs ''Beyond The Cordon'', the only historical guided bus tour into the red zone. I book on what turns out to be a very humbling and insightful trip with a guide who freely shares her earthquake experience with us.

Also leaving from outside the museum, a personal volunteer guiding service will walk you round the red zone perimeter, although they confess their city is changing so fast they have difficulty remembering what was, but it sounds close and personal. 

Nearby Christ's College old boys guides will take you around the historic private school and tell stories of teachers and boys.

On my way back to the newly opened Ibis hotel, I pass a gap-filler letterbox library.

Punting the River Avon is still an special experience. With punter, by canoe or kayak, gliding along the river into the red zone, under cracked bridges and compromised river banks, they show a new perspective with winged birds juxtaposed against a backdrop of sky high cranes noisily bringing down quake-ruined buildings.  

The famed Re:Start mall alongside Ballantynes on Cashel St is a containerised retail shopping experience like no other. Set up with faith and an unsecured $3 million loan, it now has 27 retail outlets, boutiques, food caravans and coffee shops. It is encouraging residents and tourists to stay focused on the CBD, keeping it alive and funky while the what's-going-to-happen-next debates are sorted.

I'm keen to know more about Tanks for Everything. Apparently anyone with a drivers licence can drive a decommissioned army tank or an armoured personnel carrier with the tank man. But in reality it's too macho for me. 

I want to have a go on a Segway Urban Wheels guided tour where, standing upright, you whiz through parks and byways. That sounds like me. C1 Espresso is a Christchurch institution. Owner Sam Crofskey has taken over an old Georgian bank building. Complete with strong room and book shelves that conceal the toilets, he's installed lights from the old arts centre, a counter made from 14,000 Lego bricks and an amazing old-fashioned vacuum-tube system for sending orders from front of house to the kitchen. There's also a beehive and a vineyard on the roof. 

Next door, the interconnecting Alice Videoland has reopened with a 38-seat cinema showing new releases.

Smash Palace, selling boutique beers, is a mobile pub made from two buses, scaffolding and a shipping container. Like many other businesses that have set up in shipping containers, both ventures are great examples of rebirth and transitional change. 

Projects such as Greening the Rubble and the Gap Fillers art project are about creatively regenerating spaces left vacant by demolished buildings that in themselves are becoming tourist attractions. Painted wall murals, the dance-o-mat (a pop up outdoor dance floor), a cycle cinema and a giant monopoly board are some of the emerging ideas.

The most important aspect of gap fillers is allowing everyone to have input, adding colour and life back to Christchurch. The latest concept to emerge is Life in Vacant Spaces (Lives). This matches arts, cultural or community activities in the central city with empty land and buildings. Galleries, pop up tearooms, art installations, peace gardens, sculpture displays and workshops are suggested to help Christchurch's vibrancy and thereby boost business and tourism. Christchurch has lost its high-end tourism market and is working at changing perceptions abroad. The Tourism Board is urging tourists to photograph Christchurch reimagined and to share photographs to show the evolving city.

Tourists want to support the city. So can we.  

People from 20 counties lost their lives in the Christchurch earthquake nearly two years ago. Our bus stops at a street corner memorial where 183 white chairs symbolise those lives lost. I photograph that image, too.

- The Marlborough Express


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