Five years on, the red zone is green
Christchurch's red zone is now green. For five years we have watched nature's inexorable reclamation of land that once held nearly 8000 houses across the city, Kaiapoi and the Port Hills. The houses disappeared and the vegetation took over.
Now, that process looks complete. Aerial photos taken this month of the residential red zone in eastern Christchurch show the sharp divide between inhabited and uninhabited. A few houses remain: some with people in them, determined to stay despite the Government's best efforts, and a handful of stragglers yet to be demolished or taken away.
In fact, the process is far from finished. Land Information New Zealand (Linz), which took oversight of the red zone from the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) last year, hopes to have demolitions completed by the end of 2018 – almost another two full years for the last tiny fraction of Crown-owned land to be cleared.
Most of the work is in the Port Hills, where safety issues take longer to work through. As of last week, the Crown owned 527 of the 711 red-zoned properties on the hills, and had cleared just 208 of them (work is underway on another 109). Compare that to the flat land where it owns 7070 properties and just 28 await clearance.
AT A GLANCE:
* $1.5 billion spent buying red-zone property
* 8000 homes red-zoned
* 322 Port Hills homes and 28 other red-zone homes yet to be demolished
* 100 partial road closures planned
* 32,000 trees retained
Sites that have been cleared need constant work. Linz has 23 staff on its red zone team, not including contractors who mow lawns, manage security and clear rubbish.
"There's quite a lot of rubbish that gets flytipped," Linz group manager flat land residential red zone Mathew Clark, said.
"We need to try and get that picked up pretty quickly because it just creates more rubbish. More people see that and come and join the party."
Clark hopes upcoming road closures will curb the problem. The Christchurch City Council has identified more than 100 places where roads that are barely used or badly damaged can be closed and permanent barriers installed (many of the sites had temporary barriers up until Christmas). When similar work was done in Kaiapoi, rubbish dumping fell 90 per cent, Clark said.
Once red zone properties are cleared they are smoothed over with topsoil and grassed out. Some vegetation is removed, although 32,602 trees have been retained, 58 per cent of them natives.
Pests are not a big problem, Clark said. Without houses, rodents lost their main food source and feral cats keep the population down too. Canada geese pose the only potential trouble and their numbers are controlled.
Aside from maintenance teams, the red zone is sparsely used. Police and fire use the land for training and repair contractors use some properties for storage but there is almost nothing else. Clark said the Renegerate Christchurch bill, which is set to replace the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act, will be more flexible in allowing "low impact" activities.
Most of the maintenance work is to prepare the red zone for future use, whatever it ends up being.
The Waimakariri District Council has released plans for what it hopes to do with its red zone, which is mostly in Kaiapoi. While experts found it was possible to remediate the land and rebuild houses on it, the council ruled it was too expensive and opted for mixed uses including sport and recreation facilities, yard-based businesses, parks, a BMX track and a cemetery.
The future of the bulk of the red zone, in Christchurch city, is less certain. Documents released last year show the Government is considering ways to get a financial return on the $1.5 billion it spent acquiring the land, including private sector development and farming. Other widely publicized ideas include a lake for water sports, the Eden Project – an eco-tourism attraction – and a riverside reserve.