What's the word for 2016?: Another year in the Christchurch recovery

A wild time in the Margaret Mahy family playground: welcome to the new normal?

A wild time in the Margaret Mahy family playground: welcome to the new normal?

Could this be emblematic – finally, the new normal?

The Christchurch Art Gallery is back and open, attracting good crowds to the central city. But that is the return of the old normal, the well remembered and much loved past.

Down at the Margaret Mahy family playground where there used to be Centennial Pool and a rather random row of office blocks – remember that weird blue reflective glass edifice tenanted by ACC? – I spot five children lying on their bellies, fingers trailing in the Avon, hoping to coax a group of sturdy eels and a fat trout closer to the surface.

The playground itself is great. The double flying fox, the slide that fits three or four children side by side – suddenly you see the excitement that develops as kids get to compete while they play.

The same subtle intelligence of design shows through in the water works area which looks toddler-safe and yet the children are allowed to get as wet as they like, blasting away with the water cannons.

Read more:

*How much did Christchurch's Margaret Mahy playground cost?
*New Regent St picking up thanks to opening of Margaret Mahy Playground
*Development ideas sought for Christchurch's old convention centre site
*Christchurch City Council to set up rebuild agency
*Christchurch's "Transitional" phase is over: Where to for Transitional 2.0?
*Opportunity knocks for rapid rebuilder

Peter Townsend of the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce: Christchurch is halfway.
John Kirk-Anderson

Peter Townsend of the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce: Christchurch is halfway.

Then between the shady poplars, these steps down to the natural quiet of the Avon and decking at just the right level.

You know the fish and eel that lurk in the now deepened water are going to be fed, grow to legendary size, become eventually a tourist attraction in their own right.

Is this what 2016 is going to be like? Not just the beginning of a return to normal living for the central city, but our waking up to a sudden big step forward in the design and quality of its built environment?

Will this be the year Christchurch starts to roll psychologically?

For the first few years following the earthquakes, it was all cordons and demolitions. The central city was a place of critically wounded memories. The building owners had their lumps of insurance to rebuild, but that only hastened the demise of much that was the city's familiar heritage.

Then came another two years of the rubble wasteland. Any walk through the city turned into a battle against amnesia. Which road am I actually on now? What was the building that used to stand there … and there, and there?

But in 2016, the new city is coming out of the ground, as developers say. Already the metal frames of buildings are creating a fresh mental geography to respond to. You are starting to sense the maze of lanes and courtyards that will soon appear.

By Christmas there will be a glittery blaze of smart shops and designer restaurants. The retail precinct will be open. The banks and Justice Precinct will be teeming with workers.

Is that the word for this year – the celebratory arrival of the new normal? The letting go of the mourning, the grateful giving into the amnesia, which will collectively let us move on as a city?


Of course this is much too rosy a view of 2016. But the recovery is such a saga. You want to know what kind of turning point or watershed the coming year might represent.

There are the boosters and the doubters. Peter Townsend, chief executive of the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce, is certainly a booster. But he starts with what seems the most objective word for the year – halfway.

Townsend says if you look at the rebuild overall – the homes, the central city, the infrastructure – Christchurch has arrived at its midway point. We will start 2016 with the job 45 per cent complete, and it should be 55 per cent complete by the time we reach Christmas.

The official peak in rebuild spending will come in late 2016, he says. "We are going to be spending $100 million a week all this year." But there will be no sharp hump felt. Being only halfway done means the rate of spending, the stimulus to the local economy, will continue along the same lines for several more years to come.

On that score, 2016 is not going to be exceptional. There will be major milestones ticked off. The horizontal infrastructure programme – the roads and drains – should be completed this year. The house insurance claims should be all settled – at least all of them bar the many court cases and the re-dos.

But the recovery is only halfway and everyone is by now adjusted to the realisation it will be a decade-long haul.

Townsend says the city started out with crazy high hopes of being rebuilt, all back to normal, in a couple of years. Yet we heard early on the experiences of much smaller earthquake disasters like the Californian town of Santa Cruz.

"They had their downtown bombed out by their 1998 quake. They had 39 buildings destroyed. Five years after the earthquake, they had a plan. Ten years after, they had replaced 37 of those 39 buildings."

So for Christchurch to reach halfway already is reason for feeling celebratory in 2016, says Townsend. And he agrees that psychologically this could be the year when people appreciate what the recovery is going to be about.

"We not going back to the old normal. And this is probably the year where people see that. There will be enough new stuff evidenced in our central city to persuade people we'll never go back to what we were.

"You can see with the redevelopment of the central city that it will be a completely different proposition. There will be a new economic mix, a new social mix, a new ethnic mix. And those are all irreversible."

So it will be a crystallising kind of year, says Townsend. The Margaret Mahy playground is an example of how the landing of the major anchor projects will create their own logic for a corner of the city.

With the playground, a picture of happiness, nearby New Regent St has come to life. Apartments in the East Frame are going to sell. Because the quality is as good as promised, Townsend says this will spark the needed second wave of investors eager to get in on the act.

There are still some obvious problems. Cathedral Square cannot get going until the Convention Centre and Cathedral are sorted. Townsend says that simply has to happen early in 2016. And it is likely the Government will announce contracts for the Convention Centre by February.

Christchurch Councillor Raf Manji: actually there is no great funding crisis.

Christchurch Councillor Raf Manji: actually there is no great funding crisis.

With Christ Church Cathedral, the costs are at least now quantified. "The issues are finite and resolvable." But Townsend says those wanting a full heritage restoration will either have to find the extra cash or let it go.

"We had the same thing with Cranmer Court. It was going to cost another $20m and people were saying, well, we don't have it, have you got it?"

Townsend says there are 30 or 40 buildings waiting on those Cathedral Square decisions. So part of the new normal arriving is that people are also going to become much more intolerant of any parties still causing the city delays.

For Christchurch City Council finance committee chair Cr Raf Manji, the word for 2016 is "execution".

Manji says from a personal perspective, 2014 – when he came into office – was the year of fighting raging financial uncertainties. Then 2015 was when the council's budget was sorted out, a general framework agreed with the Government, the ground cleared. This year it is about delivering the plans.

Surprisingly – after all the cost wrangling – Manji says the city has the money. He says the council's budget is certainly going to require some further surgery in the next few months. But that is to keep rates down by spreading the recognised cost over more years.

"I'm tired of hearing the talk about being a cash-strapped council. We've solved the funding crisis. The capital programme will be adjusted because we haven't even got the capacity to deliver the projects as fast as the Long Term Plan says."

Like Townsend, Manji says the feeling that 2016 is the heralding of a new normal will begin to kick in fast as the retail precinct and other landmark projects are delivered this year.

"For the general public, the birth of the new central city is going to be like all births, quite protracted, traumatic and noisy. But once the baby's out – like with the playground – we will all be going coo-ee, coo-ee."

Manji says excitement will start to build again after a few years of fitful hope and drifting disillusion. Nationally and internationally, 2016 should start to change opinions of what Christchurch can be about. It does not need to revert to being simply a provincial market town.

"By 2021, once the recovery is actually complete, Christchurch will look exceptional. We will have some incredible assets – community facilities like the biggest sports centre in New Zealand and the new mountainbike park. It really will lift Christchurch to a different level."

The developer's eye view is similar. Richard Peebles, a major investor through Ferry Oak Properties, says he has 20 office projects completed or in construction, so 2016 for him will be about easing up, completing the plans laid.

But for the public, it should be all about the excitement of empty rubble fields becoming the new city landmarks. And as with the playground, the opportunity to design from scratch means the new Christchurch is going to be just different. A walking-scale jig-saw of attractive lanes, spaces and surprises.

"Even the Justice Precinct – that's a real monster. It looks like the Battlestar Galactica spaceship. But it's going to have its internal courtyards. The public will be invited in.

Battlestar Galactica - with a nice courtyard: How the Justice Precinct should look.

Battlestar Galactica - with a nice courtyard: How the Justice Precinct should look.

"Everyone abandoned the CBD for a while, so I think they're surprised when they come back in and see how much is going on." Peebles says.

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However that is the central city, and possibly only a tale of bricks and mortar.

Its new normal may not be the thing for many. Canterbury University political scientist Dr Bronwyn Hayward's first thought is about the return of some of the old normal.

When will the Arts Centre, the Town Hall, the Provincial Chambers, and the other heritage buildings be reopening, she asks? Will this rebuilt CBD be a bright and shiny corporate city – another mall – or will it retain the old sense of a shared public space?

Hayward says her word for 2016 is more a couple of big questions. Will the city finally sees its promised political transition? And will the pace of the social recovery match the pace of the physical one?

Hayward says this year is supposed to mark the shift from top-down to bottom-up earthquake recovery. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) winds up in April. An early order of business is going to be getting the replacement Greater Christchurch Regeneration bill through Parliament.

Yet she finds it alarming the only mention of public participation appears to be in the introductory paragraphs.

The phrase for the year could have been democracy handed back – the chance for locals to perhaps challenge some of the recovery's settings.

Hayward says many might have ranked sustainability and community much higher than stadiums and convention centres in the overall balance. But she agrees it is not feeling like this is going to be a year that potentially disruptive thinking is going to be allowed.

"There's the danger of anchor projects like the Convention Centre becoming the lightning rods for discontent because they haven't yet won the hearts and minds of the community," she warns.

Wigram MP and Labour Party earthquake spokesperson, Dr Megan Woods, echoes such concerns. Woods says the regeneration authority will still be a government department giving an earthquake minister the wartime power of veto over any local proposals right up until 2021.

Canterbury University's Dr Bronwyn Hayward: but what about the social recovery and community voice?
Dean Kozanic

Canterbury University's Dr Bronwyn Hayward: but what about the social recovery and community voice?

It is suppose to be transitional legislation, Woods says, yet contains no year-by-year schedule for scaling down the Government's control of the city's decision making.

"You could easily have a ratcheting down of powers over that time. And then it would truly be a transitional bill because it would have some movement built into it."

Woods also feels the Government has taken a two-speed approach to the recovery because it has been far less responsive to Christchurch's social needs. The underfunding of the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) is going to be a major topic through 2016, she believes.

"Health has been treated as business as usual," Woods says. But the mental stress on the population has been huge. The CDHB has had to spend so much extra on mental health that ordinary medical provision – the hip replacements and cancer screenings – is being slashed.

"It's been too much about anchor projects and building plans, not enough about what do we need to do to get people through this," she says.

Hekia Parata's school shake-up was another example. Woods says that blew up in the Government's face and caused some backtracking. But how soon is it going to want to come back and take a further look at Christchurch's secondary schools?

Woods says 2016 will have much to celebrate with the pulse of the central city starting to beat again. However, as Townsend says, the countering theme will be a great impatience about anything else people are being expected still to put up with.

Traffic for example. "Places like Addington have become satellite CBDs with no real planning around them. The shape of the city has changed, but the shape of the transport system hasn't," says Woods.

Dr Jessica Halliday, an architectural historian and director of transitional movement activities like the Festival of Transitional Architecture (Festa), says there would be a relitigation of some of the recovery decisions if the public were given the chance in 2016.

Sustainability still feels like the big lost opportunity, she says. And transport in particular is where Christchurch has lapsed back into the old normal when it could have been more ambitious with cycling and light rail.

Halliday agrees that for the first couple of years following the quakes, Christchurch became something of the world's darling because it had entrepreneurial and youthful plans, a lot of social energy. That attention has gone away with what became a rather centrally managed rebuild.

However 2016 could see a revival of that buzz because there are still the possibly community-driven projects like the Avon River red zone and New Brighton revitalisation plans.

So it seems it really ought to be some kind of political year. There are the local government elections in October after all. But it is not even yet clear if Christchurch has reached peak government management. And the community voice may remain muted as a result.

Manji says he expects the 2016 council elections to be low key. The current council table is working together well and wants to stick around to see the job out.

He is in fact hopeful there will be a shift of power back to the city. Despite the lack of wording in the regeneration bill, the Government has made that clear promise.

And Manji says the council's new development agency, Development Christchurch Ltd (DCL), along with the council's internal reorganisation, its "Great for Christchurch" programme, are also evidence the council itself is changing its style.

Manji says the upheaval of the quakes is resulting in a new normal, a better quality of design, when it comes to the city's own political structures. And that should show through in a way ratepayers can appreciate this year.


One word, or even one phrase, was never going to sum 2016 up. But the midway mark seems accurate – although not in the sense this year is going to be any kind of half-time break for refreshments and quick team talk.

The rebuild plans have been laid, their funding established. Clearly the political mood is to press on and execute. It is not a year of encouraging a community soul-searching. The words that spring to mind are all about momentum, execution, fine-tuning.

Yet some larger social issues may still push themselves to the fore. Christchurchhad one of the great local health systems and everyone can hear its gears grinding alarmingly.

Woods mentions the cohort of children – those who were aged 3 to 7 in the year of the quakes – whom researchers are finding were especially affected by the 18 months of stress and uncertainty. So there are some serious unaddressed recovery issues waiting to emerge.

But certainly 2016 should be a heralding of the new normal, the first clear taste of the returning CBD. Nagging decisions like the Cathedral and Convention Centre will be taken for better or worse. The retail precinct will discover if it has the metropolitan pizazz to lure the shoppers away the suburban malls.

The performing arts precinct and health innovation precinct are likely to remain struggling projects awhile yet, a likely subject of renewed debate. However 2016 could be when the city's past starts to recede fast in the rear view mirror, its future destination begins to loom into sight.

No one wants to forget, of course. But the amnesia was already setting in. So it could be the year of learning how it feels to be finally starting to move on.

Rolling back the years:

2011 – The state of emergency

2012 – The search for hope and unity

2013 – The grind really kicks in

2014 – Discord and frustration

2015 – Completing a recovery framework

2016 – Heralding the new normal

2017 – Living the new normal

 - Stuff


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