How does a city bounce back?

22:44, Apr 05 2014

Christchurch is learning the hard way that disaster recovery is as much about politics as rebuilding. So what does it take for a city to "bounce forward"? JOHN McCRONE reports from a resilient city workshop.

Let's start the morning with an icebreaker. Everyone stand. The words you dread from a cheery workshop facilitator. But it turns out a cool exercise.

Some 60 community and business leaders have gathered in a scruffy warehouse - post-quake, you take what meeting space you can find - for Christchurch's induction into the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities network.

It is the new international club for cities thinking hard about how to survive the challenges of the 21st century.

Climate change, peak oil, economic disruption, greying populations, not to mention the regular perils of civilisation such as wars, floods and other natural disasters. There are reasons to expect a rough ride.

So Rockefeller is paying the selected cities to employ a chief resilience officer as well as providing shared planning tools and the promise of regular get-togethers.


This year, 33 cities are going to be initiated. The names include San Francisco, New Orleans, Melbourne, Rotterdam, Medellin in Colombia and Byblos in Lebanon.

But Christchurch, with its recent seismic events, was always going to be a shoo-in as a foundational member because of the abundant resilience "learnings" it must have to share with the world.

So to get the first agenda setting workshop going, the flown-in team of Australian and American organisers drag the bashful locals down to the front of the makeshift auditorium and get us to line up in order of how long we have actually lived in Christchurch - lifers at one end, newbies away at the other.

As the shuffling subsides, I find myself grouped at the 9 to 10-year mark with Canterbury University vice-chancellor Dr Rod Carr, Gap Filler's Coralie Winn, Student Volunteer Army's Sam Johnson and Canterbury Development Corporation chief executive Tom Hooper.

A new connection we didn't know we had. And the conversation turns naturally to what attracted us to Christchurch - or more pertinently, given the earthquakes, why we have chosen to stay.

Johnson admits to a recent wobbly moment after a few weeks in Auckland - time out in a normal city. Winn too confesses it has been no bed of roses. And looking around, I can see other by now familiar faces that are mighty marked by the weariness of the past three years.

Resilience? The story seems to be more about it being too late to back out now.

However, the lineup does suggest something both about Christchurch's diversity and its post-quake cohesion. Here are a real mix of people still seeking a common direction.

And as the day unfolds - especially as new Mayor Lianne Dalziel outlines her vision for how Christchurch could become a radical adventure in 21st century democracy because of its quake experiences - the idea of becoming officially a resilient city takes on a rather more positive light.


Bryna Lipper, 100 Resilient Cities' vice president of relationships, is explaining how resilience is a wedge issue, something indeed quite political once you start considering its full implications.

Lipper flashes up a slide of a Toyota car factory in Adapazari, Turkey. A major fault-line actually runs down the plant's boundary, but Toyota was thinking ahead and so built it like a fortress. "They didn't want one column to fall or beam to buckle."

Sure enough, in 1999 - just two years after it was built - a 7.6 magnitude earthquake ripped through the region. Lipper says the aerial photo we are looking at is in fact the "after" picture - not a wall gone or even road broken.

But the surrounding suburbs inhabited by the workers were poor and unprepared. Lipper brings up an image of a row of pancaked homes.

"The local community was devastated - 17,000 people killed, 50,000 injured. Economic damage was in the billions, 500,000 people were left homeless." So of course there were no cars being built at the plant for quite a while.

The stark message is that resilience is a whole of the community thing, says Lipper. There is no point in strengthening elements of a city in isolation if it is the ability of the entire system to adapt and recover that matters.

Lipper says this in turn means that resilience has to be a conversation not just about the possible shocks facing a city, but also about the corrosive stresses which might sap its ability to respond.

A city with endemic social problems like unemployment, ageing infrastructure, a lack of affordable housing, corruption, a disconnected community, will find all those vulnerabilities exposed by any sudden crisis.

Again some slides. This time New York when it had its 1977 electrical black-out and the result was general looting and rioting. Then again in 2011 when Lipper can show pictures of crowds moving through the city in orderly good spirits, as well as the subways still functioning because of their backup power supplies.

Lipper says the credit is often given to a series of tough "law and order" mayors, yet New York's social connectedness had changed.

"As well as the rule of law, there was the emergence of cohesive communities. We started seeing New York integrate in different ways and people embracing diversity."

So the 100 Resilient Cities project is an attempt to get cities thinking about their readiness to handle just the kind of out-of-the- blue event that struck Christchurch, says Lipper. Like fitness, the question becomes whether in an emergency, you know you can run a marathon if you had to?

And when the question is put so broadly, cities move on from worrying so much about specific actions like flood defences or duplicating power supplies to the generalised health of their communities in terms of social capital and sound city governance.

During the coffee break, Lipper and her colleague Aaron Spencer, a South American expert, explain some more.

Lipper is frank about the Rockefeller philosophy. She says when it comes to global challenges like climate change or inequality, governments often struggle to take the long-term view. At the national level, politics are polarised, changes difficult to make.

That is why there is now a move to bypass states and talk to cities which are going to be far more directly concerned about their own futures, far less bound by ideology.

The cities of the world have a natural affinity. They can see the common problems they share. And once they start considering their vulnerabilities, they will just get on and respond in pragmatic fashion.

Spencer adds that cities are also becoming where everybody lives. Half the world's population now inhabits a city. By 2050, it will be three-quarters. In some countries like Brazil, it is already 80 per cent. So this is another reason why it makes sense to try to effect change through cities rather than nations.

And Spencer repeats that what has been coming through in the other 100 Resilient City workshops over the past few months is the way every city starts out by being focused on its most well known threat, whether it is mudslides or crime, yet ends up worrying about its social cohesion.

He was in San Francisco the previous week and the talk was about coping with the expected big earthquake. But as the day wore on, it dawned just how much of a problem the city's large homeless population would become after such a quake.

Something that might seem safe to ignore - the everyday fallout of an economic system - leapt out as something that would need to be fixed long before any crisis arose.


Armed with the general theory, the Christchurch meeting breaks up into nine groups organised loosely around their areas of expertise such as infrastructure, health or community.

Each is tasked with defining resilience and then considering what it means in practice in the light of Christchurch's recent experiences.

I sit in with group 7 which includes UC's Carr, Deon Swiggs of the Rebuild Christchurch website, some officials from Christchurch and Waimakariri councils, and Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend.

The talk quickly goes to how during the earthquakes, resilience became tangled up with the idea of the staunch Cantabrian - personal qualities of stoicism and self- reliance - when clearly an informed and co-ordinated community was what mattered most.

Then we start to work through a new hazard scenario and a generalised source of social stress. A first idea for a different kind of threat is a pandemic, but Townsend suggests the more surprising one of too much sudden economic growth.

Townsend says by the end of the year Christchurch will be a goldrush city as the rebuild finally gets into top gear. "It's going to be the equivalent of three years of Fonterra's GDP being dumped into a place with 500,000 people."

The spending will be so rampant warns Townsend that Christchurch needs to be ready for the negative consequences of corruption, profiteering, capital being sucked out of regular business, a general boom and bust story.

As a social stressor for Christchurch we have chosen diversity and increasing multiculturalism. But Townsend's goldrush issues prove so fascinating that we use up all our allotted discussion time on that.

There is a break to report back and hear everyone else's definitions and choices of shocks and stresses. Resilience is not about bouncing back but bouncing forward calls out group 4 to general nods of approval.

A few of the groups did examine pandemics as an alternative test Christchurch could face. Others looked at floods or global financial crashes. The stressors were all social issues like inequality, housing affordability, political disengagement.

Chatting during the lunchbreak again uncovers a fair amount of grimness about the actual degree of "bouncing forward" happening in Christchurch at the moment.

Jon Mitchell of Massey University's joint centre for disaster research says there was a real sense of openness and opportunity in the first year after the Canterbury earthquakes, but then the recovery became fragmented. There is a growing feeling of things having coalesced into a collection of competing interest groups.

Mitchell says some like the heritage lobby have clearly lost out during the recovery process, but then perhaps their response ought to be to find ways to ensure the architecture in the central city tells the story of what used to exist on those sites. "New buildings could echo what was there before."

People are becoming stuck in their early dreams of what could have been rather than keeping pace with how the recovery is continuing to unfold and evolve right now, he says.

Another point that Lipper made in her presentation comes back to mind. She said a city like Christchurch is a living ecosystem and a shock such as the earthquakes will have perturbed its equilibrium.

It will have been tracking along in some direction and now will either find itself knocked into a downward spiral or instead adversity can be the trigger that releases unexpected social growth.

So I suggest to Mitchell that the rising tension between camps could be a positive kind of frustration - a sign that thinking is becoming more organised, the various agendas more clearly formed? Well possibly, he agrees.


The afternoon session begins and the groups reform to drill down even further. They are asked to examine concrete examples of the kinds of recovery actions they individually led - get at what worked and why.

But I take the chance to buttonhole Lianne Dalziel to get her view on the way ahead for Christchurch.

One thing I had forgotten was that in 2012, Dalziel was invited to spend time with the United Nations Advisory Group for Disaster Risk Reduction. As a result, she had the chance to visit Kobe, New Orleans and Queensland to see firsthand how other cities had responded to devastating quakes or storms.

Dalziel says the international perspective really opened her eyes. So as soon as she heard about the 100 Resilient Cities network, she persuaded then Mayor Bob Parker to nominate Christchurch and signing the application form became almost her first act as new mayor.

Dalziel says Christchurch is still locked into a centralised and disjointed response to the earthquakes. The command and control mentality of the emergency phase has gone on too long. And there is a confused relationship between the council and Government over who is responsible for what.

But now, she says, she is in a hurry to make the transition to the next step of the recovery where the lessons of resilience thinking can start to be applied.

First is the need to bring the community back into the long- term decision making. The magic word is co-creation, says Dalziel. "Governments can't build resilience for communities. They can help communities build resilience for themselves, but that's as far as they can go."

She agrees there is a problem there because in modern life, so many people have switched off. Apart from the brief example of the Share an Idea recovery expo, the public does not turn out for consultation exercises because they see their input being reduced to a tick against some already formulated plan.

So Christchurch needs to relearn what local democracy feels like, says Dalziel. And she is trying to achieve this with some pilot projects.

For example, a big effort is being made around the issue of flooding - the need to rewrite the District Plan to take account of the changed geography of Christchurch, as well as the future threat of sea level rise.

Dalziel says there have been numerous public meetings ahead of finalising the draft natural hazards chapter of the plan to give people an early say in how the policies should be shaped. A similar consultation over the proposed new central library in Cathedral Square has also started.

Then even more of a shock to Christchurch politics might be letting its communities define their own boundaries in an electoral representation review.

Dalziel says the current list of council wards is full of historical accidents. The last time there was a major shake-up of voting boundaries, Burwood got glued to Pegasus when it might have been more naturally aligned with Shirley. The central city became part of the Hagley-Ferrymead ward which straggles all the way out past Sumner.

Dalziel says Christchurch is due another representation review in 2015 but she would like to drag it forward to begin this year.

"We ought to let people look around and decide for themselves how their neighbourhoods and their interests align. Communities need to be allowed to make sense of their own identities if people are going to want to vote and influence how their cities are run."

Letting go in this way might be alarming. Dalziel says she can imagine how it may be regarded by current councillors thinking about their re-election chances.

But she can see the logic in having a dedicated central city ward. And with the retreat from the east, the spreading of the city towards Hornby and Belfast, there is a chance for communities to become better organised around their commonalities.

And it won't stop there, says Dalziel. Resilience thinking is all about devolving decision-making power back towards the grassroots. So Christchurch's community boards become more important. The council is discussing innovations like participatory budgeting where money is handed down the chain and can be spent on local say-so.

There are likely U-turns on some other big issues. Pre-quake, for instance, it was presumed Christchurch would follow Auckland in becoming a super- city.

Environment Canterbury (ECan), the regional council, would lose its say in the city's doings while surrounding satellite towns like Rolleston and Rangiora would become absorbed into a single Greater Christchurch unitary authority.

But now Dalziel says partnerships are what matter. "You can have a virtual amalgamation if the region's plans are integrated."

Dalziel takes the same view on the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera). Rather than being in a hurry to see the government department pack up and go, she says the council and Cera need to start connecting better to share their responsibilities.

Cera's Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) is a good example. There ought to be a single long-term development agency for the central city which is jointly-owned by council and Crown.


It has been a long day for the participants. Time for the wrap up session. Lipper talks about what comes next.

She says Christchurch will shortly be advertising for a chief resilience officer who will be attached to the Mayor's office. Each of the cities in the network will start doing their resilience audits and meeting to swap good ideas.

Dalziel closes with a speech about how resilience might by now be an irritating term to weary Cantabrians but it is indeed the right question to be asking. It forces politicians to look to their people for answers. And it also forces the public to face the realities of what could be a precarious future.

So Christchurch is a city that has been knocked out of its stride and three years on is still wobbling about seeking a clarity of direction. However the theories and international experience are there to give a sound guide

Give Christchurch back to its communities, pay attention to its social stresses, break down its siloed responsibilities. The likelihood then is that Christchurch will have some good learnings to share with the rest of the planet.


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