Another year, another confused blur

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee
Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee

Did another year of the earthquake recovery pass in something of a daze? Did 2013 have a pattern?

No, don't go expecting me to make sense of it all. Another year in Canterbury's earthquake recovery. Is the right answer that 2013 flew by in a blur of events, so much happening and yet so little changing?

The central city started out a field of rubble and remains a field of rubble. The weeds were advancing on the vacated red-zone sections and now they swamp them.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee began the year blinking with earnest belligerence at folk and ended the year, face possibly a little more worn, but the front-foot defensive style not much altered.

Look back in another ten or so years and will 2013 stand out in the memory at all? And is 2014 going to be much different?

A memorable story needs an arc, a three act tale of set-up, confrontation and resolution.

First introduce the characters in a setting of conflict. Then follow with a series of increasingly fraught complications, building the tension. Finally the climax, the denouement. Plotlines are resolved, some kind of satisfaction achieved, the answers delivered.

Yep, that sure wasn't 2013 in Christchurch.

But it does remind of some sage advice from an Aussie expert in disaster recovery, Marcus Spiller of Melbourne's SGS Economics and Planning, given at the TEDxEQChCh conference in May 2011 when Christchurch was still in the hot thick of its emergency, two more good shakes in July and December still to come.

Spiller warned that a key lesson of disasters is that a recovery is divided by the tension between haste and ambition. It is natural for a rebuild to become polarised between those who just want to get back to normal as fast as possible and those who are full of blue-skies notions about all the improvements that could be possible.

Spiller suggested Christchurch should learn from big business which divides its planning into three distinct streams - the immediate day-to-day, the medium term, and the long-term strategic - setting up teams and processes for each.

In this way, each level of thinking gets granted its legitimacy within a structure and it does not become a destructive battle between two simplistically opposed points of view.

All of which is a complicated way of saying that the story of 2013 seems now in retrospect to have been mainly one of a steady stretching out in terms of expectations and time horizons - the slow emergence of Spiller's hierarchy of response.

Another thing disaster experts warn of is that a recovery is a marathon not a sprint. And so the past year was mostly about Christchurch settling into the long-term truths of the recovery, drawing back from the earthquakes themselves to arrive at an ever broader perspective on their consequences.

If there was a certain sense of standing still, it was because the various plot-driving conflicts of this particular Canterbury Tale are still being introduced to the audience.

I was telling the year's stories in various Mainlander articles of course. So was there a pattern there?

My first feature last January was about the Maorification of the rebuild - the opportunity for Ngai Tahu to make its own history visible as part of the new Christchurch, for the city to become properly bicultural in its look.

At the end of the year, this was still causing controversy. Letter- writers persisted with the interpretation that white settler Christchurch is being threatened with losing its riverbank willows and daffodils to flax and kahikatea, rather than that the city might gain both a richer identity, and one truer to a modern New Zealand.

But the identity question does matter. It should be contested loudly and publicly as who we are is who we should be rebuilding for. Looking back, I can see this was an ever-present thought.

For instance, 2013 was the year when Cantabrians became utterly sick of being praised for being staunch and resilient. Of course people have had to cope, but just look around at family and friends. Privately, half the town seems on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

The quakes have shaken many people's ideas about who they are personally - the loss of control, the struggles coping. Although that has been matched by the recognition of the value of neighbours and community, the support that exists.

And let's be frank. For others the earthquakes have also created a buzz of opportunity.

I covered the stories of a few of the city's bolder entrepreneurs, like the flamboyant Antony Gough and the fast-thinking Anthony Leighs - Gough ploughing ahead with his entertainment precinct venture, Leighs riding a wave of construction projects to turn a small building firm into a dominating one.

Roll forward a decade and it will become pretty clear who was making the best use of the past year to establish their name, put a mark on the city, spotting the possibilities while the rest of us were still shaking the confusion out of our heads.

Another identity story I covered was the question of whether post-quake Christchurch should still call itself the Garden City. Some business leaders in particular were wondering if the rebuild was a chance to promote a more up-to-date brand.

Perhaps the future tagline for Christchurch ought to be the gateway to the South Island, stressing the importance of its international port and airport links, the role the city plays as the hub to a farming and tourism- based provincial economy.

Others suggested "the great host city" or "the world-class family city", again seeking the essence of Christchurch's appeal to a global market. It seems sensible to identify the city's unique selling proposition and make this the focus of recovery planning.

But consensus settled on the Garden City both because that brand is firmly established and also as it can easily incorporate the green and sustainable principles that seem to be what the residents of the city actually value, at least from the evidence of Share an Idea and other public consultation exercises.

Indeed, the question of whether the recovery is turning out green enough became one of the bubbling undercurrents of 2013 - a conflict that may manifest itself more strongly before too long.

Early on in the recovery, there was plenty of talk about district heating schemes, building with timber instead of concrete, investing in light rail, insisting on a solar panel on every rebuilt roof.

Instead, the recovery has gone ahead in the palest of green shades, buildings only having to meet the minimal modern codes for insulation and double glazing.

Even less sustainable is the hasty way Christchurch has been allowed to sprawl - the release of fringe land for car-dependent "ex- urbs", the doubling and eventually tripling of the populations of satellite towns like Rolleston and Woodend.

If the world faces a resource crunch, an economic contraction, in the next few decades, there is going to be a lot of sunk investment in an urban form that will be very difficult to unwind.

The identity question - who is this earthquake recovery really for? - has naturally also been at the heart of the frequent complaints that the Government- led rebuild has been exclusive rather than inclusive in spirit.

With Brownlee's Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) so firmly in charge, decisions are being taken behind closed doors as discussions between stakeholder organisations. At a time when far-reaching choices are being made under urgency, this hermetic approach seems particularly dangerous.

The transitional Christchurch movement - the social media-connected young professionals behind the Epic innovation hub, Gap Filler, Volunteer Army and other such cool organisations (see this issue) - has been managing to make its voice heard, speaking truth to power.

But by the end of the year, it was becoming apparent that with the neglect of issues such as rental housing, the poorer and older half of Christchurch might not be getting the best new city from its point of view.

So 2013 did see its political backlash. Mayor Lianne Dalziel and a new council table swept the local government elections. Something more like Spiller's three tiers might result with the council vowing to return power to community boards and grassroots organisations.

It took a while to happen, but the council could be the necessary buffer that provides the better balance.

Is that it? Hardly. There were plenty of other big issues making their first definite appearance on stage in 2013.

The new flood risk threat to Christchurch became one the authorities seemed keen to dodge, or at least took a surprisingly long time to get their heads around. Large chunks of the city either slumped closer to sea level or developed dips that now pond when it rains.

A tangle of building regulations has created confusion over what should happen with any insurance rebuilds or repairs. Getting better information out to the public is one of the council's priorities early in the new year.

Likewise, there is the issue of council debt. The previous council felt it had wrestled a victory of sorts from the Government over who pays for the central city anchor projects and infrastructure rebuild.

It probably did but already there looks only bad news on rising costs and insurance shortfalls. So expect the revisiting of the decision to salvage the Town Hall, a battle to put back the stadium, and other tough debates in 2014.

Yes, another year, another confused blur most likely. Come back for a clearer analysis some time around 2024.

The Press