Two years on: Slip-ups and successes

Next week, as you don't need reminding, brings up two years since the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch. I hesitate to call it an anniversary because that somehow sounds too celebratory.

It's time then to take stock. From the sixth floor of The Press building, the newsroom has a circle seat view of developments in this part of the city and beyond. I can see why people who visit the area rarely are a little shocked at the deathly open sites all over the place.

Now and then, I take a stroll from our Gloucester St site to the east and it doesn't take long to hit the red zone residential areas beyond Fitzgerald Ave. If you want a sharp reminder of what happened in the suburbs two years ago, this is where you will get it. Two years on, the sand pushed up by liquefaction is still spread across driveways and sections and the buckled houses and cracked concrete make two years disappear.

A walk through these sad areas reinforces how many lives were torn asunder by the earthquake. Gardens overwhelmed by weeds, vandalised houses, piles of rubbish, smashed gates and graffiti prevail where once communities, neighbourliness and family life thrived.

What also strikes you is the waste. Surely many of these red zone houses could be made habitable with minimal work and used as temporary accommodation for workers or low-income rental seekers. You wonder how many of these houses will simply fall before the bulldozer instead of being properly salvaged.

But back to the inner city where quirky projects - the container mall, the cardboard cathedral, New Regent St, the pop-up cafes, public art - have sprung up like weeds in a car park. They don't amount to much yet, but each one is a victory for resilience. Some opportunities have been lost.

Decisions should not be rushed, but what a shame the Anglican Church did not make an early decision to rebuild the cathedral. We would have had a powerfully symbolic construction right in the heart of the city to celebrate. By not having a comprehensive earthquake museum/exhibit or a memorial, we are also missing an opportunity to reinforce our experience to other New Zealanders and overseas visitors.

It is heartening to see so many tourists massing along the limited pathways through the city. Some people will feel miffed at outsiders surveying the destruction but I think we should welcome them with open arms. We could do much more for them and our residents. A path through the city would be a well-trodden attraction, for instance. With so little happening in the forbidden zone, surely the authorities could form a route which allows visitors to see the scale of destruction and allows residents to reclaim their city.

The conclusion progress is slow is hard to avoid. I have watched the painfully languid work on the hotels on each side of our building. The size of the work crews seems pitifully disproportionate to the scale of the work required. Comparisons are odious, I know, but having seen construction sites in Asia, you can't help feel a Thai or Chinese workforce could have built a whole new city by now. Do people work weekends or at night? Should we be looking at more explosive-assisted demolitions?

While inaction and lethargy seem to be the vibe in the inner city, the picture on suburban roads is quite different. While getting anywhere is a nightmare, the scale of the underground infrastructure revamp is huge and a lot of manpower is in evidence. Bravo, chaps.

After two years the stories have changed little. Unresponsive and recalcitrant insurance companies, a dysfunctional Earthquake Commission and shoddy workmanship are still the refrains. Some contractors have still not got the message that if they haven't the staff, the skills or the time, they should not take on the work. How difficult is it to respect people's property, do a thorough job and get it right first time? Very, by the sound of it.

It might still be grim for a lot of people, but we can chalk up some positives from the destruction. They are:

  • The rebuild of houses is finally getting up some steam.
  • Although we mourn the destruction of buildings like the Catholic Cathedral, we can celebrate the obliteration of some of our ugliest buildings. Who is going to miss the brutal edifice that was the railway station in Moorhouse Avenue?
  • The city has been cleared of areas consisting mostly of bleak, neglected old dungers which attracted forlorn businesses and an air of hopelessness. They were also death traps as we learned to our cost.
  • The city has a plan. It looks good. The sense of opportunity is strong and growing.
  • Everyone now thinks of themselves as an urban planner. This is not necessarily helpful, but the earthquake has made us all much more aware of our surroundings and what we want.
  • The earthquake produced one of the best music CDs to come out of New Zealand. Listen to the Harbour Union's Lyttelton and tell me I'm wrong.

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