Among the destruction of Christchurch’s deadly earthquake two years ago, a glimmer of something good. Against expectations, the gentle exodus of young people has slowed since the disaster – and those who remain are cultivating a new, glowing little heart for the crumpled city.
In 2010, Christchurch was a pretty garden city in Canterbury, on New Zealand’s South Island. A twee river – the Avon – bisected the centre, dotted with willows and oaks and home to the Gothic stone Christ’s College boys’ school. Its main attraction was Cathedral Square and its Anglican namesake, surrounded by a busy commercial district, old churches, grassy pockets and stone bridges. In 2010, Christchurch could be happily hailed as the most English city outside of England. And now? It’s more like a recovering warzone.
For decades the outpost nation of New Zealand has been hampered by the brain drain” – talented and educated young people leaving for distant, frequently Australian, shores. While educated and skilled people do move to New Zealand in return, the drain has been a particular problem with more people going than coming in the ‘80s and also 1998-2000, according to Statistics New Zealand. In 2005, 24.4 per cent of all New Zealand-born people with tertiary educations were living overseas, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report, and these days skilled tradespeople are leaving too.
The country is nearly 10,000 square miles larger than the UK, but with a population under 4.5 million many young Kiwis find their home country doesn’t have all the opportunities and challenges they crave. In essence, New Zealand is small pond struggling to contain rather a lot of big fish.
Young people left the South Island hub Christchurch the same as they left the rest of New Zealand.
And then the earthquakes. They’re now being referred to as the 2010-2011 cluster because of a relative quieting since 2012, and they’ve caused well over a thousand buildings to be partly or fully demolished. The city centre became a 387-rugby-pitch-sized no-go area. In September 2010 there was the wake-up call: a 7.1-magnitude earthquake at 4.35am and two 5.9 aftershocks. Five months later, in February 2011, a 6.6 followed by aftershocks of 5.8 and 5.9. In June that year, a 5.9 foreshock then a 6.4 quake. And two days before Christmas, a 5.9 foreshock and a 6.0 quake. To be clear, these weren’t isolated shakes: the go-to seismic site canterburyquakelive.co.nz has reported more than 13,000 since September 2010 and, for every one they feel, Christchurch residents are jolted by the brief terror that it might be another big one.
The deadliest big one was the 6.6 on February 22, 2011 – 185 people died, 115 of them in a single building. Melissa Cartwright, 23, was in a class around the corner from that building, the Canterbury Television or CTV building, at 12.51pm when it flattened and then caught fire. It was six storeys high; within 20 seconds of the earthquake’s onset it had collapsed. “I got in at 12.50pm,” says Cartwright. “I’d just put my jacket on the back of my chair – I never got that jacket back – I’d just sat down and then the quake started. As a class we’d sat through hundreds of aftershocks together, so nobody really cared. Then the monitors started falling off the desks. We got underneath them. A guy in my class and I were well and truly cuddling beneath the desk because, you know, the world was falling around us.”
Since the undoubted horror of those earthquakes, population trends have taken an unexpected direction – so says statistician James Newell, director of Monitoring and Evaluation Research Associates Ltd and his August 2012 report Indicative population estimates for Greater Christchurch post-June 2011. “We looked at what we expected to happen before the earthquakes over the past couple of years, compared with the actual,” he says. “From day one in September 2010 the effect from that was to reduce the number of young people leaving to go overseas.”
The report modelled the effect the quakes had on population change in Christchurch by calculating the difference between what would have been predicted to happen without them and what actually happened. It clearly shows that international departures from Greater Christchurch are now fewer than the quake-free estimate and have been heading that way since the start of 2012.
“I can’t tell you why,” says Newell. “But perhaps solidarity with families and friends. And the student army’s effect. Quite a lot of it is the psychology of it. As more of the rebuild takes place you get a changed atmosphere. People have been looking at different ways of doing things, in terms of arts and entertainments, and young people are at the centre of that. That’s a positive indicator for the future. The 16-24s are a very dynamic, energetic group – it’s a good sign.”
That age group rallied with magnificent effect and at astounding short notice as the “student army” Newell refers to. It was an army that dug hundreds of homes out from thousands of tonnes of silt, the result of liquefaction during the quakes: the buildings go down and the mud comes up. Earthquakes can shake the water and solid particles of the ground around so much they stop acting like solid ground, and when the ground being shaken is partially re-claimed and overwhelmingly sandy it makes for quite the mess.
It began with 2012’s Young New Zealander of the Year, Sam Johnson, who went to that Gothic stone Christ’s College. Now 23, he mobilised the young troops who, armed with spades, rolled their sleeves up and dug like hell. The Student Volunteer Army, now the Volunteer Army Foundation, started life as a Facebook page. To date, Johnson reckons the army has moved more than the weight of the Empire State Building in silt from liquefaction. After the September 2010 quake it shifted more than 65,000 tonnes. After February 2011 it shifted 360,000 tonnes, and helped distribute things like hot meals, clean water, chemical toilets. He’s not had any problem engaging the youth.
“Christchurch is a real blank canvas, now. You can do more or less anything,” he says. “It’s just such a change from what was a very conservative city that modelled itself on Britain. The quakes have changed the culture of the place, really.”
Could it be that a changed culture is convincing more young people to stick around?
“You get people connecting to the city, which is something a lot of my friends didn’t have before the earthquakes,” says Johnson, who is still studying law and political science in Christchurch, in between running the Volunteer Army Foundation, sitting on the council’s community board and having fingers in, it seems, almost every forward-thinking pie in the city. “They came to Christchurch to go to university and to them then it was a case of, ‘Ugh, I have to go to Christchurch’. Now, they’re like, ‘Yeah! I live in Christchurch! I went through those earthquakes. I loved it.’
“This sounds really terrible, but generally the students didn’t have a bad time during the earthquakes. It is a very gross generalisation but a lot of our families live in other parts of the city or country – university was closed, and the volunteer army was actually a lot of fun. We all had a sense of purpose back into our lives, and I guess there’s a certain element of, ‘I’m sticking it out in Christchurch, I’m staying here because I love the place and I want to see it grow and rebuild’. We’re quite proud of it, i guess, and feel quite close to it. We’ve been through so much together, let’s do a bit more.”
Melissa Cartwright’s parents’ home was demolished; so was the home she grew up in, but her dad salvaged from the garden a block of concrete a tiny Melissa had once pushed her handprints into. The land both houses sat on can never be built on again.
She did move away – to the capital – but not because she’s frightened of earthquakes: “Wellington’s not really the best place to move if you’re trying to get away from earthquakes. Wherever you live in the world, there’s always going to be dangers. There’s Australia, with fires and floods. Quakes don’t bother me that much.
“Would I move back? Maybe in four years when it’s all back together. If we decide to raise a family, I reckon we’d do it in Christchurch rather than anywhere else.”
The people who did stay – or indeed those who moved to Christchurch since September 2010 – have been rewarded with a blossoming arts scene and an uplifting atmosphere of stoic rejuvenation that is engaging the community.
That enormous no-go area is now vastly reduced and is finally being called the rebuild zone, rather than the red zone. An outdoor shopping mall of brightly coloured shipping containers in Cashel Street is the new focus to the city centre. In Madras Street, the National art gallery used a vacant plot opposite to straddle the road with an exhibition by Michael Parekowhai: half of it inside upstairs, half of it (two life-sized bronze bulls atop bronze grand pianos) outside across the street. In the rubble outside the old Strawberry Fare restaurant in Peterborough Street someone distilled order from chaos, piling tiles in a gentle spiral and gluing a tableau of tiny toy soldiers and zoo animals on top. Some fix drawings to wire fencing around empty patches of land, or fill traffic cones with flowers. Others knit multi-coloured “warmers” for lamp-posts.
There are many projects feeding that city-wide feeling: Johnson champions the Ministry Of Awesome for getting people together to help each other out with start-ups and enterprise facilitation, or Greening The Rubble that, well, greens the rubble. With plants and things. But the stand-out contributor is Gap Filler, a volunteer-run organisation that engages the community and puts lovely, creative bits and pieces in some of the myriad blank plots left by destroyed or demolished buildings. Bits and pieces like a bicycle-powered mini cinema, or a brightly painted piano, or a dance-o-mat, or a crazy golf hole.
The first such site, on land that was once a picture framer’s on the corner of Kilmore and Barbadoes just north-east of the town centre, is gravelled. It has paving-flag stepping stones, a bench beneath tattered and faded prayer flags strung from branches, and a glass-doored fridge stuffed full of books that have purportedly changed the lives of those who deposited them. It’s called the Think Differently Book Exchange, an imperative that Christchurch residents have risen to with aplomb.
“There’s a lot of empty sections where shops used to be or where they’ve ripped something down or there’s a blank wall, so there’s a lot of canvases for people to express their creativity,” says Johnson.
“A lot of organisations in Christchurch – Gap Filler, Greening The Rubble, Life In Vacant Spaces Trust – we all just facilitate people being able to use these spaces, use their ideas and make the spaces more enjoyable.”
Coralie Winn, co-founder of Gap Filler, knows those transition projects are vital for the city. “I’d say the feeling here now is definitely one that’s quite mixed,” she says. “There’s a real sense of positivity, I think people are generally trying to focus on the rebuild and trying to get excited about what’s happening. I also think there are people who are just fed up, who realise that the recovery is super slow.
“Creative responses to the city and to the earthquakes are actually the lifeline of this city, I think. They contribute to the health and energy of an area. And a city is a young people’s playground. The city is where young people, teenagers, first go to establish their own adult explorations into the world, and we don’t have that right now in Christchurch. Basically, young people go hang out at Riccarton Mall. I find that quite sad. The creative things, temporary projects, street art, all this stuff, that’s the kind of thing that young people really respond to, because it is in some ways a reaction against the establishment or can be seen to be that way. I think inherently that sort of stuff appeals to young people.
“A strong, healthy, vibrant creative scene is going to keep young people here or encourage them to come here. It is so important that younger people feel like there are opportunities for them to do interesting things in the city and be part of it.
“This city is not being rebuilt for the older people. It is being rebuilt for those people who are currently 20 or younger, really. They’re the people who will inherit the city.”
“The atmosphere is very, very positive,” says Johnson. “I do a lot of travel, and I’ve never found anywhere quite like Christchurch is now. It allows people, who are willing, to express themselves. It’s not very risk-averse. It’s a place where you can be free.”
Besides Newell’s statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests the warmth of Christchurch’s new heart is drawing people in. “I think Gap Filler projects have played a huge role in engaging the community,” says Winn. “I’ve been humbled by how many people have said ‘thank you’, and that Gap Filler has made a big difference to their lives.
“A couple of people have said that they one of the reasons they moved back or moved to Christchurch was because they heard about Gap Filler, saw what we were doing, and it made them feel positive and excited.
“One person stood up at the end of a talk I gave and he said: ‘I just wanted to thank Gap Filler, because you’ve made Christchurch worth being in for me.’”
At the Think Differently Book Exchange, the local newspaper, The Press, is still delivered to the picture framer’s plot every day. And every day, fine weather allowing, some member of the public will pick up that paper or perhaps a softened paperback that changed the life of its anonymous depositor. And that person will take ten quiet minutes to sit on the bench beneath the prayer flags, on the corner where the picture framer’s once stood, and read. A daily moment of peace among the ruin. A moment that contributes to Christchurch’s growing, glowing new soul.