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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beginner's guide to rebuilding

Beginner's guide to rebuilding

Last updated 05:00 13/03/2011
The only thing certain about the rebuilding of Christchurch is that not everyone will like it. So can we learn from the lessons of the past? Adam Dudding reports.

AFTER NAPIER fell down in 1931, they knocked up a replacement city full of trendy art deco buildings in a couple of years, and now it's on the list of nominees for Unesco World Heritage status. That proves New Zealanders have the capacity to rebuild a city, and get it right, doesn't it?

Indeed, government officials are already combing their history books to see how Napier got it so right after the 7.8-magnitude quake that ravaged Hawke's Bay on February 3, 1931.

But according to urban historian Ben Schrader, there are pitfalls in comparing this with Christchurch's recent quake.

"The big difference is that the fire that followed the earthquake cleared Napier – they had a totally clear platform and they had to begin again. In Christchurch that hasn't happened to the same extent."

That's why, says Schrader, you can expect a lot more argument in the coming weeks over what old stuff needs to be rebuilt or repaired, and what should be swept away on a tide of modernity.

Yet, even though Napier was a clean slate, while Christchurch is a mishmash of buildings at various degrees of muntedness, there are still lessons to be drawn from that 1930s rebuild, says Schrader.

One of them is that whatever shape Christchurch takes, there'll be many people who won't like it. And the second is that even the best decisions won't be fully recognised until decades in the future.

"Up until the 1980s, many citizens in Napier viewed the CBD with disdain. They saw it as anti-modern and antiquated.

" It was only when some really nice art deco buildings started to be demolished that they woke up to a jewel that was on their front door.

"[Earthquake recovery minister] Gerry Brownlee was talking about creating `future heritage' and building a whole new city, but it takes at least half a century before a built environment gets to be seen in that way. A rebuilt Christchurch might look ultra-modern and attract people initially, but it will lose its sheen – until a period passes and people start to look at it in a new light."

OK, it might be 50 years before we can be sure if Christchurch got it right or not, but some judgements need to be made a lot faster than that. Aside from the busted water, power and sewer infrastructure, Brownlee has said 10,000 houses in Canterbury might need rebuilding, Prime Minister John Key has suggested some liquefaction-stricken suburbs may need to be abandoned, and in central Christchurch – home to 1000 of the region's 1600 heritage buildings – up to a third of the buildings have been destroyed or irreparably damaged.

Thousands of people and businesses need some certainty about what's coming next, and soon.

Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, tells how within six weeks of the big Napier quake, the government appointed two men – magistrate JSBarton and engineer LBCampbell – as commissioners of Napier.
The Napier City Council website glowingly describes Barton and Campbell as "a couple of dictators who got on with the job".

The powerful pair lost little time in overseeing inspections and repairs, restoration of water and sewerage and the resurveying of land.

To avoid haphazard growth, a temporary shopping centre, "Tin Town", was thrown up in Clive St, where it stayed for two years while a modern city, complete with wider streets, underground power and phone lines, and buildings engineered to a new earthquake-resistant code, was built.

Barton and Campbell also oversaw four firms of local architects to design the city's new buildings – creating the look that, eventually, would be so admired.

So will Christchurch end up in the hands of benevolent "dictators" in the Napier mould, or follow a more democratic path?

On Tuesday, Key said a decision about just who will be in the driving seat and with what powers won't be clear for a couple of weeks, but he made reassuring noises about there being a balance between the community's input and a strong central government involvement. Brownlee's office says it is far too early to be talking about which architects and engineers might be shoulder-tapped to make a new city.

Intriguingly, though, the Star-Times has learnt that government officials have asked historians to provide them with a report on the Napier experience, presumably in the hope of learning from past successes and failures.

Many decisions about what and where to build in Christchurch depend first on knowing what's going on under the ground. And it could be several months before there is enough high-quality geotechnical data to make those calls.

Assuming the wreckers' balls don't start swinging too fast, that leaves a little time for us to argue over what to do with Christchurch.

THE DEBATE over what to knock down in the CBD and what to keep is already growing rancorous. Last week Brownlee managed to cast himself as the "Minister for Demolition", when he said that if he had his way, some of Christchurch's older buildings would be "down tomorrow", leading to howls from heritage experts.

Shrader says the argument reflects a long-standing culture clash between architects and engineers who tend to want to build new, versus heritage advocates who want to hold on to the past. In New Zealand, says Shrader, the architect and engineer bloc tends to have the upper hand, "which I put down to the progressive ethos in New Zealand – the idea that we are still a new society and we don't have much from the past that's worth protecting".

But to bowl or not to bowl is just one of the thousands of decisions to be made. Build high or low? Leave some ruins where they are? Dig up the rivers? Turn roads into cycle lanes, or pedestrian walkways? Relocate the CBD, or let the East go back to marshlands? Crush the malls that have hollowed out the city centre?

Other trashed cities rebuilt around the world hold lessons.

Professor Rob Olshansky, an expert on post-disaster reconstruction from the University of Illinois, told the Star-Times one of the most important things governments need to do after a disaster is channel vast amounts of money into rebuilding and provide vast quantities of technical advice and information. Then, the hard bit, "look the other way" while local people spend that money well.

Among other disasters, Olshansky has studied New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of the quakes in Los Angeles in 1994, Kobe, Japan, in 1995, and Haiti in 2010.

"In my classes I make up a disaster – a tornado that went through my house," says Olshansky. "What would I do? I would look at it as an opportunity to build a better house. Without enough information I would just build it the same way. But if the city helps me out with a green-building resource centre, I could come up with designs for a more sustainable house."

A common misconception about rebuilding, he says, is that someone – perhaps the government – is actually "in charge" of recovery. Rebuilding involves complex interactions by a huge number of actors – including private individuals, business owners, investors, NGOs and pressure groups. All the government should do is help oil the wheels, not kid itself that it's behind the wheel.

The other vital role for government, says Olshansky, is to swiftly identify the most vulnerable – usually the uninsured or under-insured – and quickly give them help before they go under.

"They're less vocal and powerful, so their problems get discovered later on."

There is a bright side, says Olshansky. It is almost a given that Christchurch will end up a bit better than it was, because after a disaster cities are almost always improved.

The real question, then, is how much better can it be? "Even New Orleans is, in a lot of ways, better than before. But rather than coming back 5% better, wouldn't it be nice to make it 15% better?"

- Sunday Star Times

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