Recover, Rebuild: Christchurch New Zealand After the Earthquake


Lincoln University in New Zealand did a great job of assembling some leaders in the principles and practice of disaster recovery for its Resilient Futures workshop recently in support of recovery in Christchurch after the February earthquake.  And in keeping with one of the themes – the importance of quality and timely communications – the papers and summary are already posted on the web.

Without being there, it’s hard to judge the tone of discussion and the weight given to the lessons from experience overseas and in New Zealand.  But quick publication of the papers provides useful insights. 

My immediate thoughts follow – but I recommend anyone interested to read the summary and original papers.

Key themes

Some of the papers looked a bit academic, but there is correspondence between what the practitioners and academics have  to say.  It’s good to see theory and practice reinforce each other. 

Here are what I see as the most important threads:

(1)    The common sense but urgent approaches proposed for recovery, and the practicality of  some of the examples of what has been done elsewhere and what can be done in Christchurch;
(2)    The role of central government; there were differences in the detail among speakers, but by and large they see government adopting a leadership and motivational role, providing funding and oversight, especially in the recovery stage;
(3)    Local democracy is a key based on the role of local government and citizen participation, especially in the planning and rebuilding processes, and on the importance of involving local, even localised, communities (“clusters", "villages”).
(4)    The need for existing institutions to adapt to changed circumstances, streamlining decision-making while maintaining transparency;
(5)    The need to ensure that citizen, community, and other interest groups can participate and contribute by way of knowledge, resources, and time;
(6)    The need for speed, which nevertheless brings with it a risk of exacerbating pre-disaster imbalances and inequities between areas and groups; and the trade-off that may be required between speed and deliberation to deliver good long-term outcomes;
(7)    Recognising how easily the temporary can become permanent, and planning accordingly;
(8)    The window of opportunity that might be created for improving land uses and infrastructure in the course of replacement and rebuilding;
(9)    Finding the time to envision the future, to build consensus around architecture and planning options, and to achieve citizen buy-in to proposed solutions;
(10)The need for plans to address and reduce – and be seen to reduce – future risks;
(11)The significance of open space,  the importance of greenways and green-spaces, the likelihood that the city will have to expand, and the notion of an expanded city as an assembly of connected villages.

(It’s reassuring to see I’m not alone in advocating a new approach to spatial planning to limit the damage arising from extreme events, and to facilitate post-disaster recovery.  See my post of March 2 2011).

The challenges

There are potential contradictions in all this.  For example, speed is of the essence where infrastructure and shelter are laid waste, where jobs have evaporated, and communities have been torn apart. But haste should not create a city with parts which are forever temporary, where material gaps among groups widen, or where short-term expediency creates long-term risks. 

Nor should the importance of government leadership limit the capacity of the community at large to participate in rebuilding, to deliberate and debate, and help shape the new Christchurch.

The various speakers confirmed the importance of addressing multiple risks, something fundamental to planning for resilient cities.  If it can address multiple risks and provide outcomes that reduce them, then planning for the new Christchurch will enable “communities and local leaders to make best use of the opportunities the event has created”.

The experience of previous disasters confirmed that public engagement is central to achieving “political stability, community buy-in and support for new initiatives, the identification of workable solutions, and a generally positive recovery that promotes confidence in both the process and the likely end result”.

Differentiating recovery and rebuilding

Perhaps what we need to do if we are to use the wealth of material and insight provided by the Lincoln University initiative, and others like it, and to work through the contradictions is distinguish between recovery and rebuilding.  Recovery is about restoring as quickly as practical safety, security and shelter, and the structures and infrastructure needed to ensure them.  It demands urgent attention, rapid deployment of resources, and  high level of expediency. 

Rebuilding is a little less urgent and maybe even more challenging.  It is about the way communities will live in the future, how people get on with their lives, their play, their work, and their recreation in a healthy and prosperous urban environment.  Rebuilding requires deliberation, identification of options, and working our way to consensus.  It cannot be rushed.  Nor should it be unnecessarily prolonged.  Ideally, rebuilding will start with community engagement rather than tagging it on through consultation later on, a strategy which risks energy- and morale-sapping disputes about objectives and outcomes.

Getting the governance right

It appears from the papers presented that we know what has to be done: it’s how we set about doing it that is critical to a successful rebuild.

Accelerating and sustaining recovery while laying solid foundations for rebuilding is perhaps the biggest challenge facing those in positions of authority and leadership.  Recognising the differences between them might be a good starting point.

If this challenge is to be met, it is important that the governance structures - who does what and under what authority – are appropriate at the outset.  The creation of a central agency, the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), looks like a good start, especially if it focuses on recovery and thereby gives Christchurch City Council the space and capacity it needs to provide leadership in the rebuilding process.  How these two agencies demarcate their roles and work alongside each other will have a major impact on the creation of a resilient and liveable Christchurch.

Phil McDermott is a Director of CityScope Consultants in Auckland, New Zealand, and Adjunct Professor of Regional and Urban Development at Auckland University of Technology.  He works in urban, economic and transport development throughout New Zealand and in Australia, Asia, and the Pacific.  He was formerly Head of the School of Resource and Environmental Planning at Massey University and General Manager of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation in Sydney. This piece originally appeared at is blog: Cities Matter.

Photo by Geof Wilson


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