Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination
Jane Jacobs

How often does a city get an opportunity to reinvent itself? One city that does at the moment is Christchurch. In 2010 and 2011, the city was hit by an earthquake, changing it both inside and outside, killing almost 200 people and turning the lives of countless others upside down. Reconstruction has been in progress for over seven years now, and the reborn city is gradually taking shape.

I set off for New Zealand at the start of this year (2019). My last visit to Christchurch was back in 2004, long before the earthquakes, so I was looking forward to reconnecting with this city, especially from a professional perspective. I wanted to find out what we can learn from a city like Christchurch when it comes to place branding and placemaking. I encountered a city that had changed beyond recognition. Was this really Christchurch? At the same time, I detected a new vibe and energy that triggered my curiosity. In recent weeks I’ve spoken to dozens of policy-makers, marketers, experts, city dwellers and entrepreneurs in the hotels I stayed at, cafés and offices I came upon. From those conversations I’ve been able to distil five insights that I’d like to share with you.

The old Christchurch: ‘The Garden City’
Few cities are as English as the old Christchurch was. English neo-Gothic architecture dominated the streets, and the many parks made people refer to it as ‘The Garden City’. The city was English through and through, not only in appearance but also in norms and values, and the accompanying class culture. The image of Christchurch was of a beautiful and respectable, yet also rather conservative place. Not exactly the place for innovation.

Quake City
On the night of 3 and morning of 4 September 2010, an earthquake struck the city. The epicentre was located 10 kilometres from the city, so although buildings were damaged, the city escaped further damage. That was not the case when, scarcely half a year later, on 22 February 2011, another earthquake hit. Buildings weakened by the first quake collapsed like a house of cards. Christchurch lost most of its historical buildings in a few minutes, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral. Thousands of homes were destroyed and more than 180 people lost their lives.

Installation “185 empty chairs” by Peter Majendie

Seven years later, reconstruction is in full swing. The city centre is filled with a remarkable array of construction sites, shiny new structures, green fields and – still numerous – abandoned and damaged buildings. The renovated Arts Centre recently reopened, the entertainment strip along the Avon has been rebuilt, and the Cathedral is wrapped in scaffolding. Renewed energy is palpable throughout the city, thanks to the contagious entrepreneurial spirit of a new wave of young people recently attracted to the city. New businesses are springing up everywhere. Christchurch is working hard to put itself back on the map, rising like a phoenix. So what does it teach us?

  1. Search for a broadly supported identity

The disappearance of its historical fabric forced Christchurch to abandon its identity rooted in the past and to look to the future. Urban reconstruction signalled the start of a quest to find a new DNA. Initially, this DNA was directly linked to the earthquakes. Recent brochures feature headlines like ‘New Zealand’s Newest City’, accompanied by taglines such as ‘City of Opportunity’.

That makes you consider how one drastic event can influence a city. Did the identity of New York change fundamentally after 9/11? Is New Orleans defined by Katrina? Cities, like people, are branded by the events they experience, but those events do not define the entire identity. For identity evolves over years, centuries even.

Very recently, therefore, Christchurch chose for a new ‘city narrative’, or rather an over-arching narrative about the city. This was captured in ‘City of Explorers’. This not only honours the rich Maori history of the place, but also accommodates the earliest colonists as well as the city’s unique connection with Antarctica. Christchurch was the point of departure for many celebrated expeditions, and the city has remained the gateway to the South Pole to this day. This narrative of the city also accommodates prominent people from the city like Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. The possibilities for good narratives based on the theme of ‘exploration’ are legion, even for innovative start-ups.

  1. Ask local experts

‘The new narrative also helps today’s locals to view their city from another perspective and to sense future opportunities,’ says Tim Loftus of ChristchurchNZ. Local residents, business people and city-makers make the biggest contribution to the reconstruction of the city. What’s more, they are the ones with the right experience. They know better than anyone how the city works and what the needs are.

Immediately after the quakes, Christchurch City Council asked for help from Christchurchers with its ‘Share an Idea’ campaign. People could submit ideas for the city through a website. In just six weeks, some 106,000 proposals were put forward. The participants wanted a ‘city for people’, accessible, green, safe, pleasant. Together with many conversations and events, those ideas would provide input for the master plan for the new Christchurch.

It didn’t come that far, however. Instead, the national government set up a body to oversee the entire reconstruction. An international team of architects, urban designers and landscape architects took responsibility for the redesign of Christchurch. This approach left little room for the local initiatives or local voices. The ‘Recovery Plan’ consists for the most part of seven ‘Anchor Projects’, large-scale new-build schemes such as a new stadium and a Justice Precinct. Opinions differ as to whether the ideas of locals have been taken on board in this plan. But the fact remains that Christchurch can be proud of a hugely committed population. Luckily, a city is never finished, and it’s never too late to involve people. In any case, the foundations have been laid.

  1. Use bottom-up initiatives

Directly after the earthquake, it was the people from organizations like Gap Filler, a social enterprise for placemaking and urban regeneration, and the street artists with their community projects who brought life to the destroyed city centre, finding uses for vacant sites and bringing people together. Their events, green interventions and artworks offer a first indication of what Christchurch might be like in the future. But above all, they gave people hope. It is therefore no surprise that these projects were a huge success.

A recent project by Gap Filler is Good Spot, a socially conscious car park scheme. The profit from these car parks, building sites belonging to partner Fletcher Living, go to community projects.

The city can build on the success of these temporary projects if it provides space for such initiatives when it comes to permanent city development. Or if it involves the individuals behind such projects, people who know what’s happening on the ground, in further defining policy and expressing urban identity. Ryan Reynolds of Gap Filler welcomes the new identity of the city: ‘It’s definitely something to strive for and it’s already part of the identity right now. A lot of stuff is happening in Christchurch.’

Christchurch - Rinske Brand - BRAND The Urban Agency 5Placemaking at Cathedral Square

  1. Make an attractive city centre for all the people of Christchurch

For most of its residents, the centre of Christchurch is ‘out of the way’. Life in Christchurch takes place in the various suburbs, each with its own community and centre. This was the case even before the earthquakes, but that feeling has only increased over the past seven years. For years the CBD was a ‘no go zone’. But there’s now a plan to house 20,000 people in the CBD. After all, you need people to breathe life into the heart of a city. That’s a huge challenge, and not just on account of steeply rising rent prices. Of greater concern is the current image of the CBD. Remarkably, many people from outside the city assume that the centre is still a disaster zone. That is certainly not the case. ‘If you compare it with two years ago, so much more is happening now in the CBD. A walk through town back then meant you would see nobody. Not a soul. But there’s still a long way to go,’ explains Michael John of AO Architecture.

The work of rebuilding offers Christchurch a perfect opportunity to create an ‘inclusive CBD’, a central district where all Christchurchers feel at home. In other words, a city for and by all sections of the population, which considers their particular needs, wishes and patterns of spending. In short, focus on people, in addition to the seven ‘Anchor Projects’ that the government now largely concentrates on. The hardware and software of the city should go hand in hand.

Restaurant Dux Central in the newly developed Christchurch Central area.

  1. Cherish the community

According to many locals, the earthquakes have greatly boosted the sense of community in the city. The emergency meant that people were dependent on their immediate neighbours, and numerous community groups were set up around that time. Moreover, the city exerts a huge power of attraction on younger people. These people are drawn to Christchurch in order to, as they put it, ‘help and contribute’. Whether it be as engineers, entrepreneurs and inhabitants, they all now help shape the city. Anna Veale, for example, a native Christchurcher, left her job at the BBC in London and returned to her home town in 2018. She’s now a manager at the B&B Eco Villa, but her ambition is to run her own sustainable bed & breakfast one day. ‘The vibe and energy in the city are so different to what it was before I left for the UK. There’s so much happening now. When I arrived I didn’t know if the move would be permanent, but now I’m so attached to the place.’

So it’s actually people like Anna who are the ‘early explorers’ of the new Christchurch. These people beam with pride when they talk about their city. If that pride swells further, on the strength of a widely supported identity that they recognize, the communicative power will increase exponentially. No marketing campaign can match that.

Christchurch, a phoenix rising from its ashes, with renewed energy and spirit. What it teaches us is that rebuilding a city is about more than just buildings and architecture. It’s the softer aspects of a city — the programming, the people, the stories, the vibe — that make it a meaningful place again. Christchurch has the potential to become an ideal place for everybody who likes to explore. The intense passion of its residents and entrepreneurs is contagious. As long as leaders, policy-makers, developers, entrepreneurs and residents continue to work together, the future of Christchurch looks bright.


More about place branding? Read here.
More about placemaking? Read here.

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