Sunday, February 27, 2011

Renewing Christchurch

Making sense of it from a distance
After tragedy, life is transformed.  Existing plans, hopes and expectations are unhinged.  With loss, especially untimely loss, comes an unmapped corner on the path through life, leading to a future that can only look bleak by comparison with what went before. 
But for all sorts of reasons – friends, family, the will to survive, perhaps only instinct – you move on even through deep grief and despair.  Slowly, and despite a natural belief that maybe life doesn’t make that much sense any more, you learn to live a new one.  Time doesn’t really heal and the idea of closure is simply an attempt – usually by others – to distance tragedy that won't ever go away.  But we can learn to live with a new and sorrow-tinged reality.
As it is with individuals, so it must be with communities. 
Christchurch has turned a corner that was never seen, never planned.  The press is talking recovery, but these early days are the days of individuals plumbing the depths and a community sharing the despair.
It might feel too early to think about the future in this awful present.  But keeping moving is how we survive the grief. 
Kobe 1995
My attention was recently drawn to the way in which Kobe was rebuilt after the disastrous Hanshin earthquake of 1995.  The scale of the Kobe quake was unimaginable, even by Christchurch standards.
Kobe 1995 – Some figures
6,400 people killed, 15,000 injured
400,000 buildings damaged, 100,000 collapsed completely
200,000 housing units were partially or completely destroyed
85% of schools, many hospitals, and other major public facilities sustained heavy damage.
Widespread damage to water, gas, and sewer system, rail, road, and port facilities
845,000 households lost gas service for as long as 2.5 months
Restoration of water and wastewater systems to nearly 1.27 million households took as long as 4 months in some places
2,000 small and medium sized businesses failed

Being told about others’ experiences doesn’t make your own grief easier. But it does tell you that life goes on. And it can offer lessons on how that might happen.
For example, rebuilding is inevitably long and slow.  Rushing into renewal is not an option.  Putting together lifelines is a drawn out process.  A city less vulnerable will take research, analysis, and thinking through. 
So the early urgency lies in providing a quality of temporary shelter and restoring fundamental services that may need to provide for years rather than months.
It is appropriate for a strong lead – and funding – for this to come from the very top given the enormity of this disaster, for the Cabinet and the government to work closely with the civic leaders of Christchurch through this time of rescue and restoration.
Among other things, we may just have to rewrite last year's National Infrastructure Plan even before the ink is dry, demonstrating statecraft by a capacity to rethink the country’s spending priorities and to focus now on the billions that must be directed towards Christchurch.
A time for civic renewal
David Edgington drew lessons from Kobe in his recent book Reconstructing Kobe: The Geography of Crisis and Opportunity (March 2010).  Among other things, planners were challenged by local citizens who felt vulnerable and disempowered following the earthquake. They had to win back community trust through local consultation especially among those facing the complete transformation of their neighbourhoods.
What disaster and recovery can do is meld communities, creating new relationships between the people and the governors.  Civil life comes to the fore, with strong, inclusive government action supported by widespread volunteerism.
It seems appropriate for civic leaders to take a lead in looking beyond recovery to renewal in Christchurch.  But it is equally important that the long-term is not contained – or constrained – in a rushed-out plan. Let’s hope that the earthquake is not seized on by planners as an opportunity for a super-sized urban development project. 
The people of Christchurch will need to be consulted widely, to play an active part in decisions about how their future will be reshaped and their communities renewed.  And that should happen bit by bit, project by project, street by street, suburb by suburb.
Whatever comes out of Christchurch's renewal, let us hope that like Kobe it is inspired by a stronger sense of community, and a heightened level of trust between councils, their constituents, and the development sector.

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