Christchurch, New Zealand: A City that Lost Its Heart and Found Innovation

By LINDA MCCARTHY

One of Christchurch’s many crumbling buildings.

We went to the Christchurch Central Business District (CBD) today to see the devastation caused by the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. It was incredible.

Christchurch is New Zealand’s second-largest city with a population of nearly 400,000. They have the entire core fenced off, and they have deconstructed hundreds of buildings, some as tall as 20 stories.

It looks like a war zone – vacant and crumbling buildings with bulldozers and cranes all over. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a vested stakeholder in the city center here. How in the world do you recover and rebuild?

Amazingly, these Kiwis are hardy, and their inspiring attitude has given way to incredible innovation.

While strolling around the area, we stumbled across what they call Container City. They have essentially brought in hundreds of shipping containers and converted them to mini-stores and businesses adjacent to the fenced-off area.

Retail stores, restaurants, banks, postal centers and more are relocating their businesses in shipping containers that have been painted bright colors and converted with glass walls. Many of them are double-stacked creating second stories. They’re beautiful and inspiring.

By happenstance, we ended up outside the doorway of the Christchurch Economic Development office and struck up a conversation with a business development specialist there. They have 35 employees, and have recently relocated to the CBD to make a statement about the importance of the city center to economic development efforts and of course, to focus on recovery and rebuild. Gill Dal Din spoke with us for about 20 minutes and gave us a brief overview on the efforts underway to rebuild the city center.

Fenced Main Street.

Two valuable lessons came from that conversation.

First, the city center has a rare opportunity to redefine and redesign itself, which they see as an incredible opportunity to essentially build a brand new city center. A blueprint has been designed, entire blocks have been scraped, and the CBD has a plan to rebuild in ways that will be more inviting, economically viable, and innovative.

The second point is that the earthquakes left many businesses without a place to operate, which led to a significant number of businesses co-locating with each other, as both competing and interconnected businesses welcomed those stranded to share space.

From that came the concept of EPIC, the Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus. The high-tech business hub, funded by the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ), has attracted 17 businesses back to the city center and all under one roof, which has led to a clustering of intense collaboration activity.

The EPIC project has been so successful they are now planning another business cluster project with close to 100 like-type businesses. It was truly inspiring to see and hear how rebuilding the Central Business District in Christchurch is going.

Additionally, it just happened to be the annual Buskers Festival, which was taking place throughout Container City. Of course I asked! A busker is a street performer, seeking change for quality performances in the areas of drama, dance, magic, music, and more.

It is so prevalent in Christchurch that one individual started a ten-day festival some 20 years ago. We were lucky to stumble across it.

Container City.

While downtown, we also took photos of things like flowers planted in old painted tires (thank you, Rotary Club), creative bike racks, banners, signs promoting WIFI in the district, way-finding kiosks, and even a water refill station in the middle of a sidewalk.

Needless to say, this day was really fun and exciting for me, thanks to the work I do for the Missoula Downtown Association. Once a downtowner, always a downtowner! You always make a point to see and assess what other communities do in the areas of street improvements, marketing and promotions, events, parking, architecture, and more.

This day’s visit to Christchurch’s Central Business District made me proud of those who are working so hard to rebuild their heart. I am incredibly impressed and inspired and will follow their efforts for years to come.

To learn more, visit the Rebuild Christchurch website or go to the Christchurch city website.

 

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Linda McCarthy has served as Executive Director of the Missoula Downtown Association since 1999. Prior to that, she served as a Sports Information Director for Grizzly Athletics for 10 years. She is a two-time graduate of The University of Montana, where her husband, Tom Gallagher, is a professor in the Applied Computing and Electronics Program at Missoula College. Her daughter, Maddy Gallagher, is an outgoing and kind 11-year-old who has spent all of her school years at Lewis & Clark Elementary. They can be reached via email at: tomlinda@centric.net.