Five Things The SF Bay Area Can Learn From the Christchurch, NZ Earthquakes

Gradiva Couzin
11 min readSep 28, 2015


In 2010 and 2011, the coastal city of Christchurch, New Zealand (pop. 370k) suffered a devastating series of earthquakes. The worst, a magnitude 6.3 quake on February 22, 2011, caused massive damage to structures and infrastructure. It was terrifying, with such violent shaking that people were knocked off their feet. Over 7,000 people were injured and 185 people lost their lives. Thousands of aftershocks rattled homes and nerves for months.

Christchurch, 2015. Photo: Zehara Robinson.

The SF Bay Area has a 72% chance of a 6.7 or larger magnitude quake in the next 30 years: We are the “before” picture to Christchurch’s “after.” What can we learn from their experience? I traveled to Christchurch in July 2015 and spoke with Hugh Nicholson, Principal Urban Designer at Christchurch City Council. Here’s what I learned:

We will need our neighbors more than ever.

“After the February earthquake, your radius shrank to being only far as you could see,” describes Nicholson. “With no phones, no internet, no television, no way to drive, your neighborhood became your world.”

In the year after the earthquakes, crime went down 18%. “Strangers were hugging in the streets; we were just so happy to be OK.”

Neighbors in Christchurch helped each other in amazing ways. Here are a few examples:
• As Nicholson tells it, “a can-do attitude is more important than advanced preparedness.” New Zealanders pride themselves on their McGyverism; their attitude toward #8 wire (a metal wire used in agricultural fencing) is like America’s love of duct tape. Christchurch neighbors drew on their DIY confidence, working together to fix problems after the earthquake. Just as we expect to happen in homes throughout the Bay Area, the majority of brick chimneys in Christchurch fell down during the earthquake, or were partially broken, creating a falling hazard during aftershocks. Nicholson’s neighbors worked together to deconstruct the chimney remnants to prevent further harm.
• Immediately after the earthquake, safe water was not available from the tap. “You could find emergency water supplies from the government, but that was far away and difficult.” One neighbor had a private artesian well on his property. He ran a PVC pipe from the well out to the front of the home and attached a makeshift tap for all to use. “Every day, neighbors would come together to collect our water for the day, to share news and information, to check on each other and make sure everyone was doing OK.” In the Bay Area we probably won’t have artesian wells in our backyards, but sharing resources and gathering together with neighbors to provide help and camaraderie will be a crucial part of our recovery.

A “long drop” (homemade outhouse) design on display at Quake City museum. Photo: Zehara Robinson

• Professional responders were busy with higher priorities. “I don’t remember seeing any police or firefighters in our neighborhood — they were working on the important stuff!” Neighborhood leaders arose spontaneously to fill the gap, creating a network between and among neighborhoods to bring news, information and assistance to those who needed it.

In the aftermath of a large earthquake, your neighborhood will be your world. The better you know your neighbors, the safer, more comfortable, and more well-informed you will be.

Your home or business may not be accessible for a long time.

The February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch hit downtown hard, at lunchtime on a weekday. Many people were injured, killed, or trapped by collapsing buildings, facades and debris in the downtown area. An ominous cloud of dust choked the city center.

Within hours, authorities set up a cordon to keep people out of downtown (known as the Central Business District or “CBD” in local parlance). Police and, later, soldiers guarded 24-hour checkpoints. The cordon encompassed a large Red Zone that initially spanned the entire downtown area, about 150 square blocks. All businesses inside the Central Red Zone were closed.

Over the following months, the size of the Central Red Zone was gradually reduced and access increased, but it was not until over two years after the earthquake, in June of 2013, that the last soldier departed and all the cordons were finally taken down.

New Zealand’s military provides assistance at a collapsed building. Christchurch, 2011. Photo: New Zealand Defense Forces Some Rights Reserved.

The government’s intention in creating the Central Red Zone — along with other color-coded zones around the city — was to provide security for property and safety for the public. But there were painful, unintended consequences as well. “New Zealand isn’t a place where we often see protests and demonstrations, but some arose in response to the Red Zones,” says Nicholson. More than 50,000 people had to find alternative workplaces outside the cordoned-off area. Without access to critical property such as computer servers, inventory, and cash, businesses were frustrated. Rumors swirled about businesses breaking into the Red Zone to get computers and other items out. And some people were horrified to see their belongings for sale on the New Zealand equivalent of eBay after demolition contractors took over condemned buildings within the Red Zone and salvaged the items inside.

Imagine a military-guarded Red Zone in San Francisco or Berkeley, restricting access to a ten block by ten block area in the middle of downtown for over two years. Businesses can prepare now, by backing up data off-site, practicing telecommuting protocols, and planning an alternative location if headquarters is inaccessible.

Access was also restricted in some residential areas. What would you do if you tried to return home after an earthquake and discovered yellow tape surrounding your entire neighborhood? This is why families are advised to have two meeting places in their disaster plan: one near home, and one outside the neighborhood.

Street art on empty buildings, downtown Christchurch 2015.

Recovery will take longer than we want it to.

Four and a half years after the February 2011 earthquake, cranes dot the landscape in downtown Christchurch and the grumble of construction fills the air. The signs of recovery are strong, but there are also empty buildings everywhere you look. They stand around like a bunch of gloomy teenagers, with tattered blinds clattering in broken windows and piles of rubble at their feet. The site of a fatal building collapse remains a sad vacant lot behind a chain link fence, with no markings to memorialize the 115 people who died there.

Search and rescue markings can still be seen on abandoned buildings downtown. Christchurch, 2015. Photo: Zehara Robinson
Vacant buildings still fill the central city 4 years after the earthquakes. Christchurch, 2015.
“Do not demolish” sign marks a building that someone would like to preserve, Christchurch, 2015. Photo: Lowell Robinson.

After the earthquakes, some services recovered quickly. Power was restored to most homes within five days. Getting a safe water supply flowing to taps took about a month. Sewer services, in contrast, took much longer to recover. Christchurch residents developed a near-obsession with homemade outhouses known as “long drops,” and portable toilets were a desirable landscape feature along many Christchurch streets. It was about six months before sewer service was restored to almost all the houses.

Let’s all stop for a moment and think about not having a functioning toilet for six months.

Rebuilding structures took even longer. A destructive earthquake does not create a blank slate for city planners. Instead, the future must be overlaid onto a present that is complicated and ever-shifting. Which buildings will be demolished, and which will be restored, and who will pay? Figuring this out for hundreds of buildings and historic sites takes time. Months. Years. Dead-eyed buildings in downtown Christchurch remain in limbo while the questions are sorted out by owners, the government, and insurance companies. “We had to create our recovery plan amidst this chaos and uncertainty. ” describes Nicholson. “I didn’t see my family very much during that time.”

About 90% of housing was damaged in some way, with most people continuing to live in damaged homes. Homeowners were stressed by years of negotiations with contractors, insurers, and officials; renters struggled with a multi-year rental shortage that has only recently started to ease up. With the initial exhilaration of a shared purpose wearing off, many people report disillusionment and anger at those who have managed the recovery.

Considering that it took us 25 years to build a new Bay Bridge after Loma Prieta, the Bay Area will probably not set any speed records for recovery. Our recovery will proceed in stages, starting with the highest priorities like shelter, water, and security, and then moving into a much longer period of wrangling and rebuilding that is likely to test our physical and emotional endurance. Recovery is a long journey and we can’t expect it to be easy for anyone.

Art and community engagement will help.

Near the corner of Gloucester and Colombo streets in downtown Christchurch, a humble washing machine sits in a vacant lot. Under the lid is a plug for our iPod. We plug in and slide a $2 coin into the slot, and suddenly M.I.A’s Bad Girls is pumping out of four speakers at top volume. The music is loud enough to drown out nearby construction noise, with vibration that would put a 4.0 aftershock to shame. We clearly have no choice but to dance!

A washing machine blasts music amid the rubble. Photo: Lowell Robinson.
Under the lid of the washing machine is a plug for our music device. Photo: Lowell Robinson
It’s a powerful thing to dance in the context of such loss. Christchurch 2015.

After the earthquakes and the ensuing demolition of hundreds of buildings in Christchurch, organizations like Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble sprang to life, creating temporary projects on cleared sites with mostly volunteer labor. Artistic creations and events entertained, united, and inspired a weary population, and continue to bring hope for what’s to come. The Dance-O-Mat is one of these creations. Another is at the future site of the new Central Library, where oversized green armchairs form a mini-park that visitors can enjoy until the new building is constructed. Outside the broken central cathedral, we find a blooming garden in the shape of a Maori meeting house. Street art is everywhere.

Oversized armchairs mark the future site of the Central Library. Photo: Zehara Robinson
A pile of gravel faces the mini-park at the future Central Library site. Photo: Lowell Robinson
A living space in the shape of a Maori meeting house is found outside the broken Cathedral. Photo: Lowell Robinson.
The city’s creative rebirth included the Re:START shopping mall made of shipping containers, which brought commercial life back to downtown Christchurch. Photo: Lowell Robinson

Although many of projects are created by volunteers and private organizations, local government has a hand in the work, too. “Our goal at Christchurch City Council was not to manage these projects but to enable them,” describes Nicholson. The council-funded organization Life in Vacant Spaces lubricates the wheels for project creators by negotiating with property owners and taking care of legal arrangements. The City Council also provides grants to fund projects directly. Community leaders want to make some of the gap-filling installations permanent, but that future is uncertain.

The people of Christchurch allowed themselves to dream big about the future of their city. Through the City Council’s Share an Idea campaign, residents posted more than 100,000 suggestions:

“Limit building height so the Cathedral spire can be seen over the rooftops, think Paris and all the monuments above the building skyline.”
“Te Reo Maori signs everywhere. No translations.”
“Narrower roads utilizing more space for gardens and buildings with reduced speed limit and traffic calming as standard.”
“Fairy lights. Trees. Fairy lights on trees…”

“The response was incredible.” says Nicholson. “We were able to incorporate community ideas into our plan, and an outpouring of public support helped us reach consensus within the City Council and get approval from CERA [the national government ministry in control of the recovery].”

Street art at a parklet by Greening the Rubble in downtown Christchurch.

If normally-reserved New Zealanders can come up with such exuberant, artistic, and participatory elements in their recovery, imagine what the wildlings of the SF Bay Area could do, especially if our local government is as supportive as Christchurch’s has been.

Our city will never be the same again.

The 2010–2011 earthquakes changed Christchurch in the most basic, physical ways: “after the earthquakes, there are parts of our city that are a full meter lower than they were before,” says Nicholson. Some springs stopped flowing; others were created. The banks of the river widened. Earthquakes do, after all, reshape continents.

Christchurch will never be the same city it once was. Many buildings, including historic ones, are gone forever. Some parts of the city are barely recognizable because the lines of sight are so different. The rebuilding plan hopes to create a greener, more accessible, more bike- and transit-friendly new city; it does not try to reproduce the old one.

One loss stands out. In what Nicholson calls a “strategic retreat,” an entire swath of the city, designated the Residential Red Zone, will not be allowed to rebuild. Authorities decided it was too dangerous or too expensive to rebuild or repair houses in this area. The national government purchased almost 8,000 residences here and demolished the homes whether they were damaged by the earthquakes or not. We visited this Crown-owned land: once a typical neighborhood, now ghostly pock-marked streets with rows of empty lots waiting silently to become something useful again. We did not see any of the dangerous squatters mentioned in news reports.

8,000 homes were purchased by the national government and demolished in the residential red zones, leaving behind empty lots that some hope to turn into a nature preserve. Others worry the land will be resold at a profit.
“accept loss forever” — Christchurch graffiti, 2015. Photo: Lowell Robinson.
Street art on an abandoned building, downtown Christchurch 2015. Photo: Zehara Robinson

What does it mean for a population to live through this kind of experience together? Do their eyes sparkle just a little differently, do they hug their kids just a little tighter, knowing the fragility that underpins their modern life?Many thousands lost their homes. They grieve what once was, and some of them still flinch every time a truck goes past. But people also feel more connected to their community and neighbors, and proud of their ability to cope. As outsiders in Christchurch, we were struck by a sense of quirkiness, excitement, innovation and entrepreneurship in the city that we didn’t notice elsewhere in New Zealand.

The changes that the Bay Area’s Big One brings won’t be reversible. You never raise the city back up that meter. Our collective consciousness will carry around memories of the quake and its aftermath forever, for better or worse. Christchurch offers us an impressive story of community resilience, an effective mix of top-down and grassroots leadership. Their recovery has been long and messy and painful and even a little bit beautiful — ours will be too.