The cen­tral city too

It is a sim­ple ques­tion that all New Zealand cities need an­swered. Does Christchurch show we know how to run a disas­ter re­cov­ery? John McCrone re­ports.

The Dominion Post - - News -

Heavy-set se­cu­rity guards hover by the door, cast­ing a beady eye over the peo­ple en­ter­ing. Looks like they could be ex­pect­ing a mob of an­gry trou­ble­mak­ers.

Christchurch is fi­nally hold­ing its Earth­quake Sym­po­sium – the one promised for 2017 and can­celled by for­mer re­cov­ery minister Gerry Brown­lee, even af­ter 51 speak­ers and a venue had been booked, as it was deemed ‘‘too political’’.

Labour’s Re­gen­er­a­tion Minister, Me­gan Woods, has gone ahead with this re­place­ment two-day ‘‘shar­ing the lessons’’ event. Yet it seems the of­fi­cial han­dling of the Can­ter­bury earth­quake se­quence is still the touch­i­est of sub­jects. Many of the at­ten­dees are mut­ter­ing about how the agenda feels neutered and wa­tered-down.

One in­sider points out Jacinda Ardern has enough on her plate with­out a flare-up of political un­rest in Christchurch. Who needs the noise of its cit­i­zens re­lit­i­gat­ing those re­cov­ery de­ci­sions now?

So it is a tightly reg­u­lated guest list. Al­though a few slip the net to shake a metaphor­i­cal fist dur­ing the ques­tion times. Where is the ses­sion for in­sur­ance claimants, calls out one? Where is the ses­sion for what we didn’t do to cre­ate a green 21st cen­tury city pre­pared for cli­mate change, sings out an­other?

But even this gen­teel protest is con­fined to the few break­out ses­sions where ques­tions are be­ing al­lowed by a raised hand. For the rest of the sym­po­sium, the ques­tions have to be sub­mit­ted via a down­loaded phone app.

Learn­ing the lessons

It is go­ing to hap­pen again. The Alpine Fault is an in­evitabil­ity. Auck­land has its vol­ca­noes.

In an open­ing talk, Dr John Vargo, of Can­ter­bury Univer­sity’s re­silient or­gan­i­sa­tions re­search group, voices the purpose of the sym­po­sium. The Can­ter­bury earth­quake se­quence has to be ex­am­ined as an ex­am­ple of New Zealand cri­sis man­age­ment in ac­tion, he says.

We have al­ready had the Kaiko¯ ura earth­quake since. ‘‘And be­yond the earth­quakes side, we have a whole bunch of other things com­ing our way. Geopo­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence. Ex­po­nen­tial tech­nol­ogy. Cli­mate change. We don’t know what the next thing is.’’

The lessons of how the Greater Christchurch re­cov­ery was han­dled need to be out there, in­form­ing cur­rent civil de­fence leg­is­la­tion, the EQC Act, our gen­eral na­tional pre­pared­ness, Vargo says.

So boil the sym­po­sium down and what was its sum­mary?

It was amus­ing how the words ‘‘Gerry Brown­lee’’ were barely ut­tered aloud – only the nudge, nudge ref­er­ences to prob­lems with lead­er­ship style and force­ful min­is­ters.

How­ever most of the speak­ers also stressed that what went right or wrong ought to be at­trib­uted to the gov­er­nance struc­tures that were put in place rather than the in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties in­volved.

And to the par­tic­u­lar forces that were un­leashed, along with the political re­sponses they then dic­tated.

Cal­i­for­nian disas­ter re­cov­ery con­sul­tant Dr Lau­rie John­son says a dis­pas­sion­ate ‘‘no blame’’ anal­y­sis is what is go­ing to be most use­ful now.

New Zealan­ders can then take a hard look at them­selves – learn about who they are, their strengths and weak­nesses, when put to the test by a catas­tro­phe.

John­son’s own nut­shell view is that sev­eral in­ter­locked fac­tors be­came the driv­ing nar­ra­tive of the Greater Christchurch re­cov­ery.

One was the way cen­tral gov­ern­ment swooped in to take mi­cro-manag­ing con­trol of the city. That was against all ‘‘best prac­tice’’ ad­vice, she says – in­clud­ing what had been writ­ten into New Zealand’s civil de­fence man­ual as a re­sult of the 2015 United Na­tions’ Sendai disas­ter risk frame­work.

But then that con­nected to the fact that Christchurch was al­most too well in­sured. As it dawned that the city had a $40 bil­lion re­build com­ing, it be­came overly am­bi­tious about its ‘‘bounc­ing back’’.

The third in­gre­di­ent in the mix was an in­abil­ity to fol­low through. When it came to it, John­son says these am­bi­tious plans lacked both a com­mu­nity con­sen­sus and the ca­pac­ity to im­ple­ment.

Disem­pow­er­ment fed the trauma

John­son says to un­der­stand disas­ter re­cov­er­ies, you have to start with the sim­ple truth that they are about com­pressed time­lines. Once the emer­gency phase is out of the way, they just be­come a mat­ter of ev­ery­day pol­i­tics – nor­mal ur­ban devel­op­ment pro­cesses – hav­ing to op­er­ate at ab­nor­mal speed.

With all the re­newal of pipes, roads, city cen­tres and homes, a com­mu­nity has to un­der­take 50 to 100 years’ of plan­ning de­ci­sions in just five to 10 years.

So whereas the emer­gency stage ob­vi­ously de­mands a no-non­sense ‘‘com­mand and con­trol’’ ap­proach, re­builds need to get back to peace­timestyle, com­mu­nity-based, de­ci­sion-mak­ing – just with added sup­port from above to fa­cil­i­tate the speed and depth of those pub­lic dis­cus­sions.

Speaker af­ter speaker at the sym­po­sium agreed the gov­ern­ment of the day failed to get that bal­ance right.

Specif­i­cally, it formed a gov­ern­ment depart­ment – the Can­ter­bury Earth­quake Re­cov­ery Au­thor­ity (Cera) – which had all the power and cash, when it should have oper­ated through a lo­cal gov­er­nance board that gave room for the city to have its say in what emerged as the re­build pri­or­i­ties.

Talk­ing about this, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel says the gov­ern­ment was get­ting good psy­choso­cial ad­vice from the out­set. The Of­fice of the Prime Minister’s chief sci­ence ad­viser, Sir Peter Gluck­man, had spelt it out in a brief­ing pa­per in May 2011.

‘‘The earth­quake was a dis­em­pow­er­ing event, an event that in­di­vid­u­als had no con­trol over. The re­port says there is this need to re­gain some sense of con­trol over one’s life that is cen­tral to the re­cov­ery process.’’

So mak­ing a com­mu­nity feel re­spon­si­ble for its own de­ci­sions again is just as im­por­tant a political out­come as start­ing the re­build it­self, Dalziel says. ‘‘Disem­pow­er­ment es­sen­tially re­in­forces the ini­tial trauma.’’

Au­di­tor-Gen­eral John Ryan says this was his of­fice’s view too. ‘‘To quote John Cleese – speak­ing from the ‘Text­book of the Bleed­ing Ob­vi­ous’ – putting peo­ple at the cen­tre is of course what you should be do­ing.’’ And too of­ten Christchurch res­i­dents felt they weren’t.

Ryan says Cera was meant to be there to lead, but it fast be­came mired in the do­ing. And as Cera grew over­stretched, it turned more in­wards. ‘‘Trust and con­fi­dence de­clined be­cause peo­ple felt they couldn’t in­flu­ence the de­ci­sion­mak­ing.’’

John­son says the right thing to have done was put in enough gov­ern­ment fund­ing and sup­port to ac­cel­er­ate com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion and the mak­ing by the coun­cil of land-use de­ci­sions.

John­son says this is what has hap­pened in places like In­dia which have heeded re­cov­ery ad­vice – the co-de­sign ap­proach. ‘‘Gov­ern­ment part­ners with the pub­lic in each as­pect of a de­ci­sion and puts fi­nal de­ci­sion-mak­ing in the hands of the pub­lic.’’

John­son says it seems that would be slower, more con­fused, but in fact open dis­cus­sion is how you sur­face po­ten­tial mis­takes. Many voices catch the er­rors.

And even more cru­cially, John­son says, the out­come will have the com­mu­nity’s buy-in. ‘‘It may seem con­tra­dic­tory, but slow­ing down to de­lib­er­ate can in­crease speed later be­cause it re­sults in sat­is­fac­tion.’’

Am­bi­tion caused its own prob­lems

So les­son one for Welling­ton, Nel­son, Auck­land, or who­ever else is next in the fir­ing line of a disas­ter, is de­mand best prac­tice, com­mu­nity-based re­build­ing.

Pro­fes­sor John Hop­kins, a Can­ter­bury Univer­sity pub­lic law ex­pert spe­cial­is­ing in re­silience reg­u­la­tion, says it was sort of writ­ten into the civil de­fence man­ual be­fore the Christchurch ex­pe­ri­ence. But now that needs to be made ex­plicit in the leg­is­la­tion.

‘‘We do not want to be do­ing reg­u­la­tory plan­ning on the hoof as we did in Christchurch,’’ Hop­kins says.

Re­turn­ing to John­son’s in­ter­na­tional per­spec­tive, there were then also two other lessons less well un­der­stood – the way an in­sur­ance bo­nanza un­leashed pos­si­bly un­help­ful lev­els of am­bi­tion, cou­pled with a fail­ure prop­erly to fol­low through.

John­son says what re­ally strikes her about the Christchurch story are the early de­ci­sions which committed the city to mas­sive trans­for­ma­tional change.

The two key ones were the red-zon­ing of the Avon River suburbs and the cor­don that sealed off the cen­tral city, even­tu­ally lead­ing to 80 per cent of its build­ings be­ing de­mol­ished as own­ers cashed in on total loss set­tle­ments.

As UC’s Vargo noted, the level of disas­ter in­sur­ance in New Zealand is nearly unique – 80 per cent of the city’s losses were cov­ered com­pared with the more usual 5 to 20 per cent even in places like the US.

Dis­as­ters nor­mally just leave be­hind blighted ar­eas, says John­son. But in New Zealand, with the Earth­quake Com­mis­sion (EQC), even land dam­age is in­sured un­der a gov­ern­ment-backed guar­an­tee. With the res­i­den­tial red zone, this had a dou­ble-edged ef­fect.

And with the gov­ern­ment on the hook for the land re­me­di­a­tion costs, it was pretty well forced to come down, take charge, and man­age how that was go­ing to work, just like any in­surer.

John­son says red-zon­ing was the right thing to do. With the many af­ter­shocks, some prop­er­ties had liq­ue­fied six or seven times. ‘‘There was just not go­ing to be a proper so­lu­tion for them.’’

Yet the de­ci­sion it­self was taken with speed and in se­crecy. There was no di­a­logue to air the next step prob­lems.

It was the lack of political fol­lowthrough which was the most trou­bling, she says. The ‘‘red-zon­ing’’ wasn’t ac­tu­ally that at all. It was just a land-use change and a buy-out of­fer.

The gov­ern­ment did not take on re­spon­si­bil­ity for mov­ing peo­ple. It green­lit new sub­di­vi­sions on the city’s out­skirts and then left res­i­dents to nav­i­gate an over­heated rental and con­struc­tion mar­ket.

A sim­i­lar thing hap­pened with the cen­tral city where the gov­ern­ment – again be­hind closed doors – drew up a re­build blue­print that was largely a re­vised land-use plan meant to be com­pleted by a wave of in­sur­ance money and mar­ket forces.

Once more, the gov­ern­ment was do­ing what felt right given the cir­cum­stances, John­son says.

It started be­cause the cen­tral city had to be cor­doned off. And then there were the re­peated large af­ter­shocks that kept the fences up for more than a year.

‘‘The gov­ern­ment wasn’t putting the cor­don up to say tear down build­ings. It was pro­tect­ing peo­ple. But in the process, it in­duced uncer­tainty for those in­side the cor­don.’’

With in­sur­ance pay­outs dan­gling, much more was al­lowed to be de­mol­ished than was strictly nec­es­sary, says John­son. The CBD put it­self in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to rein­vent it­self al­most from scratch.

Strengths and weak­nesses

John­son says the no-blame view is that New Zealand ended up do­ing well what it could do well, and poorly where it lacked the skills and ca­pac­ity. That was nat­u­ral.

For ex­am­ple, one of the cel­e­brated ex­am­ples of col­lab­o­ra­tion was the Stronger Christchurch In­fra­struc­ture Re­build Team (Scirt), where or­di­nary pub­lic ten­der­ing pro­cesses were set aside and a con­sor­tium of con­trac­tors were tasked to get on with the job. As a young coun­try that does a lot of road-build­ing and civil en­gi­neer­ing, we rolled up our sleeves and got on with that.

Like­wise, she says, there was a re­mark­able amount of qual­ity geotech work and data gath­er­ing done at high speed. We played to those na­tional strengths.

How­ever, when it came to things like the com­mer­cial re­cov­ery of cen­tral Christchurch, that felt far more naive.

‘‘Be­ing an ur­ban plan­ner, work­ing in the United States, we have to deal with rust-belt cities that have to be re­gen­er­ated.’’ Europe also has its dock­lands and city ar­eas that need imag­i­na­tive rein­ven­tion.

So when it came to it, New Zealand lacks those par­tic­u­lar skills. No blame. It was sim­ply a match­ing weak­ness. It be­came an­other rea­son Christchurch set off with bold in­sur­ance-fu­elled am­bi­tion and then strug­gled to fol­low through.

Of course, if New Zealand has a sim­i­lar mag­ni­tude disas­ter – the Alpine Fault un­zips – all that is go­ing to be true the next time around too.

So it would pay Welling­ton and Auck­land to be aware of the re­build dy­nam­ics that are go­ing to play out, John­son says. Keep it front of mind be­fore leap­ing into the re­cov­ery plan­ning.


Seven years on, has the Earth­quake Sym­po­sium given Christchurch an hon­est ap­praisal of how the re­cov­ery was han­dled?

Christchurch’s re­build ex­pe­ri­ence has lessons for other cities in­clud­ing Welling­ton, where many build­ings, in­clud­ing Frey­berg House, had to be de­mol­ished af­ter the Kaiko¯ ura earth­quake.

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