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.
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.