Where’s the CBD?

A few months ago I posted some pretty empty shots of the Christchurch CBD. Amazingly, just a few months later, it’s even emptier. Talk about a clean slate. This city is starting from scratch. For those who need some reference I’ve posted a photo pre-September Earthquake as a comparrison at the end.



Should we stay or should we go? Part 2

Some of you may recall my post from last January. The one that questioned whether or not a mass exodus would occur as a result of the December earthquake.  Nearly a year later, I’ve yet to know a single person who has left christchurch.  Seems the mass exodus to Dunedin isn’t coming.

But…. Aaron and I have made our decision… we should go.

Looking back on my post from last year I am reminded of the optimism I felt for the city. Many are still optimistic for Christchurch’s future.  The lonely planet just named it #6 in the Top 10 Cities to visit in 2013.  I guess I, too, am still optimistic. I have no doubt this city will rise up and become a wonderful city of the future.  The stories of grass roots efforts to rebuild this city and make a pleasant environment for all continue to inspire me.  But I guess, after much self deliberation I have come to the realisation that I am not optimistic for MY future here.

There is no doubt that I underestimated what it was like to live in a post disaster city.  I had been nervous about the quakes and the quality of life here before arriving.   So when I landed to restaurants, stores, safe housing I was initially relieved.  The devastation around me was still novelty—Saddening, Inspiring, a reason for being. I was able to live life with a glass half full perspective and I was proud of that.

The things that get you about life in a post disaster first world country aren’t in your face.  They wear away at you gradually through all the little aspects of life you take for granted. Things that should be easy, but suddenly are complicated.  Driving across town is a constant hurdle of changing roadways, detours and traffic patterns.  No business is at its listed address.   Businesses are constantly opening, closing and moving, because their buildings are being demolished, moving, or renovating.  Business operations themselves are incredibly challenging as most companies lost all their files in the quake.

For life outside of work… there is no downtown.  No museums (only two have recently opened).  If it’s raining, winter, or windy the ONLY thing to do is go out of town, or to the mall.  And the mall closes at 5pm.  There is nowhere to go to see people walking around on the street.

If you lived here before the quake, the very future of your home may be in question, or maybe you’ve already moved, or your house needs repairs, but you can’t get it repaired until the government comes to assess it.

You have no idea how much I took city LIFE for granted.  The buzz about on the street, the CHOICES, the options of things to do.  I may not have done them, I still might not.  But knowing theyre there helps generate a feeling of comfort, freedom and choice.

I don’t know how else to describe this life.

And then, if you add to that, the feeling that you are constantly at work, because I am constantly at work.  Work is all around me. Work is the reason I am here.  Work is how I have made my friends.  Work is the reason that Aaron and I are able to live in this amazing place.  But when people ask me what I do…. it immediately becomes an extended conversation about work.  I used to hate the fact that no one knew what I did.  I used to shorten “structural engineer” to “engineer” because no one knew what it was anyway.  And if I tried to explain it they would simply say… “Oh, an architect”.  Now, I would trade that response any day for the response I get here. Because everyone intimately knows what I do, they’ve interacted with structural engineers personally, some in good ways, some in bad. They have opinions about what my role is in preserving public safety, and how I may have, or may not have contributed to their hardships.

So you add all this up, and you start to assess your life, and suddenly Aaron and I found ourselves, only 6 months later asking ourselves the same question “should we stay or should we go?”

I love New Zealand….. but it isn’t “home”.  I don’t know where home is now… Is it Seattle? Is it “the states”? Is it somewhere else?

The decision to go was an incredibly hard decision for Aaron and I. And honestly, my mind fought hard to stay in new zealand.  We explored other cities, commuting options. I wasn’t ready for my “adventure” to be over.

But then I took a step back, and I realised that maybe I was just looking for something I’d already found?

Right now, where I am at, I hate christchurch, I hate my work, and I can’t wait to leave.  And then I leave town and I love New Zealand, I love it’s simplicity, it’s scenery, and it’s honesty… It’s the best vacation I’ve ever been on…  and I want to stay.  But there is no “real life” here.

It’s not Christchurch or New Zealand, but I know I need to go back.  It is an odd feeling to have such a strong love/hate relationship with where you live.

No Vacancy

Some of the weird (and depressing) things about living in a post disaster zone city….

1.  Hotel rates are nearly double during the week as on the weekend, because everyone commutes here for work, and no one wants to stay for the weekend.

2.  Driving the same route you drove yesterday, and suddenly having to take a nearly 3 kilometre detour because sewer repairs have suddenly started. (this happens nearly every week and never in the same place).

3. The changing rush hour traffic patterns associated with said detours (and of course, the fact that the actual work places of all those rush hour drivers are constantly changing as well).

4.  Knowing how to find your way home by a building next to your turn and then suddenly, the building is demolished, so you miss your turn.

5.  Never being able to go out to eat at a restaurant other than McDonalds on a Friday night without a booking.

6. Seeing the building the restaurant you used to go to closed because the buidling is not up to a code that suddenly changed a year ago.  It’s still not an easy path for business owners here.

7. Listening to your coworker, saddened by the fact that his kids elementary school is suddenly closing because it is unsafe, and he now has to change schools (it was just announced that 13 Christchurch schools will close next year and 18 will merge).

8. Seeing adds for the engineering school advertising to be part of the “revival” and they don’t mean in a christian way.

9.  Driving through the red zone for the 10th time, with your partner, who has never seen it before because he doesn’t have your engineering pass and so he’s lived here a year and has never been inside the downtown core before.

(ariel photo of the christchurch CBD taken last week)

10.  The realization that all of this was caused in less than a minute of shaking.


There are a couple of notable anniversaries this week to mention. Last Saturday marked one year that Aaron and I have lived in Christchurch.  We’ve made it full cycle in the land down under and are pretty happy that that means spring will be around the corner.  We went across the port hills to the town of Govenor’s Bay for a Brunch to Celebrate.

Tomorrow will be one year that I have been working at the Arts Centre.  It’s been an incredibly intense year, and I don’t think I will be able to fully process all the lessons learned– both Professionally and Personally– for quite some time.  At this point, what is apparent is that a year is not that long, and yet it can feel like an eternity.

Finally, and most importantly TODAY is the 2 year anniversary of the September 4th Earthquake.  The 7.1 Darfield Quake shook the Canterbury plains awake and changed the course of Christchurch forever.  The Press has an interesting two year retrospective article here.  Most weird for me is seeing all the buildings that were damaged in September that were empty lots by the time I arrived 1 year later.  I now understand why all the young people likely flocked to the Sydenham neighborhood, with its historic quarter it was probably a mecca of cool restaurants, cafes and shops.  I’ve often found it strange seeing as now it is just a series of empty lots.

I wondered, if the general populous of Christchurch would reshift with the shifting city but what I’ve noticed one year on is that people have stayed where they were.  Sydenham is still “Cool”  My neighborhood is still a “nana neighborhood” and Brighton is still the ghetto (if such a thing exists in new zealand).  It’s like if Capitol Hill were levelled in a quake and Queen Anne was left untouched but no hipsters would move there. 

But I digress, here’s hoping this 2 year anniversary marks the beginning of an upswing in restoring a thriving Christchurch.


“Victims”  What does that word mean to you?  To most, it means someone who has been wronged.  Who, through no fault of their own, had something done to them.  That definition alone, does not concern me. My problem with the word is not in its definition but in the emotion that follows.  Generally, the term incites a bit of vigilantism.  Who did this? We must find them.  Someone must pay for this act.

And so it has come, during my time here, especially disturbing to hear this term applied to the people who died in the earthquake.  185 “Victims”.  As if someone, besides Mother Nature, were to blame for their deaths.

Indeed, people are trying to find blame.  Families want someone to pay.  If it were my sister, daughter, mother, would I feel any differently?  It’s hard to say.

Since December there has been a Royal Commission hearing evidence about the earthquakes, the buildings that failed, and the deaths of those 185 people.  For the families it is an important step of closure.  But that was not the original intent.  The intent was to learn more about what happened in Christchurch.  Is the current standard for building design appropriate?  How might our processes be amended to improve a situation like this in the future?

Unfortunately, at times, this intent got lost… terribly lost.  Instead of looking forward to the future, of things we may change, ways in which design and human understanding may improve, it became a witch hunt.  And guess what?  I’m a witch.

You see, to many people they feel it is me, as a structural engineer, that failed in this whole process.  I didn’t do ENOUGH to protect these people.  I’m the expert.  Everyone else was relying on my professional option and I let them down.

Now, before you go starting a fire to burn me at the stake, let me make this clear.  I wasn’t even in New Zealand at the time of the February Earthquake.  I had no part in the September, February, or June Building Assessments.  But I do have colleages…no, friends…that were.

Every single person I knew, acted exactly as they should have.  If February had happened in September, many many more lives than 185 would have been lost. And instead of focusing on the rights, we are focusing on the wrongs.

But what bothers me most isn’t the rights or wrongs, if there even are any clear rights and wrongs.  What bothers me most is that every engineer I know here cares.  They care deeply about safety, care deeply about preservation, care deeply about the built environment.  And for some reason,  the public opinion seems to be shifting towards mistrust of those same people that are working long hours towards the goal of a safer built environment for Christchurch.

The accusations come in many forms.  When conducting building assessments I was told more than once that I had ignored a major crack in the building that likely would have lead to the tenant’s death.  Eye rolls and accusations about how I could miss such a critical flaw were flown about.  In one case, this “major crack” turned out to be the gap between the elevator and the elevator shaft.

Just last night, I was out to dinner with some women and when they found out the heritage project I was working on they said, “Well, I hope you’re saving it”.  The tone was an accusation.  Like we structural engineers had some sort of secret society that had conspired to have four massive earthquakes in just over a year just so that we could demolish all of Christchurch’s heritage identity.

And now all around town there are the secondary closures, including the beloved Merivale Mall.  Structural engineers are being forced tell business owners news they don’t want to hear.  “Although your building has no damage, it is less than code standard and needs to be closed until repairs can be made.”  We’re being asked to take away people’s livelihoods, for the sake of their “safety”.  And they don’t take kindly to that, and neither do their customers.

When I first got here I felt a bit like a super hero.  Whenever I told people I lived in Christchurch I immediately followed it up with “I’m a structural engineer.”  And I usually got a warm response “Thank God, we need you here.”  Now, I find myself holding back, not wanting to reveal my profession for fear of the questions, or worse… accusations, that will follow.

It’s an interesting dilemma. I still feel my work here is meaningful. I am doing the people of Christchurch an amazing service, whether they realize it or not.  I don’t view myself as a super hero, if I were, I definitely would have saved those 185 lives.  I won’t let a few rotten apples spoil the bunch.   I do know many people here appreciate the work we are doing.  For those that don’t now, they will …well into the future.

Orange Cones

Last Wednesday, February 22, marked the 1 year anniversary of the 2nd Christchurch Earthquake.  At 12:51pm on a sunny summer day a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, less than 5 kms deep shook the city for approximately 40 seconds.  I don’t think there was a person in Christchurch, or even New Zealand whose lives were not affected.

185 people were killed.  Countless more were injured.  People were trapped in buildings for hours, sometimes days.  And a City lost it’s core….

In the US, I imagine, if a disaster like this would have occurred, there would have been days of media attention devoted to the remembrance of the event.  Personal story after personal story would have played out on shows like 60 minutes or Dateline.  Instead, I was surprised to find that the memorial passed pretty quietly here in Christchurch.  I was almost unaware of the anniversary until a few days prior.

On February 22, Flags flew at half mast. There was a memorial in Hagley park, where the names of the victims were read followed by 2 minutes of silence and the release of 185 monarch butterflies. Prayers were lead by leaders of the religious community– many of them still left without a church to worship in. And in the evening, TVOne played the documentary “When a City Falls” which provides a touching and humanistic portrayal of the aftermath of the quakes.

But the most profound memorial for me was a more passive one.  All around town, flowers were placed in the tops of orange cones.

There are a lot of orange cones in Christchurch right now. I pass by dozens, if not hundreds, of orange cones in my 10 minute drive to work.  Having spent many years around construction sites I have gotten used to seeing orange cones, in fact, i hardly even notice them.  However, I, upon seeing the flowers in the cones, started to think… where else in New Zealand had I seen orange cones?

I can’t remember seeing any.  I would imagine that prior to February of last year orange cones were a relatively unusual site in Christchurch.   The road system on the south island is fairly stationary and well maintained.  And Christchurch, for what it was, was not a city of change.  The economic downturn had likely stopped most new construction and undoubtedly left things pretty quiet around town.

I can imagine for the people of Christchurch the sight of these orange cones is a bit alien.  For them, they are likely Neon Orange Highly Visible reminders of the event that changed their lives, took their homes, their jobs, and their friends.

Given all that, the presence of a solitary rose, or a bouquet of daisies peering out the top of one of these is simply profound.  And the impact when faced with tens, dozens, indeed hundreds of these cones block after block all around town is extreme.

When I questioned several of the kiwi’s I know about what they were doing for the quake, almost all of them said they weren’t doing anything.  They were “over it”, and they just “wanted to get on with it”, no need to “dwell in the past”.  Still, it’s nice to see there are a few people out there pausing to remember, and to put some beauty back into a glaringly orange existence.