Sally Blundell is a journalist and writer based in Christchurch. In this interview she discusses the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake – the 'environmental amnesia' that historically afflicted the city, the post-disaster renewal project, and the importance of the Ngāi Tahu culture and history in the rebuilding project.
I know you've worked as a journalist for many years, and that you write often for the New Zealand Listener, which also has a big online presence. Do you think that the increasingly global nature of the English-speaking world –particularly through the growth of online media –has made it easier for New Zealand to develop a more profound presence on the international stage?
New Zealand has a strong reputation for sports and spectacular scenery. And justifiably so. But its increasing online presence through magazines such as The Listener has helped showcase a more diverse cultural profile. In recent months New Zealand has celebrated Eleanor Catton's success at the Man Booker awards, Lorde's double Grammy win, New Zealand's presence as country of honour at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, and artist Bill Culbert's attendance at last year's Venice Biennale. These gains, widely reported and discussed online, give evidence of a rich, more broad-based cultural climate.
I know that you're a resident of Christchurch, so I'm wondering how you approached writing about the earthquake and its aftermath. Just what kind of effect has the earthquake had on the people who live there?
After the first earthquake of September 2010 a lot of reportage focused on the geology and seismic history of the Canterbury Plains. While Christchurch has experienced earthquakes before, the much discussed 'big one' – when the Alpine Fault ruptures – was always expected to hit Wellington the hardest. After this first earthquake, discussions were relatively buoyant – despite the severity of the earthquake and the loss of some buildings, no one was killed (the earthquake struck at 4.35 on a Saturday morning – twelve hours earlier this may not have been the case). The earthquake of February 2011 instilled a sense of shock and, as large aftershocks continued, fear. In the days, weeks, months afterwards Cantabrians grieved for lost friends and family (the earthquake claimed 185 lives) and dealt with the daily need for fresh water, sanitation, emergency repairs, temporary housing and trying to keep children calm. These immediate challenges probably delayed the shock. Certainly there was tremendous community spirit, epitomised by the clean-up efforts of the Student Volunteer Army, but the scale of devastation, the bizarre sight of sunken houses, façade-less buildings and army patrols in the inner city inspired a strange, almost numb sense of disbelief. Since then Christchurch has become a city of two halves – part of the city appears to have had little damage or what damage there has been is largely repaired. Further east, and in the shattered red zone, there is still despair and outrage against the fact that, after all the fear and uncertainty of the earthquakes, residents still have to fight for fair compensation for their losses. This dichotomy has typified my writing over the last two years – swinging between stories of personal hardship and the loss of heritage and familiar landmarks that constitute a personal and collective notion of home and the extraordinary possibilities inherent in a twenty-first century city being forced to re-invent itself.
When I began reading your piece and realised that it was about the Christchurch earthquake, what I was expecting was a piece about mourning, about the trauma of place. But instead you've written a piece that focuses on renewal. I'm wondering how the piece developed, and whether that was the story you knew you were telling when you began writing.
I began writing this story about the role of Ngāi Tahu in the redevelopment of the city, so there was always that focus on renewal, but that focus is not completely divorced from the experience of trauma. I don't agree with the view that the rebuild of the city should take second place after all personal homes have been repaired – the small celebrations that accompany each new re-opening and the sense of excitement inherent in the discussions on the rebuild are vital, I think, for community resilience and commitment to place. The devastation wrought by the earthquakes has been documented exhaustively: local, national and international media have focused, understandably, on collapsed buildings, buckled streets, devastated homes and the bizarre sight of liquefaction gushing over paved streets. Less graphic but far more inspiring are the discussions and plans around the rebuild. In researching this story the sheer scale of the opportunities inherent in this project, from a physical, community and social perspective, became clear.
Cities are incredibly emotional places. In some senses, the destruction of bricks and mortar buildings is distressing because it feels like when the building is gone, so the memory will go too. But your piece tells a compelling story about different sorts of memory, environmental memory which was lost in what you call the 'environmental amnesia' of Christchurch. How do you see those different sorts of memory interacting in the redevelopment of the city?
Christchurch has long been known for its heritage buildings, in particular the educational and ecclesiastical buildings that relate to the earliest aspirations for this planned Church of England settlement. The loss of so many of these structures has been accompanied by a sense of mourning and in many cases protests. Then there are the personal losses, the buildings and landmarks to which we anchor our memories: our family home, our first flat, our old workplace, the bar where we met our first girlfriend or boyfriend – many of those personal maps have been wiped clean. But the suggestion that a new, forward-looking twenty-first century city will take shape on an otherwise blank canvas is wrong. Architects, landscape designers and urban planners, in consultation with local government and iwi (tribes), are insisting that the city plan acknowledges the unique history of the city, including what has previously been ignored in the standard Church of England narrative. One of the most important elements of the new city plan, for example, is the Avon River/Otakaro. Early European settlers tended to turn their back on waterways which were often used as transport routes or, worse, waste disposal systems. In turning to the river and using it as a core aspect of the rebuild, Christchurch can now embrace the real nature of the city, not as a city in a garden park (the cost of ignoring the network of underground streams was made all too apparent in the earthquake) but as a swampy estuarine landscape that attracted and was settled by Māori and early Europeans.
You mention in the piece the Share an Idea expo, which asked the people of Christchurch to put forward their ideas about how they wanted their city to be. That planning process was featured in the documentary The Human Scale, about the influence of Jan Gehl on international architecture and urban planning. I thought it was interesting that one of the ideas that came across in your piece is the importance urban planning and architecture might have on the reconciliation of cultures and histories.
There was always the risk that the future of Christchurch could be left in the hands of bureaucrats and big business. The Council-run Share-an-Idea was a hugely successful project that opened the city's future to all people, attracting about a hundred thousand suggestions. Since then, and despite the heavy hand of the new Government blueprint, the conversation surrounding the central city rebuild has been framed in such a way to correct a previous imbalance in how the city was seen and promoted. The first 'plan' for Christchurch, drawn up by assistant surveyor Edward Jollie in 1850, gave form to English goals and ideals. That focus on church, education, public parks and wide streets was clearly visible in Christchurch's historic buildings and central cathedral. The loss of some many of these buildings, the ongoing debate over the future of the Christ Church Cathedral and the need for new public and commercial buildings is an opportunity to devise a cityscape that is not dominated by this single story. Through the discussions, the processes of consultation and the actual design a more inclusive story of early and European interaction and dependence can be told.
One of the most compelling themes in your essay is the way that the conversation happening around the re-development of Christchurch is 'veering towards a shared story of encounter, historic factuality and social values.' How did that develop?
New Zealand's main historical narrative often begins with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and various chiefs throughout New Zealand. This is now considered the founding document of New Zealand, a lightning rod for debate, discussion, protest and ratification. But the history of encounter is much broader than this – outside the planned settlements organised through the London-based New Zealand Company, Aotearoa/New Zealand has a rich history of interaction often ignored in our collective story-telling. Acknowledging Ngāi Tahu as a statutory partner in the city rebuild is a local reflection of the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi and an opportunity to tell the unique history of Christchurch built as it was on early trade and interaction between the two cultures. This is particularly important for Christchurch, long-regarded as the most European of New Zealand cities. Clearly there is never any one story, and selected elements come to the fore in the retelling, but just as we have to confront a more accurate character of the landscape – not as a stately English park on the edge of the Canterbury Plains but as wetlands rich in native flora and fauna – we can now give more than lip service to the many stories of exploration and encounter that shaped this city's development.