The devastating 2011 earthquake in Christchurch took hundreds of lives, felled dozens of buildings and wrecked countless homes.
In the years since, the city has been slowly getting back on its feet—and coming out stronger for it. Mayor Lianne Dalziel is working on making sure that the city’s services are “resilient” enough to face whatever the future brings.
“I realised that I needed to know a lot more about the opportunities that would arise from the disaster, in order to help us recover and be better than we ever were,” Dalziel tells GovInsider. “The reason I use the word resilience is not just the bounce back, but it’s this capacity to adapt to and thrive in a new environment.”
“It’s this capacity to adapt to and thrive in a new environment.”
She shares how Christchurch is protecting against future earthquakes and issues like climate change, plans for future-proof services, and its vision to become a testbed for new tech.
A test bed
How can cities be resilient? It involves making the best of a difficult situation and turning it into “an opportunity to do things you didn’t think you could do”, according to Dalziel. The disaster “brought about an opportunity that didn’t exist before”.
For example, with the business district particularly hard-hit, there were small digital companies that had nowhere to base themselves in the aftermath of the disaster. The council set aside some land for a facility called the Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus, or EPIC.
This new hub has evolved from just a temporary base to an “incredibly successful” space for businesses and startups. “What they have managed to do is to build a co-working environment that has enabled all of their businesses to thrive,” Dalziel says. “It’s a collaborative approach towards business growth.”
The disaster drove ambitions to adapt quickly to future disruptions. “We’re sending a message to central government that as a city, we want to be a bit of a test bed for new technology,” says Dalziel. “Autonomous technology has some great potential opportunities, especially for our city,” the Mayor believes. The city has begun trials for autonomous electric shuttles at the airport.
A smart, resilient city would not be possible without citizen participation, Dalziel says. “All of these things are absolutely dependent on cooperation and working together,” she remarks. “Governments can’t do things for people. They can do things with people, but [if] the people aren’t there with you, making these things happen, they just simply won’t.”
Christchurch is now trialling tools around participatory budgeting so that citizens can “have a say directly in how the city’s budget is allocated”, Dalziel shares. “We want to trial that and get that to a stage where people could really have a good say in how this city is run.”
There is room for a little fun as well. The council is reaching out to the man on the street—literally—through SmartCross, an interactive touchscreen device that allows pedestrians to play pong with others across the street as they wait to cross. Since being installed in 2016, SmartCross has been played on average 2,500 times per month, or around 100 games per day. “The idea is to create a bit of activation and fun… but it has the ability to transmit community messages as well,” Dalziel says.
“We want to get that to a stage where people could really have a good say in how this city is run.”
The city is strengthening its old infrastructure and building stronger ones. “We also can get better value out of infrastructure. Because of the earthquake we’ve had the opportunity now to build much more resilient pipes for example,” she says.
The city is using a technique called building information management to monitor older buildings. This automatically provides information on the building’s strength, which means that engineers will not need to enter them after earthquakes to check if they are safe. “The system will know itself if there are any weak points or if there’s any damage,” she says. “We’re gonna see far less business interruption with these.”
Following the earthquake, the city has much better data on its underground infrastructure. “We know more about our underground infrastructure than any other city in the country,” the Mayor says. That really enables us to plan so much more sensibly for the future,” she adds.
And to protect against future uncertainties like earthquakes and climate change, the council is looking to what is called adaptive management. This method uses models to predict coastline changes and sea level rise at ten-year intervals. “At each ten-year level—that’s when you’re doing district plan again—you ask yourself how did the models predict? Did they do well or do we need to do some adjustments?” Dalziel explains. “You’re always modelling predictions based on the experience that you’ve had.”
Monitoring infrastructure and measuring change is crucial to setting realistic goals. Christchurch is “monitoring all the time”, Dalziel says. “If you monitor you can measure and you can set yourself targets and you can make real change,” she explains.
While the citizens of Christchurch may experience more calamities in the future, they know they need the tools and capability to face them head-on.
Image from the Christchurch City Council