The Shaky City

Restrictions in Christchurch CBD Red Zone

“On February 22nd, I found myself hugging the carpet in the staff common room of the department” (Julie Cupples 2012, 337)

I can completely relate to this. A few weeks ago, I too experienced an earthquake from inside The University of Canterbury Geography Department. I was sitting in the seminar room on the fourth floor, preparing to present my PhD project in a seminar series, when – without warning – an earthquake rattled the building. I gripped the chair I was sitting in tightly, watching the building sway from side-to-side, and anxiously willing the shaking to stop. Honestly? I was scared. While Julie experienced an earthquake of much greater intensity, I can entirely relate to the sense of powerlessness she experienced in that moment. As her insightful paper suggests, disasters have the ability to alter one’s life in unimaginable ways: “The life that we have is gone, and is replaced by something quite different, and potentially quite disorientating” (Cupples 2012, 337). In one split second, the familiar becomes the unfamiliar.

My doctoral project is based on the 2011 Queensland floods and considers how emotion motivates post-disaster return decisions (more details can be read here). To offer a point of comparison, I recently completed a 16-day fieldwork trip to Christchurch to explore the aftermath of the 2010/2011 Canterbury earthquakes. I set off towards the Shaky City with a number of questions in mind: Does emotion differ in different disaster contexts? How does the ongoing nature of the earthquakes/aftershocks affect the decision to rebuild/relocate? As a researcher, I was also apprehensive about visiting a setting that I knew would be very emotionally raw, particularly after the emotional intensity of my research in Brisbane.

In Christchurch, I stayed at a hostel on Barbadoes street (with a group of British construction workers who, unsurprisingly, had all found work in the CBD). Although most of the CBD is still inaccessible to the general public, the morning after I arrived, I walked down recently re-opened Gloucester Street. As I navigated my way between  ‘No Access’ signs, shattered buildings and metal barriers, I was astounded at what I saw: a city so different to the place I visited four years ago. Christchurch has long been hailed the ‘most English’ of New Zealand’s cities. During my previous visit, I enjoyed the quaint streets, punting on the willow-lined River Avon, trams, and a farmers market in Cathedral Square. Post-quake Christchurch now appears horrifically broken; cracked and torn apart, absent of life, and the vibrancy I saw four years ago.

Destruction in Christchurch CBD

In the two weeks that followed, I spent my time observing the city. I visited Redcliffs, Sumner, Avonside and Lyttelton (towns notably affected by the February quake). Each town presented levels of devastation that I wasn’t expecting; shells of houses and abandoned businesses, empty plots, and broken communities. I also conducted four interviews with residents who were forcibly displaced from their homes after the February earthquake. Similarly to those I carried out in Brisbane, interviews were emotionally powerful and astute, illuminating the complexity of a post-disaster return decision.

Abandoned empty plot in Lyttelton

Since Christchurch is the third post-disaster location I have encountered, a number of points struck me about this setting in particular. Firstly, Fear. As I mentioned earlier, Cantarbrians have been subjected to thousand’s of aftershocks since 2010. The ongoingness of these quakes has left residents tired, drained and anxious. It seems the stress of living in fear is a heavy influence on decisions to move away from Christchurch. During my short time in the city, I felt four earthquakes – each with enough intensity to make my heart flutter uncomfortably. The Monday after I arrived, I visited the Christchurch museum on the day that it re-opened to the public. At the end of an excellent earthquake exhibition was a counter, tracking the number of aftershocks recorded since the 2010 September earthquake. The day I visited, this number stood at 11,489.

Furthermore, I was struck with the number of conversations I had with people who no longer feel safe in their homes. In this post-disaster context, the once familiar and comfortable setting of ‘home’ – the place one goes to feel grounded – no longer feels safe. This loss of security is, in fact, closely associated with the second point to strike me from my time in Christchurch: Helplessness.

Unlike in Brisbane, Christchurch homes are zoned according to earthquake damage levels. Red zones are areas where there is area-wide damage and an engineering solution to remediate the land damage would be uncertain, disruptive, not timely, nor cost effective. Those living in these areas are given an offer by the Crown to buy their property. While residents can legally choose not to accept this offer, services in the area will not be restored and insurers may also cancel insurance coverage. Perhaps most importantly, however, CERA also has powers (under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011) to require (essentially force) residents to sell their property for its market value at that time. For some, then, the decision of whether to return ‘home’, or relocate, is no longer their choice to make. This understanding has left me thinking about how access/denial to home is dictated by larger political realities. The loss of these intimate spaces has left people in Christchurch restricted of their freedom, hopelessly stumbling down a broken path, in search for a place to call ‘home’.

Stephanie Morrice (Ph.D. student at Royal Holloway)


Cupples, J. (2012) “Boundary crossings and new striations: when disaster hits a neoliberalising campus”. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 (3): 337–41.

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