TEDCity2.0 TED Prize

My City: Life in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city experiencing earthquake-induced PTSD

Posted by: Alison Prato
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A view of the eastern suburbs of Christchurch, badly affected by the 2011 earthquake that rocked the city. Photo: Clayton Prest. See Clayton’s other photographs of Christchurch.

New Zealand is located on a continental plate boundary, so earthquakes aren’t unexpected. But no one was ready for the quake that hit at 12.51 pm on February 22, 2011. “Everyone in Christchurch will never forget that moment,” says Danny Squires, who lives in the city with his wife and four children. Even though they’d all experienced multiple quakes before, this was different. “It was this unimaginable violence that you could do nothing about. It just obliterated the city.”

It was a 6.3 quake, not by any means the highest magnitude possible. But it was close to the surface, with one of the highest ground accelerations ever recorded in any earthquake. The earth was thrown up at about 20 meters per second, and slammed back down. And it was close, hitting about five kilometers from the center of the city. “When they’re close is when they kill people,” says Squires.

Squires, director of Christchurch-based urban design firm, Space Craft Systems, had been at work that afternoon, on the mezzanine level of an office building, when there was a massive “whack!” and everything started violently shaking. He walked three steps and tried to keep his balance by “surfing” with his arms out. He was worried he would have to “ride the building down.”

See what Christchurch looks like now »

Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island and the country’s second-most populous urban area, quickly fell into chaos: The power was out, the phones were down, and everyone was out on the streets, where alarms from cars and buildings were wailing. Squires’ first thought was for his family. He grabbed the keys to a truck from work, gave a guy a lift along the way, and arrived home to find his wife and three of his kids, whom she’d retrieved from school across the road from their house, safe and sound. He rushed off to find his youngest, who was attending kindergarten over the hill near their home. She, too, was safe.

Not everyone in Christchurch was so fortunate. That day, 185 people died.

In the aftermath of the quake, the people of Christchurch went two different ways. Some came together, while others fell apart. For his part, Squires was encouraged by the groundswell of community that rose up, post-disaster, to help one another. “I was inspired to become more involved in my local community by helping people out and connecting with people,” he told me. “That was why we stayed. You’ve gone through a life-changing experience together. It’s like being survivors of the Titanic or something.”

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Squires lived in New Zealand for a few years as a young boy. When his parents got divorced, he returned to Australia with his mother. In 1997, he graduated from the University of Melbourne with two degrees in design and architecture. In 2003, he and his wife, Eleanor, a Christchurch native, moved to the city to raise their family (their four kids are aged between six and eleven.).

“Melbourne was sort of becoming unaffordable for us. We just wanted a bit more relaxed pace of life. I guess we saw this as a better place to bring up kids and to get ahead,” he says.

They made their home in the suburb of Heathcote Valley, which is nestled in the valley of the Port Hills, about a 20 minute-drive southeast of the city center. Home to about 2,000 people, most of the houses there are single-story, with backyards. It’s remote, quiet. “You don’t come through here in your daily travels unless you’re a local,” he observes. “There are a couple of roads through, though they more skirt around the side of town. You have to go through a tunnel to get to Lyttelton, which is the port for Christchurch.” He lifts up his computer (we’ve been talking via Skype) and points the camera out the window: “The Port Hills are a spectacular backdrop,” he adds proudly. They are stunning.

Corsair Bay, a beautiful area to the south of Christchurch, near to the city's port of Lyttelton. Photograph by Clayton Prest.

Serenity in Corsair Bay, a beautiful area to the south of Christchurch, near to the city’s port of Lyttelton. Photo: Clayton Prest. See Clayton’s other photographs of Christchurch.

In the wake of the quakes, Squires wanted to help rebuild a city fit for the 21st century. “I’d been looking for architecture work since 2008, and there was none around, and suddenly here was a whole city that needed to be rebuilt. I saw it as a massive opportunity,” he says. “But there’s a lot of political stuff going on, which has made it a very frustrating experience.”

One major problem: although the government was warned by experts early on to repair, not demolish, the city’s damaged buildings, that advice was, he says, “politely ignored. Governments love to be seen to be doing something, even if it’s the wrong thing.” The result? A wasteland, or what Squires calls a “doughnut city” because it’s now empty in the center. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust estimates that about 40% of the city’s listed heritage places were demolished or severely damaged in the earthquake.

“We call it the ‘New Normal’ — but it’s anything but normal,” says Squires. “We’ve got a city now that’s 80% demolished in its center. The buildings are just… gone. There are vast stretches of rubble and demolition next to these pockets of activity. It’s like a scorched earth.”

See what Christchurch looks like now »

Some 7,000 residents moved out of Christchurch after the quakes, according to the 2013 census. Squires isn’t surprised. “Some people just had to get out — they couldn’t bear the aftershocks, which went on for a year and a half. We still get the odd one. A lot of homes and lives were destroyed. Others have stuck it out, but dealing with the insurance companies is providing an additional layer of stress,” he says. “People have committed suicide. A lot of people have turned to alcohol or self-medication to numb the pain. There are a lot of mental health issues, domestic violence, and stories of marriages crumbling apart. In a lot of ways, Christchurch is a city still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Armed with the knowledge that “earthquakes don’t kill people – buildings falling down in earthquakes kill people,” Squires and his business partner, Martin Luff, co-founded New Zealand’s WikiHouse Lab in late 2011 as an offshoot of the global WikiHouse project, launched in the UK by Alastair Parvin and Nick Ierodiaconou (the project was later given a grant by the TEDPrize; for more, see Parvin’s 2013 TED Talk, Architecture for the people by the people). WikiHouse is a construction system enabling anyone to design, download, adapt and “print” houses on a milling machine, then assemble them by hand.

The group’s thinking is that these customizable houses will be great in earthquake-prone places like Christchurch — where even now some people are still living in garages, cars, or broken homes — since they are made of sturdy components that slot together. “These buildings are designed to rock in an earthquake,” says Squires. “Any damage will be absorbed in replaceable components that you can swap in and out.”

See a photoessay of what Christchurch looks like now »

“We’re empowering ordinary people to build high-performance buildings with no formal skills or training,” he adds. “These houses can be assembled in hours and days, not weeks and months. The only tools you need are rubber mallets. It’s like a giant Lego kit.”

Plus, the houses are adaptable – you can build what you want when you need it. A young couple starting out, for example, could build something simple, pay for it quickly, and add to it over time. “It goes up with the speed of temporary buildings, but it’s designed to last five generations,” Squires says of a Wikihouse structure.

The project is still in development, and the team is seeking investment to try and make a go of it. “If we can get funding to do the prototypes, we can move quickly. Within six months, we can have a product on the market that would be like a backyard sleep-out, up to 30 square meters,” Squires says hopefully.

“This isn’t rocket science,” he adds. “It’s a sustainable way of inhabiting the planet. We all need to think differently. And so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

See a photoessay of Christchurch, including so-called “grey field” spaces in the city center as well as the stunning New Zealand scenery in this gallery shot for TED by Clayton Prest »

And, check out some of Danny’s favorite places in this annotated map. (Click the pins for more details):

This profile is part of a series of TED articles about interesting people and their life and work in a particular city. See also interviews with Juliana Machado Ferreira, a wildlife activist in São Paulo, Brazil, and Juliana Rotich, a tech entrepreneur in Nairobi, Kenya. For other city-related content, go to TED’s Cities topic page »