CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – First the houses and cars disappeared. They followed fences, driveways, and other remaining markers of suburban life. Now only stretches of green remain, a haunting memorial to two earthquakes that swept through Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city, 10 years ago.
The undulating expanse, which begins two miles from downtown Christchurch, was deemed uninhabitable after earthquakes, the second of which killed 185 people on February 22, 2011. The 8,000 properties it encompassed were purchased by the government and razed to the ground. , and the remains were carried away.
The land is now in limbo, a reflection of the difficult decisions Christchurch has faced about how, what and where to rebuild on disaster-prone terrain. In the central business district, cranes, bulldozers, and drills remain a feature of almost every street. But in the eastern suburbs, a swath almost twice the size of Central Park in New York is constantly being reclaimed by nature.
Dead ends turn to swamps and mud, evidence of why residents left, not all by choice. The lawns look like scruffy golf courses; The grass is cut and sprayed for weeds, but nothing new is planted. Beyond hunched lamp posts and stenciled with faded roads, there is little sign of a human past.
Some parts of the area, which the government called the red zone, turned wild and now attract foragers. On a recent late-summer Sunday afternoon, a group of families traversed a field of wildflowers that was once a backyard, stopping to pick yarrow and chamomile for tea.
A carpet of fruit on the ground under a towering pear tree was much more than they could carry in their bags and baskets. The children put pears in their mouths, the next one already in hand.
“They’re sweet but quite crunchy,” said 10-year-old Baxter MacArthur from his position in the middle of the tree.
The red zone is a sobering reminder that New Zealanders live in one of the most geologically active places in the world. The capital, Wellington, sits on seismic faults, and the largest city, Auckland, is built on a ring of some 50 dormant volcanoes.
The first of two earthquakes a decade ago, a 7.1 magnitude seizure on September 4, 2010, caused severe structural damage in Christchurch, a city of 380,000 that is the largest on New Zealand’s South Island. No one died as a direct result, although one person suffered a fatal heart attack.
That was followed five months later by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that killed 173 people in the center of the city and 12 elsewhere, while facades and high-rise buildings collapsed. The city’s infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems) was devastated and the central business district would remain closed for two years.
The gigantic task of reinventing itself has been difficult for Christchurch, which before the earthquakes was a fairly conservative city with traditional English architecture. Efforts have been slow, but a renewed, greener and more compact center is emerging.
Deciding what to do with the red zone has been no less irritating. Open space, although born out of tragedy, is a rare treasure among major cities. And if the outdoors is vital to mental health, Christchurch may need it more than most places. The city’s treatment services are still strained a decade after the earthquakes, as pressure was compounded by the terrorist attack on two mosques in 2019 that killed 51 people.
But planning for the area has taken years and remains unsolved. The Christchurch City Council and the central government have focused on the central city at the expense of abandoned suburbs, said Yani Johanson, a councilor for an area that straddles the red light district.
Advocates for conservation projects on the land have urged the council to commit to ecological restoration.
“It should be a place where people can come and be where their property was, but not ruin it through large buildings,” said Celia Hogan, co-chair of the community group Greening the Red Zone, as her children ate freshly cut apples and tasted for Climb an abandoned tree house.
It has taken years of local consultation to determine what should happen to the land, but the planting of native trees should begin soon, he said. A native forest would be “a respectful way of recognizing people who have sometimes given up their home for a lifetime,” he added.
A plan for the area created by a central government agency in 2019 tried to balance what everyone wanted: ecology and environment, recreation, memorial space and commercial endeavor.
There is also another consideration. New Zealand is going through a housing crisis. Johanson said pressure will likely increase on the council to consider whether parts of the area are truly uninhabitable, as was deemed a decade ago.
For now, anyone who wants to walk in the red zone can park at the end of the blocked roads and, as the sounds of the city disappear, feel like the only person on earth.
Other sections are more animated. A patch along the Avon River on recent Sunday looked like a bustling and cluttered park, noisy with cyclists, joggers, dogs and children. On another empty street, custom drones buzzed around a runway; Nearby, parents used a street dotted with miniature traffic signs to give their children road safety lessons.
“The idea that they were once homes is becoming less and less,” said Joanna Payne, a founding member of the Otautahi Urban Foraging group, which uses the Maori name for Christchurch. She and her friends said that when they pick fruit, they always wonder who planted the tree.
When the government tried to buy out thousands of homeowners after the 2011 earthquake, it intended to give them certainty about its future. Many were angered by the offer, which was based on property valuations from four years ago.
Some were forced to agree to pay off their mortgages, others when officials warned that red zone areas would no longer have public services, infrastructure or insurance.
A handful of residents denounced the government’s deception and stayed.
Brooklands, a semi-rural area, is home to the red-light district’s most tight-knit show of defiance. When the land was deemed uninhabitable, most of the residents sold and left, but just over a dozen homes remain.
“It’s beautiful,” said one of the owners, Stephen Bourke. “There is no one here. It is paradise.”
Project manager in the civil construction industry, Mr. Bourke repaired his 80 year old wooden villa himself. “It is not leaking,” he said. “It’s all at an angle, but we’ve sealed it with water.”
Ramshackle bus stops remain on the streets of single-family homes in Brooklands, though no buses arrive. The surviving houses are flanked by overgrown lots.
Local authorities are still picking up trash and cutting curbs, contrary to warnings in 2011 that they would stop, but the roads are full of potholes and unevenness.
Bourke said he saw little point in moving elsewhere, given that much of New Zealand is prone to earthquakes and floods.
“It’s great that these politicians show up and tell people where they can go,” he said. “But where are you going to tell me to go in New Zealand that is safe to live in?