Resilient futures: supporting recovery in greater Christchurch

The resilient futures event happened on Monday 18 April 2011.

The conference on Monday was well-attended by a diverse crowd of elected, non-elected, community and institutional representatives. Christchurch City Council Deputy Mayor Ngaire Button opened the conference with an inspiring address where she touched on the need to maintain a fair ratings policy that focuses on restoring affected areas without neglecting those areas with less damage.  She concluded with a number of personal ambitions for the future of Christchurch which included making the city more cycle-friendly and putting aside space for a School of Performing Arts.  

Speaker summary

Gavin Smith is Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters (UNC Hazards Centre) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Centre of Excellence - Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure and Emergency Management (DIEM).
Gavin talked about housing relocation and the opportunity both to mitigate the risk of future hazards and act upon pre-existing aspirations around, for example, housing affordability, neighbourhood revitalisation or upgrading dilapidated housing stock. Stratgies for expediting this process include a ‘buyout hotline’, public meetings and regular site visits. ‘Suburban retreat’ (as some are calling it here) works best when combined with other community objectives, through effective coordination of multiple funding sources, combined with risk mitigation plan development under good technical and collaborative leadership.
 Dr Smith also outlined qualities of a good leader as being one who is visionary but who enables rather than dominates, and who is able to build coalitions around diverse and sometimes conflicting interests. This collaborative approach helps identify opportunities and mechanisms for economic development, recreational opportunities and risk reduction.

Gavin Smith presentation (PDF) | Video of presentation

Laurie Johnson is a consultant with over 20 years of experience in urban planning and disaster-related management and research following earthquakes in Chile, China, Northridge and Kobe.  She has a focus on mitigating hazards and regulating land use in geologically hazardous areas, including earthquake fault zones, and liquefaction and flood-prone areas. Dr Johnson talked about planning under conditions of geological uncertainty which makes the recovery process both lengthy and controversial. She presented a schema of where investment in rebuilding should (moderate loss + medium damage) and should not go (e.g. areas of high hazard likelihood + high levels of damage). Her presentation included some insights for national, regional and local government leaders which may help Canterbury develop a successful approach for managing these uncertainties. These included taking a multi-risk perspective over a realistic timeframe; using iterative approaches to planning for and funding recovery; refining policies and programs as more information is available; developing recovery policies and programs that are sustainable over time using incentives to promote desired outcomes.

Lauri Johnson presentation (PDF) | Video of presentation

Charles Kelly has over 30 years experience in humanitarian assistance for earthquakes, drought, floods, epidemics, conflict and other emergencies. He has undertaken post-disaster rapid environmental assessments and has helped develop the Green Recovery and Reconstruction Toolkit in conjunction with the WWF and American Red Cross.
He talked about the dangers of ‘the temporary’ becoming permanent, the way the recovery process often leads to sprawl, the need for conflict management strategies, and the importance of good environmental impact assessments as a basis for recovery planning. Mr Kelly expressed concern that the MCDEM recovery model (which contains an environmental component) has been replaced with CERA (which does not).

Charles Kelly presentation (PDF) | Video of presentation

Associate Professor Bruce Glavovic Earthquake Commission Fellow in Natural Hazards Planning focuses on the role of planning in building sustainable, hazard-resilient communities. He gave an overview of some insights from the international literature with one of his opening slides presenting a quotation from the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, who said ‘The challenge is to keep and secure those things that are good: our food, our music, our architecture, our people, our faith and our families, our love of life and our love of country. And at the same time, discard that part of our culture that strangles us: crime, bad schools and the inability to move beyond race’. However, Dr Glavovic also noted that the imperative to ‘return to normal’ tends to override opportunities both for risk reduction and community betterment. Empowering local people to make and implement good recovery decisions is essential.

Bruce Glavovic presentation (PDF) | Video of presentation

Ljubica Mamula-Seadon , from the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, pointed out that New Zealand already has a very good example of earthquake recovery in Napier. She also maintained that both the CERA and MCDEM recovery frameworks were likely to work well given New Zealand is a healthy democracy.

Video of presentation

Sandra James was a Community Development Officer with Waimakariri District Council and is now manager of their earthquake Recovery Assistance Centre. She  gave an overview of the Waimakariri District Council’s approach to recovery and some of the lessons learned there. She began with a quotation from Jim Palmer (WDC’s CEO) who said ‘Our success will not be measured by the kilometers of pipe and road that we replace, but by how the people come through this’. Community input and recovery have been at the center of their recovery strategy.

Ms James frankly admited not knowing all the answers but maintained their strongly collaborative, multiple-focus on infrastructure, business and social recovery has had some success and that although people were not always happy with the outcomes, they understood the process and appreciated being kept informed (even of bad news). Their on-site, one-stop recovery hub faciliatated a holistic approach. When asked whether this could be up-scaled to fit Christchurch, Ms James indicated a limit of about 3000 houses is big enough to inform a ‘helicopter overview’ or village-size bite that both decision-makers and communities can make sense of.

Sandra James presentation PDF | Video of presentation 


The discussion that followed highlighted some important points. People are very concerned about connecting the recovery with reduction of future risks and see many opportunities out there to do so. This optimistic or ‘visionary’ ambition was tempered with some serious concerns about the ways in which the opportunities to contribute to the recovery process have been limited (even non-existent) for citizens, community groups and even very large and influential local organisations.


The contributions from the various speakers and the audience highlighted a number of key recovery themes. These included the value of an overarching regional vision that is clearly informed by future risk reduction (not only from earthquakes, but from virulent disease, terrorism, food insecurity, aging populations, peak oil and other hazards) that is perhaps best implemented at a village scale using a holistic ‘helicopter view’. This enables communities and local leaders to make best use of the opportunities the event has created.

Though public engagement may appear to cause delays and generate high costs, international lessons suggest a number of benefits including political stability, community buy-in and support for new initiatives, the identification of workable solutions, and a generally positive recovery that promotes confidence in both the process and the likely end result. Such confidence is essential in terms of social and financial investement in the city and surrounds. Successful recovery therefore requires greater clarity around the development and implementation of a vision which, in turn, depends on good information flows (both up, down and across the system) and the translation of generalised aspirations into acceptable choice sets synthesised through mutual deliberation and informed exchange.


For any enquiries please email Dr Suzanne Vallance at