National Times

By Ed Blakely

Rebuilding after a disaster, as soon as possible, in the same place and in the same way is the usual and expected community response.

After the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, the then Labor government defiantly announced that ''we will rebuild''. After hurricane Katrina, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was forced to say that all parts of the city would be totally rebuilt.

These emotional responses are intended to reduce community fears that homes will not arise again and property values will sink, destroying many people's savings. While these statements are well intended, they need to be tempered with some reality.

The question for Christchurch, after the recent devastating earthquake, should not be whether the city will be rebuilt but how it will be rebuilt safely. This means patience and courage will be needed so a better city emerges.

It is the time to begin thinking about how Christchurch should be rebuilt. Assurances have to be given soon that the city can emerge from this trauma stronger that it was before the deadly earthquake.

The best way to do this is to assure everyone that they will have a place to live of equal value in the new Christchurch, but maybe not the same place or built in the same way.

The Japanese port city of Kobe faced this problem after its 1995 earthquake. In typical Japanese fashion, its authorities determined to build a better city by re-designing the spatial pattern, altering building codes and transforming the notion of property rights from absolute location to a place in the community that best fit the person's needs.

In this instance, Kobe citizens worked with planners in every district of the city to rebuild their neighbourhoods in a new, modern way that, in many cases, moved away from single-family detached structures to higher density, more strongly constructed, multifamily living units.

Everyone moved back into or near a neighbourhood of choice — not necessarily to the same one as before the earthquake, but to an equivalent-value space in the city. Some families moved into stronger single-family dwellings, but in most cases, higher-rise or attached dwellings were safer and better alternatives. In Kobe, every family exercised the choice that met their needs based on age and income.

New Zealanders — and Australians — will want to continue the familiar form of single-family housing on their own block of land. But this may have to be done more along the model of New Orleans. There, more tightly built, safer homes are being constructed in clusters, with better building materials and safety systems, along with community services, shops and other activities located centrally.

Soon it will be time for residents of the beautiful city of Christchurch to rebuild by putting the safety of the total community at the core of the project, and not just to consider building better individual dwellings. Christchurch can view this as the opportunity to create sustainable and survivable neighbourhoods that can stand on their own, with local supplies, water and power, as well as community shelters. These communities should have a variety of housing forms that can withstand severe shocks.

To get to this point, Christchurch has to engage its citizens in looking at the best international alternatives in earthquake safety in California and Japan. Community members should share with everyone the best information about the kind of city they want to live in, while retaining its distinctive charm, given the dangers they will continue to face.

Christchurch can, and must, be a model for the world as we face a perilous future.

Edward J. Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.