River of healing

You can tell a lot about a city by the river that runs through it. You can tell even more about it by getting in a boat and floating down that river.

On a February afternoon, a small group of boaties gathered at the upper reaches of Christchurch’s Ōtākaro/Avon River to transit a small section. Organised by local sailor and dynamo, Viki Moore, it was a cheerful collection of dinghies, tenders, kayaks and SUPS. Anywhere else it would have been a simple trip down the river but here it was also a floating lesson on how a city recovers from destruction.

Christchurch is a city that has been through a bit over the last decade. On 22 February 2011 a shallow, 6.3-magnitude quake caused the greatest ground acceleration ever recorded in New Zealand.

The earthquake claimed the lives of 185 people and injured many more. The aftershocks ran at over 11,000, damaging homes and disrupting communities. About 25,000 houses suffered serious damage and more than two thirds of all buildings in the central city had to be demolished.

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Only minutes after the earthquake the river turned brown with bubbling liquefaction and the contents of ruptured sewage and stormwater pipes. It became like a large, bleeding artery of a city in its death throes.

In the lower reaches its banks sagged into the middle, splitting foundations and walls of houses and taking the suburban lives of people with it. Now, these reaches are deserted with only the odd pittosporum hedge and overgrown veggie garden to tell you that families once lived there.

Like water, all things that happen lead down to the river. Hope is one of those things and hope is what is now emerging on the banks of this small river near its central business district (CBD). Seen from the vantage point of a small boat the change in the river is heartening.

Historically, like most colonial cities, Christchurch treated its waterfront about as well as a communal sewer. It is a common history for many New Zealand towns, yet the earthquakes seemed to have awoken this city to the value of their river.

There are still ecological issues with the river. Stormwater, full of heavy metals and petrochemicals still drain into it, hard edges have removed fish habitat and the destruction of wetlands that feed it has not helped the water quality of the river.

But a partnership of the Matapopore Charitable Trust, the Crown and the Christchurch City Council in the $116 million Ōtākaro/Avon River precinct anchor project is beginning to make a difference.

Perhaps one of the most telling examples of this difference – viewed on the voyage downriver – is the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial designed by Slovenian architect Grega Vezjak.

It is named Oi Manawa, which translates as ‘tremor or quivering of the heart.’ The design is dominated by a wall that stretches a long way around the bend in the south bank, just downstream the Montreal St Bridge, and on it are the names of all 185 victims. It’s sobering to drift past and it’s one of few memorials that work best when seen from a boat.

A short paddle downstream under the impressively restored Bridge of Remembrance and the Oxford Terrace development has finally addressed the river with a series of terraced steps.

The Avon Flotilla used this as a convenient place to have lunch and from the steps, it felt like a real city with bars and restaurants and a busy-ness that has not been there in years. Not far behind this facade, the CBD is still a series of gravelled vacant lots covered in graffiti and dust, but here on the banks of the Ōtākaro/Avon River, it seemed a long way from that.

It seemed like a city that was being brought to life by its favourite river.