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Christchurch's game of zones

The future of a 630ha corridor of land in Christchurch’s red zone hangs in the balance.

 Jan Burney and Gary Sharlick are part of a group of about 150 red-zone “stayers”. Photo/Louis Trerise
Jan Burney and Gary Sharlick are part of a group of about 150 red-zone “stayers”. Photo/Louis Trerise

Disaster hits – flood, tsunami, storm, earthquake. Best case scenario: your house is okay, contents undamaged, insurance policy in order. But then the land itself is seen to fail, incurring damage so severe it is too costly, difficult or time-consuming to remediate.

Do you leave? Sell? Wait to be evicted? The 5.7 aftershock that jolted Christchurch just before 1.15pm on Valentine’s Day this year is a stark reminder that though the tremor was an expected part of the reassuringly named “aftershock decay curve” after the 7.1 Darfield earthquake of 2010, the susceptibility of certain land to lique­faction, sinkholes and cliff collapse – parts of the cliff above Taylor’s Mistake retreated 5m – is persistent.

After the 2010 quake, the damage seemed fixable. As newly appointed Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said at the time, “Virtually all land in Canterbury can and will be fixed, so it is safe to rebuild on.”

But in the wake of the smaller but shallower and far more damaging earthquake on February 22 in 2011, “safe to rebuild” became a more speculative term.

Four months later, the newly formed Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) used its powers and recent geotechnical data to identify the red zone, a vast swathe of damaged or vulnerable land where remediation would be “prolonged and uneconomic”, requiring an area-wide solution that would be easier and cheaper with the houses gone.

It was a broad-brush approach, today encompassing some 8000 properties in a sinuous line stretching east from the edge of the inner city to the sea, north to the coastal and riverside edges of Kaiapoi, Kairaki, Pines Beach and Brooklands and, due to the risk of rockfall and cliff collapse, south along the ragged edge of the Port Hills.

Helen Wood outside her old property. Photo/Louis Trerise
Helen Wood outside her old property. Photo/Louis Trerise


Red-zone property owners were given two options: accept a Government buyout price for the land and building based on the 2007 or 2008 rating valuation (RV) and relinquish any Earthquake Commission (EQC) or insurance payout to the Government; or sell the land only to the Crown at the RV and negotiate a price for the house with their insurance company.

Some did well. A mortgage-free owner of an irreparably damaged three-bedroom house with a rebuild cost of $500,000 could walk away with about $700,000 to buy or build somewhere else.

Others did not. Under option 1, some owners of a repairable home with a large mortgage found themselves in the loss-making position of having an RV that was less than their loan. And under option 2, if the house was considered repairable (and 32% of red-zone properties were), insurance companies would pay only the cost of repair, even though the red-zone status rendered repairs futile.

As a Cera representative wrote to one red-zoned couple in March 2012, “It is unfortunate that some will benefit from the Government’s offer and others will lose some of their investment.”

When Helen Wood’s “dream home” overlooking the Avon River was red-zoned in 2011, she and her partner took the first ­Government payout option. It didn’t cover the $160,000 they had spent on renovations, but they were desperate.

Demand for houses was rapidly exceeding supply; rumours of tsunami, sinkholes and a larger earthquake were compounding the stress of ongoing aftershocks; and though the Government insists it was a voluntary offer, many, like Wood, thought they had no choice. Cera’s information to red-zone property owners says if the Crown’s offer is not accepted, “the council may not be installing new services in the residential red zone” (RRZ) and utility providers may decide “it is no longer feasible or practical to continue to maintain services” (the Christchurch City Council says as long as there are residents in the RRZ, “no infrastructure will be removed” but already some roads in the zone are being closed). There were also concerns that insurers might cancel insurance policies, that banks could call in loans, and that Cera would exercise its powers as an acquiring authority to force owners to sell at a market value “substantially lower” than the Crown offer.

Today Wood’s dream home is part of a 630ha corridor of mown lawns, trees (more than 30,000 have been retained) and pot-holed roads, a strange map of decommissioned suburbs given over to yellow flag irises, feral cats and Canada geese.

“I’m not blaming any authorities,” says Wood. “If the Government hadn’t intervened, where would we have been? But it was a learning curve. I think they were erring on the side of being overcautious.”

Photo/Louis Trerise
Photo/Louis Trerise


Owners of vacant or commercial red-zoned land and those with no insurance or who are self-insured are less conciliatory. In 2011, they were given a Crown offer of half the RV of the land only, with 100% of the RV on improvements for commercial properties, on the rationale that without insurance, there is no EQC cover. Never mind that vacant land can’t be insured, EQC cover does not extend to commercial sites and it is only a matter of convenience that EQC levies are collected through home insurance polices. As Ernest Tsao, one of an initial group of 68 self-titled Quake Outcasts who declined the Crown offer in Christchurch’s residential red zone flat lands, says, “What perils are you insuring against? Theft, fire, flood – certainly not that the Government might take your land.”

In May 2013, the Quake Outcasts sought a judicial review of the Government offer. The High Court ruled in their favour, saying the offer was not made according to law and the entire red-zoning process was unlawful.

The Government appealed. Although the subsequent finding reversed the High Court’s ruling that the process itself was lawful, it upheld the decision that Cera should make new offers to the owners of vacant, commercial and uninsured land. This was endorsed in a final ruling by the Supreme Court.

Last July, the Crown presented a new red-zone offer for all vacant land and commercial properties: 100% of RV but no payment for uninsured improvements.

Five years after the February earthquake, the Quake Outcasts are taking their case back to court.


On the banks of the Styx River, in the suburb of Brooklands, Jan Burney and Gary Sharlick are part of a group of about 150 red-zone “stayers” who have refused the Government offer altogether.

“Their offer said I should be fully informed [before making a decision to sell],” says Burney. “I said, ‘I am not fully informed, I do not have my insurance settled and I don’t have the land claim, so I have no idea where I am going to go.’ It was a real estate deal and I decided not to sell.”

Despite having a full replacement insurance policy, their insurance payout would only cover the cost of repair. “That is our equity gone. Gary didn’t work his guts out to have no house.”

The couple want a full replacement payout to rebuild somewhere else, or at least the right to repair their own home and mitigate against the increased flood risk caused by the effects of the earthquake.

But under the proposed Christchurch Replacement District Plan, much of this picturesque suburb is included in a ­“special-purpose flat-land recovery zone”, a temporary holding zone limiting building activity.

“They are trying to red-zone us twice. The council say they are going to use the red zone along the river as a planning tool for flood mitigation. To do that, they could have purchased under the Public Works Act, but if they did [under compulsory acquisition provisions], they could not collect insurance claims on the land or buildings. It is all about liability.”


It has been a costly venture. Since the first red-zoned announcements in June 2011, the Government has spent about $1.5 billion buying affected properties. According to a report by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Government expects to recover $323 million from EQC payouts for red-zone purchases. Information made available under the Official Information Act shows it also expects to recoup about $77 million from private insurers for residential red-zone properties in Christ­church and Waimakariri, including the $74 million already recovered.

Further returns are expected – the latest Treasury report lists the “acquisition and development of land in the red zone” among the 26 recovery and regeneration projects in its Canterbury investment portfolio – but Cera will not be drawn on the future use of the RRZ. A technical ana­lysis of the geotechnical and environmental ­characteristics of the land is still under way, it says, and the Government has long held that it wants most of the land cleared before making any decisions.

In addition, from this year decisions will be spread across a number of agencies. In preparation for Cera’s dissolution in April, responsibility for completing demolitions and managing the RRZ has been passed to Land Information New Zealand. Under the current Greater Christchurch Regeneration Bill, responsibility for the long-term development of the RRZ will fall to Crown-council entity Regenerate Christ­church, with policy advice coming from the Greater Christ­church Group within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“But the taxpayer has invested a lot, so what is a reasonable way for the taxpayer to see some of that back?” says Cera’s acting chief executive, John Ombler. “If land can be used in a productive way that may provide a return to the Crown, then that is a sensible thing to consider.”

Bryan Jenkins, left, and Avon-Otakaro Network co-chair Evan Smith plant native trees on adjoining council-owned land. Photo/Louis Trerise
Bryan Jenkins, left, and Avon-Otakaro Network co-chair Evan Smith plant native trees on adjoining council-owned land. Photo/Louis Trerise


Others believe this wide strip of land from the city to the sea presents an unprecedented opportunity to restore a battered environment and deliver a rare asset to the city.

It’s not just about economic recovery, says Evan Smith, a former red-zoner, co-chair of the Avon-Otakaro Network and programme manager for Eastern Vision. “It’s about social recovery, cultural recovery and environmental recovery.”

In 2012, the Avon-Otakaro Network delivered a petition with 18,500 signatures urging Parliament to use the Avon River red zone as a river park. It would be part of an area-wide plan to restore the natural native habitat of the wetlands area, improve water quality, re-establish traditional ­mahinga kai (resource-gathering), provide new ­recreational opportunities and restore a river depleted by an antiquated storm-water system feeding by-products of intensive land use directly into the river system.

As Bryan Jenkins of the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, run jointly by Canterbury and Lincoln universities, says, “It is an opportunity that Christchurch will only have once in its history.” Restoring the native wetland along a 450ha ecological and recreational corridor would create “a microcosm of the biodiversity of the Canterbury Plains”. Already, native plantings on neighbouring council land are attracting birds back to the area and trials for new whitebait spawning areas are proving successful.

A system of constructed wetlands would also reduce the amount of sediment and its toxic load of heavy metals going into the river, minimise the sewage overflow that pollutes the Avon and Heathcote rivers, mitigate against increased flood risk – the earthquake dropped land levels about half a metre – and allow for new research opportunities “that are of huge interest to the rest of the country”.

“Very few cities have the opportunity to create a corridor concept that can deal with water quality, biodiversity and flood management and give people the opportunity to enjoy New Zealand nature,” Jenkins says.

“It’s not rocket science; it’s quite simple technology. And where is the sense in investing in expensive ground remediation for residential development on flood-prone areas at risk of liquefaction?”

An ecological and recreational park, says Smith, could also incorporate some of the many proposals put forward by local groups and former residents: a recreation lake, a rowing venue, community gardens, an edible forest, a natural amphitheatre, an eco-sanctuary, heritage trails, historic gardens, a cycling/walkway network connecting to the rest of the city, and even, as mooted by Lincoln University, an environmental hub based on Cornwall’s Eden Project in the UK.


Some former red-zone residents are not interested in what happens in the area, says Smith – they’re too hurt, too bruised – but others care deeply. Each February, dispersed neighbourhoods come together for annual earthquake commemorations. During the year, relocated red-zoners return to tend their gardens or, like Wood, check on their former properties.

“There is still enormous emotional attachment to some of those lands,” says Smith. “I go back to my place on a frequent basis – the tree we planted when my son was born, the trees where the kids in the neighbourhood played. We want to keep those remnants of the past. For many of us that is the one glimmer of hope: that out of all the tragedy of losing our homes and seeing our communities disintegrate, something would act as a memorial for what we had been through.”

Those living on the edge of the red zone also have an investment in any decisions on the future use of the red zone.

“They are still living in this whole nightmare – half their neighbourhood has gone, they’re looking over something close to a war zone. This is their backyard now, so they want a say in what happens. I know we have to protect the state’s investment in these areas and justify it to the rest of the country, but these things need to be brought into the equation rather than hard and fast short-term financial gains.”

Smith says the numbers do stack up. An ecological and recreational corridor close to the heart of the city would increase the value of housing on the perimeter, lower the costs of more damage caused by flooding and, inevitably, further liquefaction and attract tourists.

Jenkins points to cities such as New York, Boston and Sweden’s Kristianstad that are creating blue and green corridors within their cities, attracting not just wildlife but local communities and thousands of visitors each year.

Such a plan could also reduce the amount we spend on health. A 2012 report by Lincoln University estimates annual savings in public health costs resulting from such a park to be about $50 million a year. Coupled with the benefits of small commercial activities, urban food opportunities, water-quality improvements, flood mitigation and storm-water management, the value to Christchurch residents of such a reserve, the report says, is a startling $94 million a year.

Photo/Louis Trerise
Photo/Louis Trerise


Underpinning the arguments for a river park in Christchurch’s residential red zone is a determination that any decisions on the future use of the zone be made in partnership with the local community. In its submission to the Greater Christchurch Regeneration Bill, the Avon-Otakaro Network suggested the Government sell the RRZ to a community-owned trust for $1.

“More than anything else,” says Smith, “we want the outcome to be less determined by Wellington and central government and more in the hands of local communities and local government. There’ll be a big kickback if the Government chooses to remediate some of this land and rebuild on it so other people take profit from our misery.”

Community involvement in rezoning decisions is vital, agrees Ljubica Mamula-Seadon, an Auckland-based consultant on disaster risk resilience and management: “I am not talking bureaucratic consultation but active engagement and empowerment of local communities.”

Mamula-Seadon has long warned against a reliance on special legislation for large-scale disasters, over and above local government/civil defence strategies used for small and medium events. Such a separation can formalise “strong central government intervention into local recovery, giving ­central government sweeping powers”.

In her submission to the current Regulations Review Committee inquiry into Parliament’s responses to future national emergencies, she says having a top-heavy central government agency to lead recovery may not be an ideal solution, “as both the Canterbury experience and international experiences have demonstrated”.

Back in Canterbury, the new draft recovery plan for the almost 100ha of red-zone land in the Waimakariri district presents a model for such community input. The plan, following two rounds of public consultation and workshops, includes reserves and recreation facilities, sports fields, ecological links, business areas, car parking and heritage and mahinga kai areas. Although a technical report identified areas where more intensive or built land uses were feasible, Waimakariri Mayor David Ayers says the council had to weigh that up against the cost of remediation “and what that does to section prices”.

“Most importantly we are basing it on the needs of Kaiapoi and the wider Waimakariri area over the next decades, what opportu­nities this presents and what the community has told us.”

Photo/Louis Trerise
Photo/Louis Trerise


“It may not be popular, it may not be cheap, it may not be easy – but it bloody works.”

The demolition of more than 220 red-zoned properties on the Port Hills – with another 400 to go – has not been speedy, but the 5.7 aftershock of February 14 that brought down thousands of tonnes of red-zoned cliff edge land above Christ­church’s seaside suburbs demonstrates the value of a cautious response, says Land Information New Zealand group manager Brenden Winder.

“It confirmed our process is correct. We have the right gear, the right people, the right technology.”

The five-year operation – beginning in 2013 after the main earthquake sequence had died down and expected to be completed in 2018 – has been challenging. Each site needs a specific understanding of the building structure and the geotechnical characteristics beneath. Where it is too dangerous to put contractors close to the cliff edge, long-reach excavators, helicopters or remote-control excavators, developed by local company Protranz, have had to be used. Access to neighbouring green-zone properties has had to be maintained, road closures kept to a minimum and weather conditions taken into account.

In the days after the 5.7 aftershock, monsoon buckets and an old fire tanker water-blasted the cliffs to remove loose rocks and allow for a clearer reading of any cracking. After a final check of the 108 demolitions currently under way, 95% of sites are open for clearance and maintenance work, says Winder.

“But if it had happened mid-week, we would have had a different set of circumstances – having people on the edge of a cliff in an aftershock is ­probably not a great idea.”

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