Rebuilding Christchurch, One Memory at a Time

I’m in New Zealand this week somewhat unexpectedly. Air New Zealand is running the inaugural flight from Auckland to Houston next Tuesday and I picked up the gig to cover it for Airways News as a last minute assignment. The trip is being hosted by the airline and the New Zealand Tourism board and they put together the schedule which includes a couple days in Christchurch. I was not expecting much from this part of the trip. I’m happy to be out exploring but I see this very much as a work trip and am trying to stay focused on that side of things. Also, I know about the destruction Christchurch suffered with the earthquakes five years ago and it was not our favorite part of the South Island when my wife and I visited 8 years ago. In short, I think I may have been phoning it in.

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The trams are running again in Christchurch, bringing locals and visitors back in to the downtown area ravaged by earthquakes 5 years ago

That changed about halfway through the bike tour I was on the first afternoon in town. We were standing in one of the “gap” spaces in the CBD. There are scores of them scattered around town; plots of land razed after the buildings which previously stood there were damaged in the quakes. Our guide shared that this particular site used to be the Crowne Plaza hotel. That was the hotel we had stayed in during our visit.

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The old Crowne Plaza hotel stood on this site in Christchurch. I stayed in that hotel. Seeing it gone was hard to process; I’m still working on that…

Today the site is a collection of open-air arts and recreation offerings. There are a couple mini-golf holes and a grassy area where a couple was playing bocce using equipment hosted at the site. There is outdoor art and, depending on the day and season, farmers markets and food trucks and other things to bring the community out and into the downtown area where so little permanent exists today.

We continued the tour and saw plenty more of these gap spaces around the city. Each obviously has a story but that one where the hotel once stood hit closest to home. Maybe just because I do not remember much else from Christchurch on our previous visit. Or something else, I suppose. I really do not know.

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Another of the “Gap” spaces in town; this one is dedicated to making music.

There’s the “Cardboard Cathedral” which is impressive in its style and architecture as well as its construction from cardboard wrapped columns and plastic paneling for the roof. It stands on the site of another church which was completely destroyed in the earthquakes.

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Inside the “Cardboard Cathedral” in Christchurch, New Zealand

There is also the Christchurch Cathedral which continues to crumble as the various stakeholders continue to battle over its future. The temporary supports have started to collapse now; indecision is the worst decision. And it does not seem like a solution will be in place any time soon.

The Christchurch Cathedral continues to decay as indecision over its future reigns
The Christchurch Cathedral continues to decay as indecision over its future reigns

The city is doing its best to continue on like things are normal. Bars and restaurants appear to be doing decent business and the shopping areas, albeit temporary and built from shipping containers, are catering to locals and tourists alike. Acknowledging that it will still be several years before things are anywhere close to a semblance of what they were in the past remains challenging, but most are optimistic that the rebuild will be a net positive once it is completed. This is a spectacular experiment in urban planning and controlled growth/zoning efforts. It mush happen in situ but with almost no buildings in place, a spectacular test.

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Biking through one of the small chunks of town which is running as close to normal as things get around here

As for me, I’m still thinking about where that hotel used to stand. It wasn’t even that great of a stay. But seeing the space vacated is going to stick with me for a while.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. My wife and I visited New Zealand back in Sep 2014 which included an overnight in Christchurch. Whenever we talk about visiting New Zealand we always think of how haunting it was walking around the container mall and the destroyed bus station.

  2. We visited Christchurch about 10 years ago and stayed at the Crowne Plaza and Millennium hotels. Like your stay ours was also subpar overall. The one area that still stands out though was the club room food and breakfast. A lovely young lady named Rose waited on us every morning and she was wonderful. Although the hotel was not destroyed the cost to refurbish would have been quite high and the decision to do so was on the fence. Sad to know that it has been razed. It would be eerie to us as well. PS – Loved the little nature park called Willowbank. Worth a visit if time permits!

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