In the early afternoon of February 22, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. For nearly five months, the city had lived with constant tremors. But from the first seconds of February’s quake, residents knew this one was different. John Suckling, the owner of a local shoe store, was at home preparing an advertisement for the next day’s paper when, at 12:51 P.M., he felt his house begin to shake. Less than a minute later, 185 people were dead and another 11,000 injured. Thousands of buildings collapsed in an instant. Christchurch had faced disaster before, but not on this scale. The city’s unlivable “red zone” stretched over an area equivalent to two-and-a-half Central Parks. The bill for the damage came to $40 billion, or roughly 20 percent of New Zealand’s GDP.
Suckling had just been appointed chairman of a group of local business and property owners, and they began meeting within the week to craft a recovery plan. Economic demand would soon return and, like a river flowing around a rock, life in Christchurch would continue along the course of least resistance. Suckling and his fellow merchants feared that the rebuilt city would become simply a galaxy of suburbs, without a center. “We believed,” said Suckling, “that those places where residents were proud of their cities were cities that had vibrant downtowns.”
Suckling and the downtown business group hatched a brilliant idea: construct a shopping mall out of simple and inexpensive shipping containers. The team placed an order, and in late September, a ship drew into Lyttelton Harbor with 64 containers stretched across its bow. The Christchurch government was “very keen for something to happen,” Suckling says; it gave the group all the support it needed. “Between all parties,” he says, “there was total agreement on the concept, design, and deadline.” Perhaps the greatest barriers to development in any city are land-use and zoning regulations. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, formed to coordinate Christchurch’s rebuilding, helped the group bypass most traditional regulations.
On October 29, 2011, the project, named Re:START, was opened for business. Framed by the iconic Ballantynes department store and situated on the blank spaces left behind by demolished Victorian and Edwardian buildings, the shopping complex became Christchurch’s new downtown—a human-sized, retail city. Some 40 retailers came out for opening day, including many of the city’s established shops that had been around for a century or more. “Our main objective,” Suckling told me, “was to enable smaller retailers to reestablish their businesses reasonably close to where they used to be.” More than 20,000 people visited Re:START on its opening weekend.
Re:START doesn’t look like a container park. It is made to be beautiful to the eye, not just in its profusion of bright colors, but also in the way it draws visitors into little lanes and past the sharp edges outside to the soft interiors inside. Re:START was designed for density and walkability, too. “The public and tourists loved how we created a shopping precinct out of containers,” says Suckling. “We also made it look colorful, convenient, and interesting.” The concentration of business helped spur more commercial activity, both inside Re:START and beyond. Clusters of new tourism and hospitality businesses soon formed on the outskirts of the downtown core to serve the influx of Re:START visitors. Artists also gathered there, as did Christchurch’s young, skilled workforce, who, prior to the earthquake, had been leaving the city for greener pastures.
Re:START’s new urbanism infused the rest of Christchurch with more opportunity than it had had on the day of the earthquake—an impressive testament to what can be achieved when cities allow themselves to think unconventionally.