Interview with Bob Parker
The mantra in Christchurch: prepare, prepare, prepare

In September 2010 a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the South Island of New Zealand, centered 25 miles west of Christchurch, a city of 500,000 people. There were no fatalities, attributed to strict building codes and the early hour of the quake, but infrastructure damage was substantial. Aftershocks continued daily. Less than six months later, in February 2011, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck six miles from the town center; this time, 185 people died, thousands were badly injured, and the damage was devastating, with 50 percent of the horizontal infrastructure destroyed.

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The rebuilding effort is unprecedented nationally in terms of scale and complexity, with capital costs estimated at US$32 billion. By 2013, the recovery process was fueling the New Zealand economy. More importantly, Mayor Bob Parker saw an opportunity in the rubble—to rebuild his 19th century city as an ideal of 21st century resilience. By including residents in shaping the future of Christchurch, he’s given them a reason to stay and a voice in rebuilding their city.

Bob Parker

Christchurch is widely recognized as having been prepared for the possibility of earthquakes. Could you address the genesis of that preparation?

New Zealand is a long, narrow, seismically active country, the product of the collision of two of the great tectonic plates. So we make a lot of allowances in our planning for the very real seismicity that we face. Over a decade ago, the city of Christchurch and its outlying councils got our engineers together and assessed our infrastructure systems for potential weaknesses.

Bridges, for example, over which a number of main water lines, wastewater lines, and sometimes electrical infrastructure ran. Then we implemented a program of upgrading the bridges and addressing the weakest points in the system. That project paid big dividends for us in the aftermath of the earthquake.

We also assessed vital pieces of community infrastructure—such as electricity generation and distribution—and implemented legal consents to allow us to erect a number of temporary power generation systems, should they become necessary. Similarly, a completely destroyed wastewater system could require using the nearest river to transport wastewater out of the city. We have the legislation in place to expedite those types of decisions in the wake of a disaster.

So it’s fair to say that 90 percent of what we do is preparedness: prepare, prepare, prepare.

That also includes an educational program for private corporations, businesses, and educational institutions. They must look at their own systems and determine where their weaknesses lie.

What have you learned in the aftermath of the earthquakes that could serve as lessons to other civic leaders?

Most of the rehearsal for these disasters won’t work out the way you had planned. What really works are the infrastructure systems and processes you’ve implemented for response—and the people who run those systems.

So even though you might originally have thought you would use the telephone or a two-way radio to communicate in the wake of a disaster, those options may not work for reasons that you haven’t been able to foresee. But the people in those communications positions will step up and do their jobs.

The people who hold the intellectual property for your infrastructure systems and processes represent vital human capital. The resilience of your organization depends on recruiting and retaining the right people for those jobs.

What kind of collaboration between the public and private sectors occurred in the wake of the disasters?

We established a program we call the Safer Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild. We brought together five major contracting companies and most of the major public-sector funders to create a transparent process. So instead of getting a fixed-price contract—with its expected contingency bump—the companies know up front what they will be paid for their work. Each of the partners around the table knows what the margins will be, where there is a potential for equipment to be shared to speed the process up, and where we offer bonuses to reward those who are most productive.

So you’ve still got a competitive arrangement there, but you’ve got a mechanism that allows you to cap what you spend and measure it very accurately. And that’s working very well.

What role does infrastructure rebuilding play in boosting the economy?

We recognized that a recovery can only be fueled by people. It’s no good rebuilding infrastructure if you don’t have any businesses in town after a disaster because they’ve all picked up and left. So we changed the rules to allow businesses in areas that had been destroyed to relocate temporarily. A large number of service businesses could immediately locate to their homes while they looked for new permanent space. In an ideal world, that’s something you should think about pre-disaster.

Despite the massive losses we suffered—human and economic—we have an opportunity now to build back stronger. With more resilient infrastructure. Replacing our older, less resilient 20th century clay pipes, for example, with more modern, resilient plastic composites. We are now in the midst of a massive countercyclical, economic boost that will likely last 10 to 15 years. Everyone who wants a job will have a job because of the rebuild. In fact, we have a massive shortage of people.

What are your plans for the future?

In a sense, we’ve rediscovered a sense of community, which is very powerful. It’s very easy for large military or government organizations to come in and take over, saying, “We know exactly what to do. We do this every day.” But you have to allow local voices to be heard. You have to listen to their ideas.

Together, we have a chance to rebuild our city. My view is that the world needs a city like Christchurch—a city that’s prepared to embrace new technologies, new ways of thinking. We should be looking to build a sustainable city. Not because it’s the cool thing to do but because it’s the smart thing to do.

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