World Cup 2015 February 10, 2015

Christchurch: Broken, resurgent

Damaged by an earthquake four years ago, the city is still recovering. The World Cup will allow it to show off what it has achieved so far

185 chairs: cold reminder of the casualties © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Global sporting events have the power to influence infrastructure development. Think the 1992 Olympic Games, which allowed Barcelona to turn the neglected neighbourhood of Poblenou into a swanky seaside district, the 2010 Soccer World Cup, which sped up the construction of a modern rail link between Johannesburg and Pretoria or the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which will see the suburb of Parklands in Queensland undergo a major urban renewal project. But the 2015 Cricket World Cup will serve a different purpose for Christchurch. 

"We may be a little bit broken but we're still here and this is our chance to remind people of that," Kelly Stock from Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism explained. "It's about not forgetting Christchurch." 

The city, which will host the opening match of the tournament and two other group games, was forced to begin rebuilding after a catastrophic earthquake in 2011 which claimed 185 lives and changed the face of the city. Eight days short of four years to the day that happened, Christchurch will be able to show how much it has recovered. 

Understanding the extent to which Christchurch was physically damaged is not difficult. Buildings stand broken, if they stand at all. Every street in the city centre is scarred with rubble, most have fenced off areas separating what was there from what will be there and cranes jut out into the skyline like band-aid. Really understanding how Christchurch was damaged, requires a much closer look. 

The first place you may see it is at 185 chairs, the poignant memorial to those killed, each of them immortalised by a piece of furniture, lined up opposite the Presbyterian Church, as though waiting for a service to begin. There's a high-backed dinner chair, a comfortable couch, a regular desk chair and a baby's car seat. The chills the last one will give you will not be the result of the Antarctic wind that can blow through these parts. It will be cold realisation. 

Diagonally across the road lies the vacant plot of the Canterbury Television building in which more than half the dead perished. Now dotted with flower boxes, it does not look like the scene of a tragedy but as a place for new life. Throughout the city, that is what Christchurch is trying to create. 

A little further away was where they decided to Re-Start, literally. That is the name of a temporary containerised shopping village, which was set-up to encourage people to keep living in the city; really living, not merely existing. For that, they needed a reason to want to be there and the brightly-coloured boxes which host everything from clothing stores to coffee shops provided that. 

The mobile mall is designed to move once a permanent structure is built; it has already done so twice since its inception and will continue relocating as the city redevelops. Christchurch is no longer afraid of shifting sand. "It used to be quite a conservative city, but now that has all changed. It was forced to," Stock said. 

One of the most obvious examples of that is in the architectural styles. Because such a large number of the city's older buildings were either too damaged or deemed too dangerous to continue standing, there has been a move to preserve the Gothic facades but rebuild the rest of the structure. Some of them even have a splash of public art adorning them such as the ballerina painted by local artist Owen Dippie, who pirouettes on the back of the Isaac Theatre. 

Not all of the change has been so easily embraced and the cathedral remains an issue of contention. The now 110-year-old building survived four earthquakes before 2011, but this was the only one which threatened its existence. The damage from four years ago ran from the spire into the structure itself and a demolition was seen as the only solution. But midway through that process, a court battle between the church and those who opposed the taking down ensued and all activity paused except for the opening of a new cathedral a few blocks away. The grand old lady lies faceless and exposed to the elements, which some fear will damage her further. 

The 110-year-old church lies faceless, exposed © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Luckily, nature has not been too unkind to Christchurch and the Botanical Gardens serve as a reminder for that. The park, which received the Supreme Award at the Ellerslie International Flower Show last year, stretches across 21 hectares and has more than 250 varieties of roses among myriad other plants. It was untouched in the earthquake. Stock said it became an oasis to the people of the city in the aftermath. Next to it lies Hagley Park where the international cricket ground is nestled.

Although the Oval was always there, it was not always the venue for big matches. Those went to Lancaster Park, which was also a rugby stadium, and was another of the earthquake's victims. When it was destroyed, big sport was forced out of Christchurch. 

The Crusaders, southern hemisphere's most successful regional rugby team, were temporarily moved out and more crushingly, the city was taken off the schedule for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The tournament took place just seven months after the earthquake and it was logistically impossible for Christchurch to host the five pool matches and two quarterfinals it was due to stage. 

Rugby has since returned and cricket has followed, in the quaintest of ways. Because not everyone wanted the public space of Hagley park turned into a commercial cricket ground, it has retained the charm of old with sloping grass embankments and a small pavilion. Temporary stands have been brought in for the World Cup. They are expected to be full of life and so is the city itself. 

Concerts have been planned, a fan park and trail, and local establishments are preparing for swelling numbers. There's a vibe of vitality around, zing in the air, a spring in the steps of people who know that the 2015 World Cup will not be the reason Christchurch continues on its long road to recovery but it will allow them to show off what they have achieved so far.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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