From Worst-Practice Disaster Recovery to Best: Lessons from Ōtautahi Christchurch


  • Steve Matthewman University of Auckland | Waipapa Taumata Rau


Build Back Better, communitas, complexity, disaster recovery, Māori, social infrastructure


The Canterbury Earthquake Sequence (2010, 2011) devastated central Christchurch, necessitating wholesale urban renewal. But national government’s ensuing recovery efforts were castigated for exemplifying global worst practice, providing a textbook case in how not to undertake recovery. Alliteratively, I argue that the issues underpinning this failure to build back better cluster around questions of complexity, control and coherence. The government’s blueprint, the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, illuminates several fantasies of mastery associated with the technocratic mindset: that a central authority can dictate local interests, that community is homogenous, that their wishes can be proscribed from the top down, and that a fixed recovery plan can deal with emergent complexities. For, while we can formulate blueprints, design buildings and even mandate precincts, we cannot engineer urban life. Having identified problems, we can look to community activities in Ōtautahi to recommend three best-practice solutions: enacting co-governance (between Crown and iwi – Māori kinship group, tribe, nation), undertaking meaningful collaboration (between authorities and affected communities) and harnessing communitas (the distinctive social energy that emerges after disaster). All three elements often combine as social infrastructure.


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