Sir Bob Parker: Nine Years On


Sir Bob Parker’s leadership was – and still is – widely regarded as what got our city through the dark days of 2011. We caught up with him about the poignancy of the nine-year anniversary.z

 

Photo courtesy of the New Zealand Defence Force

We’ve just passed the nine-year anniversary of the Christchurch earthquakes, how poignant is that date for you?

It is an emotional reminder for me of how much we lost, from people to places, on that day in 2011.

It is clear that for those of us who faced the terror of that day in Christchurch of just how far we have come with rebuilding the city but also how much the losses and fear of that day and the months that followed still shape our lives.


How did being stoic for the city help yourself dealing with the emotions and upheaval at the time?

Like so many others at the time in those first days, I was putting in long hours focused on the immediate rescue issues.

It was my job to keep our community informed as best I could.

This work meant that there wasn’t much space in my life for the luxury of personal reflection.

Personal needs took a back seat to community needs, so the emotion at that time was shoved into the background.


You smashed three ribs after landing on a wooden table in the Civic Building in the February quake, were the emotional scars as bad as the physical scars of the earthquake?

The simple answer is yes. Like many people that I have discussed this with since that awful day, the traumatic scars remain.

Those post-traumatic feelings don’t dominate my life, but they are there.

I still react to any sound that imitates the rumble an approaching earthquake makes, or any unexpected vibration of a building.

I am a master at imagining any building I am in collapsing around me; I know it is not likely to happen but I can’t stop that internal movie from popping up.

I’m always checking buildings out for potential structural shortcomings and part of me is waiting for the Alpine Fault to let go.

I know I’m not painting the most balanced picture, but I am not alone in this and it’s good to talk about it.

But at least I’ve stopped checking Geonet or Canterbury Quake Live every hour or so, trying to predict if another quake is likely!

I didn’t realise I had smashed ribs in the earthquake until several days afterwards, such was the adrenalin.

Joanna and I didn’t sleep for those first few days. Who could?

But I noticed that every time someone hugged me (there was lots of hugging in those early post-quake days) it was getting more and more painful.

I was at the hospital checking on my parents who’d both been admitted and when I complained about the chest pain to one of the staff they quickly arranged for an x-ray.

We then spotted that several ribs were damaged. It didn’t stop the hugging though.

I think that human contact kept us all going in Christchurch at that time. It was our emotional release perhaps.


Everything from there was unprecedented! The central city redesigned, whole suburbs closed and managed home repair schemes launched, laws bestowing special powers passed and a new Government entity formed to run the show. How much complexity did this add to your role?

The complexity was to be expected.

The 22 February earthquake was, and still is, the only national emergency ever formally declared in New Zealand.

It was always going to be a job that was bigger than Christchurch alone could deal with.

However the multi-agency complexity was tiring as it often interfered with what council regarded as normal council responsibilities.

That did lead to conflict at times. As the initial post-quake response descended into the daily grind of a community wanting to sort personal issues and needs, our council found itself under huge pressure from our people.

Our every move came under extraordinary scrutiny from all directions. At the end of that term in 2013 it felt like a lifetime since the quake, not just three years.


Facing urban decay before the earthquakes, Christchurch has risen in spectacular fashion. How proud are you of how Christchurch has been able to come back to life?

I am very proud of our city. It is really a tribute to the amazing people of Christchurch that we are an almost completely rebuilt, fully functioning city with a superb future.

Many people wrote us off. The most common question from foreign media was “does Christchurch have a future?”

I always answered emphatically “yes!” We had a lot of help from those around us in New Zealand and even from overseas but in the end ‘we’, the people of this place, did it.


What do you love the most about the ‘new’ Christchurch?

The newness; the new safe and strong buildings, the emergence of the waterfront along the Avon, the survival and restoration of key historic buildings which are now like diamonds set in concrete and steel surrounds.

I also have a new appreciation of the suburban centres which became the powerhouses of our city’s survival and recovery when we needed them most.

For me at that moment the city became more than just a CBD; rather a collection of villages clustered around a strong centre.


In a speech to the Local Government New Zealand organisation in 2013, then-Prime Minister John Key stated that your “commitment to the city during its darkest hours will be his legacy”. How proud are you of this legacy?

I was humbled by the Prime Minister’s words.

The legacy is shared with so many people. Every citizen who was here in that difficult time and who stayed the course is part of that legacy.

I am proud that the plan that my council and community created from our outstanding ‘Share an Idea’ project became the structural basis of the rebuild ‘Blueprint’ for the city.

Subsequent councils and governments have essentially carried out the vision we laid down.

So I love the feeling of the council that I led having been a key part of that planning. All of those councillors put incredible efforts into their roles in perhaps the most difficult of circumstances that any council in this land has ever faced. They all deserve much credit for that. That’s our collective legacy, of which I was but one small part.


 

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