Vital Statistics (2013 Census)

  • Population: 341,000 (8% of New Zealand’s population)
  • 2nd largest district by population in New Zealand
  • 150,000 dwellings



There is evidence of human occupation of the Canterbury region dating to the early  1000s.

The swamps, marshes, and estuaries of the area that would become Christchurch were rich sources of kai (food) for pre-European Maori, with plenty of birdlife, plus eels and other freshwater fish, flounder in the estuaries, and seafood also close by. The abundant flax plants also provided a versatile material for ropes, baskets, clothing, footwear and more.

The Waitaha people appear to be the first inhabitants. They were displaced to the South as the Ngati Mamoe invaded in the late 1500s. In the late 1600s, the Ngai Tahu tribe invaded from the North, forcing the Ngati Mamoe South. Ngai Tahu established a strong trade in the highly desired jade/greenstone they called pounamu, and the area became an important centre for trade.

A number of kainga (settlements, variously permanent or semi-permanent) were to be found near the waterways, with fortified pa in strategic locations.

The Four Ships

European sealers and whalers started to visit from about 1809. An early effort to settle in what would become Christchurch was made in around 1840. In 1843 the Deans family set up a farm where the suburb of Riccarton  is found today. The original farmhouse still stands, the oldest man-made structure in Canterbury.

The Canterbury Settlement was established in 1848 by the Canterbury Association. Four ships brought 773 ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’, the Charlotte Jane, the Randolph, the Sir George Seymour, and the Cressy, in late 1850. By the end of 1851, 19 ships brought over 3000 settlers to the region.

City Building

By 1866, the growth of the city was creating a pollution problem, but pipes imported for an essential drainage scheme were sold off because of the city’s dire finances. From 1875, typhoid and other waterborne illnesses plagued the city, killing dozens each year. It was not until 1879 that sewer construction was started, and 1882 before the sewage system came into operation.

In 1867, after 8 years in construction, the Lyttelton Railway Tunnel opened, at the time one of the longest in the world at 2.4km long, and the first to be driven through the hard rock of the crater wall of a volcano. It cost £195,000, the equivalent of about $21 million in 2016 NZ dollars. The 2km long Lyttelton Road Tunnel was constructed between 1962 and 1964.

In 1867, NZ’s first museum, the Canterbury Museum, opened in the Canterbury Provincial Governement Buildings. In 1870, the Canterbury Museum building was opened.

In 1869, a bad earthquake damaged many buildings including the Town Hall. In 1873, fire completely destroyed this Town Hall and its predecessor, leaving Christchurch without a Town Hall until 1972.

In 1879, the Post Office building in Cathedral Square was completed.

In 1881 the Anglican Cathedral that had its cornerstone laid in 1864 was dedicated, though it was not actually completed until 1904. The Catholic Cathedral’s cornerstone was laid in 1901 and opened in 1905.

In 1887 the first City Council offices were opened.

In 1888, another earthquake caused widespread damage, including to the incomplete Anglican Cathedral, whose spire was badly affected. This was repeated in 1901, resulting in the spire being replaced with a timber design instead of stone.

In 1906, the New Zealand International Exhibition was held in Hagley Park, and over 1 million visitors attended the exhibition over the course of several months.


European immigrants endeavoured to build a replica of an English city, and the architecture of many of the older buildings reflected this intention. Much of this architectural heritage was badly damaged or totally destroyed in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. Here are a few examples:

Canterbury Provincial Government Buildings: Gothic Revival style (1858-1865) Extensively damaged in the 2011 earthquake, and large sections will need to be rebuilt. As a result, it’s future is not clear.

Shand’s Emporium – “A rare example of early commercial timber architecture in Christchurch”. (1860) Buildings on three sides were demolished around it, and it stood alone on Hereford street like a lonely sentinel for years. In June 2015 it was moved to Manchester Street, where it will be restored at a cost of over $400,000 and given a new life by Christchurch Heritage Ltd, who purchased the building off Antony Gough for $1.

Christ’s College – Gothic Revival style. (1863 onwards) Damaged and restored following the earthquakes.

Canterbury Club – Italianate style. (1874)  The building was strengthened in 2008/9 and as a result survived the 2010/11 earthquake sequence well, reopening in 2012 after repairs were made.

Christchurch Normal School (later the Cranmer Courts) – Gothic Revival style. (1876) Demolished in October 2012 because of earthquake damage.

Lyttelton Time Ball Station – Gothic Revival style, with a castle-like appearance. (1876) Time Ball Stations were build above ports so the vessels’ officers could reset their clocks to the local time, necessary for determining longitude in an age without GPS. The ball was hoisted aloft a mast and dropped at a specific time of day, every day. It was one of only a handful of time ball stations in working order left in the world, and Historic Places was dropping the ball daily at 1pm until the earthquakes damaged the building. Built using local reddish-brown scoria, the porous rock proved unsuitable and the building was soon coated in a layer of grey plaster to seal it. The building was demolished after it collapsed in the June 2011 earthquakes. A plan is underway to rebuild the 10m time ball tower at a cost of $3.4 million, although without the three-story accommodation building below it.

Canterbury College (now the Arts Centre) – Gothic Revival style. (Various buildings in stages, 1877-1923)  A $290 million restoration programme is underway, post-quake.

Christchurch Girls High School (later the Cranmer Centre) – Venetian Gothic style. (1881) Demolished in May 2011 because of earthquake damage.

Government Buildings (later Heritage Hotel) – Italian High Renaissance Palazzo style. (1913) The Old Government Building was redeveloped into a luxury hotel in 1996. It fared well in the earthquakes, and after repairs is operating again as a luxury accommodation provider.

Anglican ChristChurch [sic] Cathedral – Gothic Revival style. (1904) Extensively damaged in the 2011 earthquake, the Anglican Church has deconsecrated the cathedral and currently uses the Transitional Cathedral (often called the Cardboard Cathedral owing to a building material used in the roof construction). The diocese had decided to demolish the damaged cathedral and rebuild a modern structure on the site as it could cost $50 million more to repair than would be covered by insurance, but heritage campaigners fought this decision. As of mid 2016, it is expected that a new announcement from the Anglican diocese will be forthcoming soon.

Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament – Italian Basilica, regarded as the finest Renaissance building in NZ. (1905) Badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake, it is expected that the Catholic diocese will redevelop the building, retaining what it can and incorporating that into a new structure, costing about $45 million.

Royal Exchange Building (later  The Regent Theatre) – Edwardian style. (1905)  It was reborn as a movie theatre in 1930 and again rebuild in the 1980s after a fire. It was badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake and demolished.

Theatre Royal – Edwardian style. (1908) Badly damaged in the earthquakes, it probably survived due to strengthening work undertaken in the 1990s. It has been rebuilt between the facade and the Proscenium Arch at a cost of $40 million.

The Press building – Perpendicular Gothic style. (1909) NZ’s first ferro-concrete building. It was severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake, with one staff member of The Press killed when the top floor collapsed, several others being seriously injured and trapped. The building was demolished in July 2011.

Teacher’s College Building (later the Peterborough Centre) – Gothic Revival. (1930). The building was settling and cracking within a year of construction, due to the poor ground it was built on. It was badly damaged in the 2011 earthquakes, and access is currently restricted. It may be restored, as the owners are largely committed to rebuilding.

New Regent Street  – Spanish Mission Revival style. (1932) “The most beautiful street in New Zealand” as described by the then Mayor of Christchurch at its opening. 40 small shops line each side of the street, which is currently a cobbled pedestrian-only area shared with an historic tram. Properties have had to be restored and strengthened in order to continue to be used, but the street is again open for business.

Role in modern New Zealand

Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island, and by some measures the second largest city in New Zealand behind Auckland – but Wellington may also claim that title, depending on where you draw the lines to constrain the limits of the urban areas.

Christchurch’s International Airport is a gateway for visitors to the South Island, but Christchurch has by-and-large failed to attract international visitors to stay in the city, with many almost immediately departing for world-famous attractions like Milford Sound or activities around Queenstown.

Surrounded as it is by the vast Canterbury Plains, home to thousands of farms, Christchurch has a significant economic contribution to the country as a centre for the regions’s agriculture and horticulture. Christchurch has a large manufacturing industry, with comparably lower factory costs than Auckland. Software development, electronics industry, and product engineering companies also make use of the lower costs afforded by the region.

The University of Canterbury is third-ranked in New Zealand.

Christchurch has a professional symphony orchestra, and is home to NZ’s largest professional theatre company, The Court Theatre.

Sport is an important part of the lives of many Cantabrians, and the city is home to:

  • The Crusaders (Super Rugby)
  • Canterbury Rugby Football Union (Rugby provincial championship)
  • Canterbury United (Football)
  • Canterbury Rams (Basketball)
  • A professional Netball team (called Canterbury Tactix in the now-disestablished Trans-Tasman Netball League)
  • Canterbury Kings (Twenty20 Cricket)
  • Canterbury Wizards and Magicians (Cricket)
  • Canterbury Red Devils (Ice Hockey)
  • Canterbury Cavaliers and Cats (Field Hockey)

Christchurch has been involved with the United States Antarctic Program since the mid-1950s, and is currently home to facilities used to prepare flights to the ice.

The Christchurch Earthquakes


4:35am September 4, 2010: Magnitude 7.1 primary earthquake with a Mercalli intensity of X (extreme).

2:07am December 26, 2010: Magnitude 4.2 starts a swarm of 32 aftershocks in a location near the city centre at shallow depth. The largest of these was Magnitude 4.9, and triggered the re-closure of the CBD.

12:51pm Feb 22, 2011: Magnitude 6.3 aftershock with a Mercalli intensity of X (extreme) causes widespread damage to the weakened city structures. 185 fatalities.

June 13, 2011: 3 significant earthquakes, the largest M6.4 (Mercalli VIII) and many smaller aftershocks. 1 fatality.

December 23, 2011: 4 significant earthquakes, the largest M6.3.

1:13pm February 14, 2016: Magnitude 5.7, Mercalli VIII (destructive).

Facts and figures

4:35 am Sept 4, 2010:

  • 7.1 Magnitude
  • Mercalli: X (extreme)
  • Peak ground acceleration: 1.26g
  • No fatalities
  • 2 serious injuries

12:51pm Feb 22, 2011:

  • 6.3 Magnitude
  • Mercalli: X (extreme)
  • Peak ground acceleration: 2.2g – Although the magnitude of the earthquake was small, the viciousness of the shaking as measured by PGA puts this earthquake second on the list of notable earthquakes for which the PGA is known, only behind the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan.
  • 185 fatalities
  • 164 serious injuries
  • Up to 2000 other injuries
  • Five Magnitude 5 earthquakes also occurred on the same day, along with hundreds of smaller aftershocks
  • A cordon around the CBD “Red Zone” was established that covered 92 hectares.

2:20pm Jun 13, 2011

  • 6.4 Magnitude
  • Mercalli: VIII (destructive)
  • Peak ground acceleration: 2.13g
  • 1 fatality
  • 2 critical injuries
  • 46 other injuries
  • The 2:20 quake was preceded by a M5.9 at 1:00pm and followed by a M5.1 at 2:21pm.

3:18pm Dec 23, 2011

  • 6.2 Magnitude
  • Mercalli: IX (violent)
  • Peak ground acceleration: 0.97g
  • The 3:18 quake was preceded by a M5.9 at 1:58pm, a M5.3 at 2:06, and followed by a M5.1 at 4:50pm.

1:13pm February 14, 2016

  • 5.7 Magnitude
  • Mercalli VIII (destructive)
  • Peak ground acceleration: 0.4g

1503 buildings in the CBD were completely or partially demolished, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of CBD commercial buildings.

90% of dwellings in the city were damaged.

9000 houses were rendered uninhabitable.

7000 houses were within the Government-defined Residential Red Zone – land deemed unsuitable for occupation – and were demolished.

28,000 homes are on land classified as Technical Category 3, requiring site-specific foundation designs taking into account the site geotech information, if foundation work is required. “10,000 are likely to require rebuilding or significant foundation repairs.” [Source: Statistics NZ]

Statistics NZ reported that 2013 Census workers “were surprised at the extent of the damage on [affluent] hill suburbs and by the number of empty dwellings in parts of Christchurch outside the red zones.” Additionally, “they observed that some people were also living in badly damaged homes.” [Source: Housing in Greater Christchurch after the earthquakes – Statistics NZ]

The final damage bill for the Christchurch earthquake sequence may top $40 billion.

Personalities and Organisations

Bob Parker – Mayor of Christchurch 2007-2013

Lianne Dalziel – Mayor of Christchurch 2013-(incumbent). Previously Member of the NZ Parliament for Christchurch East 1999-2013

Tony Marryatt – CEO Christchurch City Council 2007-2013

Gerry Brownlee – Minister for Earthquake Recovery 2010-(incumbent)

John Key – Prime Minister of National-led Government 2008-(incumbent)

Ian Simpson – CEO of EQC 2010-(incumbent)

CERA, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority – established by the Government under the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, replaced with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act in 2011.

CCDU, the Christchurch Central Development Unit – a unit within CERA focusing on the central business district. 2011-2016

MBIE, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment – Created a document commonly called the MBIE Guidance that specifically reduced the constructions standards required to meet the Building Code, but only for the region affected by the Canterbury earthquakes.

EQC, the Earthquake Commission. A Crown Entity, that provides insurance cover for the first $100,000 of a claim on a property and the first $20,000 on a contents claim, relating to a natural disaster. Levies are embedded within premiums charged by commercial insurers. As a result of this provision, natural disaster cover in New Zealand is readily available, despite the natural disaster risks inherent in the NZ landscape.

CHRP, the Canterbury Home Repair Programme. EQC’s programme for processing claims estimated to cost between $15,000 and $100,000 – using Fletcher EQR as the Project Management Office.

Fletcher EQR, a business unit of Fletcher Construction, granted a monopoly to manage EQC activity under the CHRP. Approximately 67,000 claims are being processed through this arrangement.

Southern Response – When AMI Insurance indicated that they would fail due to obligations arising from the Canterbury earthquakes, the Government bailed them out, splitting off earthquake claims to be managed to completion by a Government-run organisation called Southern Response. The other policy holders contracts were sold to insurer IAG. Southern Response is not really an insurer, as it exists only to dispose of the earthquake insurance claims from (previous) AMI policy holders.

IPENZ, the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand – the professional organisation that engineers belong to.

CPEC, the Chartered Professional Engineers Council – the statutory body representing engineers in NZ.