What New Zealand can learn from San Francisco

What New Zealand can learn from San Francisco

len Hughes is Harrison Grierson’s southern regional manager. In 2011, he was part of a group of Christchurch business leaders and Councillors that visited San Francisco to learn about its recovery from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Glen says there are five key lessons to learn from San Francisco and the wider Bay area’s recovery and rebuild.

Lesson 1: Build it back better. Recovery provides the opportunity to build better quality infrastructure and community assets. Grasp the potential to add better value and amenity, and be bold and visionary in its execution. The redesign of the waterfront and the old Ferry Terminal building in San Francisco represented a significant improvement on the quality of that space, urban amenity and commercial opportunity.

Lesson 2: Collaborate. Authorities must not act in isolation of the stakeholders. The rebuild of Santa Cruz was characterised by a collaborative group termed the ‘Gang of 36’ made up of council, business and community representatives. The group was co-chaired by council and business representatives and was empowered to make recommendations on the recovery and rebuild of the CBD to the council. All decisions made by the group required consensus, and all decisions were ratified by the council on the basis of that consensus.

Lesson 3: Business must be involved. A large portion of rebuild activity is funded via the private sector. Confidence will deliver capital, and confidence comes from early and inclusive involvement. Research from the recovery of New Orleans showed that due to a lack of clarity on rebuild plans and timing, investors sought lower risk alternative locations to invest capital.

Lesson 4: The advantage of insurance. Given there is no comparable EQC insurance, a large proportion of the population in San Francisco has no earthquake insurance, as on the whole, the costs outweigh the benefits. The Loma Prieta earthquake resulted in huge shortfalls between the cost of damage and available insurance cover. In contrast, the insurance funding we have available in New Zealand provides significant opportunity despite the difficulties and challenges posed over its availability.

Lesson 5: Transparent and permissive. Authorities must act as facilitators and enablers. The ‘Gang of 36’ adopted a transparency about its operation, such that meetings were open to the public so that the stakeholders had confidence in their decision-making. Further, the Council sought to be permissive by releasing vision and design theme principles early, and provided broad permitted activity rules to enable property owners to make early starts to their rebuilding.

What is the overarching key learning/message for New Zealand?

Historically, the response to disaster recovery in New Zealand has been to implement a top-down model led by the Crown. This is not unreasonable, given the Crown provides a significant proportion of rebuild funding and would want to manage recovery activity to ensure best value from that investment. The lessons from San Francisco and other disaster recoveries, including New Orleans, show that a balance between the Crown, business and the community can potentially deliver better outcomes. Achieving that balance through collaborative and transparent engagement is a real challenge. While the ‘Gang of 36’ was ultimately successful; it had to overcome a history of tension between the Council and business, which required very strong and effective leadership.

Are we doing any of this in Christchurch?

Christchurch can celebrate the fact that the rebuilt city will be a better place than it was pre-quake. At a minimum, it will have modern and resilient infrastructure, which will provide confidence for further commercial development. At a maximum, it will boast high quality amenities if the current rebuild plans are achieved. A lost opportunity is perhaps where collaboration and transparency may have resulted in more engagement and ownership of the rebuild outcomes; however, the development of Regenerate Christchurch is a positive step in this regard.

Arguably, the top-down approach has achieved much, but there remains an imbalance between the community, business sector and Government stakeholder groups; most significantly with the community, which potentially could provide the organic elements that would bring the rebuilt city to life.


This thought leadership article by Glen Hughes, Regional Manager - Southern, is intended to provide you with insights and relevant information on lessons learned from San Francisco. Our thought leadership articles on topical and specialist issues are designed to present the key points in an easy to digest and interesting manner.


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