As was the case for so many people, my life changed forever on 4 September 2010 – I am not the same person that I was before then.
I remember speaking to the Avon Ihutai Estuary Trust AGM a couple of years ago and confessing how little I knew about the connections between the health and wellbeing of the community and the natural environment within which we live until I became the MP for Christchurch East.
I was MP for the area for only a matter of weeks before a group that wanted to lower the sand dunes were in to see me. They presented a strong case showing that the dunes had grown much higher than originally allowed and it was preventing sea views that would increase the amenity value for local residents.
They had done their homework and had a detailed presentation. But it didn't take long for me to find that other members of the community had equally strong views about the need to protect the dune system. Their existence, apart from the protection they gave to the coastline and the residential properties behind, created a wonderful wilderness beach environment that they believed ought to be preserved.
I realised that I would never be able to form an objective view if I only heard from protagonists in a debate, so I decided to start by developing an understanding of dune systems. I visited Canterbury University to see what I could find out.
I learned that dunes were the only landform shaped by the vegetation – marram grass made them grow higher, whereas pingau made them lower and flatter.
I learned that their protective capacity derived not from their height but from the quantity of sand available to be given up in a storm event. Dragging the sand back into the sea helps quell the strength of the waves. It wasn't therefore about the height.
I was thinking there was a clear compromise until I realised that there was no room for a low flat dune unless we were willing to do away with Marine Parade itself and expose the houses behind to a lot more wind-blown sand.
It was a good lesson for me as the new MP for the area and I started to learn more about the environment around me, particularly the Estuary and the wetlands. Living in Bexley was magic. I joined the regular planting days and then enjoyed photographing the increasing birdlife – pukekos, kingfishers and white herons were my favourites.
And then the walkway was cut off to enhance the environment for the birdlife. A group of people who had moved into the area couldn't understand why their enjoyment had been compromised in this way.
This time it was the council ranger who came out to the community and walked the local residents through the wetlands, describing to us the important role Bexley played in the region as a safe nesting environment for rare species of birds concluding becoming an overflow for the Southshore spit for the godwits.
We talked about potential compromises, which could allow the track to be open in the non-nesting times, but unfortunately that was relatively soon before the 2010 earthquake.
I had become a Patron for the Travis Wetlands by then, and in spending time down there, I learned the history of how that came to pass and met the most committed and passionate advocates for the environment you could meet.
And then we had the first of the earthquakes.
I had never heard of liquefaction and lateral spread, but I soon worked out it had something to do with the water. My journey since then has been one of discovery and as I have said it has changed me forever.
The truth is that the earthquakes have exposed poor planning processes, where known hazards were not even addressed.
The older long-term residents of Bexley knew Pacific Park should not have been built, but how will we learn the lessons of that? Has the 'red zoning' process adopted by the Government inadvertently diverted attention from poor processes? I worry about this because I believe we must understand our experience from every angle - good and bad - so that others can learn from that.
Local knowledge – guided by science and expert advice – should be an integral part of any planning process. That's what I've learned.
When I was the Opposition spokesperson on Civil Defence I travelled the country - in the cities I met the Civil Defence teams; in the regions they also included the planners - they understood absolutely the correlation between planning and the work of civil defence. Do we?
We all know about teachable moments – something happens that means we can teach children something important. We don't say, 'we send our kids to school; that's the teacher's job to teach them that'.
Yet as a city, we've had everyone's undivided attention for nearly five years – but what have we learned?
That it's someone else's job to understand the risks we face and the levels of tolerance that should be applied.
It is time that we stopped thinking about responsibility for these decisions as belonging to someone else.
At the same time we cannot ignore the pressures and stress that have been imposed on those living in the areas that have been the worst affected by the earthquakes.
People are naturally expressing concerns about the impact that these conversations might have on property values, insurability and future habitability.
What I worry about is that there seems to be a belief that if we don't have these conversations somehow all of these potential effects will be avoided, as if the insurers and reinsurers are absent from the realm of scientific inquiry. Their world is risk. They are more than interested.
In terms of motivation for addressing these issues, I am as surprised to read on social media that the Council is trying to force retreat from certain areas, as I am to read that we are avoiding our responsibility to provide for a managed retreat.
Let me say this clearly, we are not seeking to force retreat from any areas and we currently have no mechanism for managed retreat.
Again an unintended consequence of the 'red zoning' process is a belief that we can simply make offers to buy properties with ratepayers' money, without any public engagement on such a process.
In addition we cannot ignore the fact that we are required to complete a full review of our District Plan in order to have a replacement plan in place by the time the CER Act expires next year (although it may be that an extension of a few months may be required).
The Natural Hazards chapter of the District Plan has been dealt with in two parts - the Independent Hearings Panel has just released its determination on the first part, which includes an allowance for 1 metre of sea level rise and an increase in rainfall intensity by 16% through to 2115 as a result of climate change. I am sure that this will guide the consideration of the coastal hazards component which was notified on Saturday.
I am sure that there will be a lot of focus on the coastal erosion lines in the submissions and the hearings that follow, as there has been in the past when ECan was responsible for the work. Including coastal erosion within the DPR is a sensible use of resources, but from this point onwards, it is out of our hands. The decisions sit with the Independent Hearings Panel after hearing the evidence.
It seems to me that one of the lessons we ought to have learned from our experience is that leaving these challenging conversations until after disaster has struck exposes us to the risk that the remedy is worse than the disease, and may in fact leave affected communities completely outside the decision-making framework as occurred with the Government's 'residential red zone' decisions.
But then again if the Government had not gone down track of creating a so-called RRZ, then we, as a city, would be much more exposed to flood risk than we are now and we would be having a lot of very challenging discussions with a lot more people.
The difference that we are confronted with as a Council is that the Government was solely focused on the earthquake damage and we must take a longer term view. I asked a question of our staff at the DPR meeting where the decision to notify the remaining chapters was made - would it have been better if we as a Council had jointly worked with the government to consider future exposure to sea level rise, so a full assessment of what land should not be further developed was undertaken. The answer was of course yes.
But that was not to be, so where does that leave us?
What about those areas where the risks cannot be easily mitigated?
The response of some residents is to seek flood protection, but what other impacts would that have? We know what happens when waves or storms don't have anything to absorb the impact. Bouncing against a stone wall could damage the estuary in ways that people who fear their properties being flooded may not appreciate.
Should we be asking if area-wide solutions are enough or whether they just encourage development in areas that ought not to be developed?
We now know that we must work with our natural environment - live within our natural limits. Di Lucas said to me once – you can cover it up, you can pipe it, you can divert it, but the memory of the stream remains in the land. It seems that human memories do not survive such interventions.
Finally I want to talk about people in the eastern parts of Christchurch that have expressed concerns about the coastal hazards approach. Prior to becoming Mayor I made a submission on the Council's annual plan:
"People need something to look forward to and a hope-filled vision for the future of the place where they live. New Brighton has been down the council-initiated planning track before, so I admit to being sceptical about this proposal [suburban master plan] being sufficient to provide that vision.
On the other hand, think about what the red-zoning of so much residential property could do for the ward as a whole. And it is this world of opportunity that could provide the hope-filled vision we need and benefit New Brighton as well.
Think about having the largest natural wetlands within a city boundary based on Travis and stretching through the red zones – perhaps the Horseshoe Lake.
Think of the eco-tourism potential that could provide, as well as the potential for learning experiences for children, with interpretation centres explaining the history of the wetlands, its native plants and the birdlife it already attracts.
Think about a rowing lake that has the advantage of utilising our excess water from a river that would regularly flood our streets without the new stop-banks.
Think about creating a place where various venues would flourish around such a lake and where residential properties would be sought after – as our wetlands' perimeter properties were before the earthquake. Think of a second lake where people could enjoy a range of activities. Surround it with a running and cycling track and think of the marathon opportunities.
Think of an aquatic theme park with hydro-slide and wave pool as the base for a range of activities, which sees the ward become the city's playground and a great place to live once more. I mention this in response to calls to Keep QE11 in the East. I understand why the council would want to put the Olympic size pool in a sports centre based in the city, but you cannot take away from the eastern suburbs the source of so much activity, without offering anything in return. The proposal as it stands is again divisive just as is having two separate rules for rates remission. Mine is an alternative option that the council should consider. And although it will not please everyone, there would be enough in it for people to see that their ward was not being asset-stripped and that many of their needs were being met.
On this note I also support the evaluation of repairing Centennial pool to a usable standard (as opposed to as new) so that it could be ready and available by the end of the year. We managed a temporary rugby stadium in 100 days; surely this is a worthwhile project which would go a long way to providing immediate relief to the lack of swimming facilities to the east of Hagley Park.
I have said on many occasions that we must turn this disaster into an opportunity and the opportunities in the east are boundless if only we open our minds to the possibilities."
When I was invited to join the UN Parliamentary Advisory Group on Disaster Risk Reduction, I used the opportunity to visit places that have had their own experience of disaster recovery including San Francisco, New Orleans, Kobe and Queensland. As a result I was invited to attend a couple of international conferences, which have opened my eyes to the connections between disaster risk reduction, resilience, sustainable development and climate change adaptation.
That is why I understand how important it is to remain future focused and to front up to these issues, no matter how hard they may look.
Blaming the Council for putting forward proposals that seek to identify the risks and mitigation measures based on the report that we commissioned to support us, doesn't move us forward.
Participating in an open dialogue about the issues, making submissions on the proposed changes to the District Plan working collaboratively to increase knowledge an understanding about the risks we face and how we mitigate them or adapt to them, that's what will help and why I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak tonight.
But that is not to say that we should feel fearful of speaking out - we are entitled to our views - and if we feel they are being stifled then people will think that's for a reason.
At a conference last year I heard the Mayor of Greensburg, Kansas, speak about their experience after they were hit by a tornado. He said 'I'm not a greenie by any means, but if you're going to build back, why wouldn't you build back green'. Every one of that town's new civic buildings is rated Platinum Green. But it's what he said next that gave me pause. He said: 'never forget that the greenest building is the one that's already standing'.
His wisdom doesn't come from years of studying environmental science or engineering. It comes from what is obvious, except to those who won't let common sense get in the way of a plan no matter what the price or who pays.
We need to seriously think about what we are doing and why.