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10 Years After the Earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — First the houses and cars vanished. Fences, driveways and the other remaining markers of suburban life followed. Now, only stretches of green remain — an eerie memorial to two earthquakes that leveled Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city, 10 years ago.

The undulating expanse, which begins two miles from downtown Christchurch, was deemed uninhabitable after the quakes, the second of which killed 185 people on Feb. 22, 2011. The 8,000 properties it encompassed were bought by the government and razed, the remnants swept away.

The land now sits in limbo, a reflection of the difficult decisions Christchurch has faced about how, what and where to rebuild on disaster-prone terrain. In the central business district, cranes, diggers and drills are still a feature of nearly every street. But in the eastern suburbs, a swath nearly twice the size of Central Park in New York is steadily being reclaimed by nature.

Cul-de-sacs taper into swamp and sludge, evidence of why residents left, not all of them by choice. Lawns have the look of scruffy golf courses; grass is mowed and sprayed for weeds, but nothing is newly planted. Beyond slouching lamp posts and faded road stenciling, there is little sign of a human past.

Gone wild, parts of the area, which the government named the red zone, now attract foragers. On a recent late-summer Sunday afternoon, a group of families straggled across a field of wildflowers that was once a backyard, stopping to pick yarrow and chamomile for tea.

A carpet of fruit on the ground below a towering pear tree was far more than they could carry off in their bags and baskets. Children crammed pears into their mouths, the next one already in hand.

“They’re sweet but they’re quite crunchy,” Baxter MacArthur, 10, called from his perch halfway up the tree.

The red zone is a sobering reminder that New Zealanders live in one of the most geologically active places on earth. The capital, Wellington, stands atop seismic fault lines, and the largest city, Auckland, is built on a ring of about 50 dormant volcanoes.

The first of the two earthquakes a decade ago, a magnitude-7.1 convulsion on Sept. 4, 2010, caused severe structural damage in Christchurch, a city of 380,000 that is the largest on New Zealand’s South Island. No one died as a direct result, though one person had a fatal heart attack.

That was followed five months later by a magnitude-6.2 quake that killed 173 people in the central city and 12 elsewhere, as facades and high-rise buildings crumbled. The city’s infrastructure — roads, bridges, water systems — was ravaged, and the central business district would remain closed for two years.

The mammoth task of reinventing itself has been fraught for Christchurch, which before the quakes was a fairly conservative city featuring traditional English architecture. The efforts have proceeded slowly, but a remade downtown, greener and more compact, is emerging.

Deciding what to do with the…

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