Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae has presented Christchurch with the Royal Humane Society Gold Medal for its part in coping with the quake.
He says the award recognises the many ordinary people who displayed extreme bravery and humanity.
''What is so extraordinary about this kind of bravery is that these ordinary people, who themselves were fearful and in shock, put their own lives at great risk to salvage any life they could.'' Sir Jerry says.
He says the award acknowledges all people who put fear aside to preserve life.
Thousands gather to remember
Thousands of people gathered at Hagley Park in Christchurch at a public service to mark the first anniversary of the February earthquake.
Commemorative services were held in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand to remember the 6.3-magnitude quake that struck at 12.51pm on 22 February 2011, claiming the lives of 185 people.
Some 20,000 people were at the service on Wednesday afternoon, which opened with the sounding of a conch shell, and a mihi for those gathered.
The names of all those who died in the quake were read out as part of the ceremony.
A two-minute silence marked the moment the quake struck.
As the service ended, 185 monarch butterflies were released, signifying those who died as a result of the quake.
Services were also held around the country to mark the anniversary.
In Auckland about 200 people took part in commemorative activities at the War Memorial Museum, with donations being collected for Christchurch.
A similar number attended a service at the Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul, where Anglican Bishop of Wellington, Thomas Brown, read a prayer especially for the people of Christchurch.
In Dunedin about 500 people marked two minutes silence at the Museum Reserve, near Otago University. Bagpipes were played afterwards and Amazing Grace sung.
PM speaks of the day everything changed
Ceremonies in the city began with a memorial service in Latimer Square at 8am, focussed on families who lost loved ones and those who tried to help.
Prime Minister John Key told the service that the events of February last year will go down in history as one of the country's darkest days.
Mr Key told the service that everything changed that day, and the city of Christchurch changed forever.
He said he would never forget coming to Latimer Square in the hours after the quake.
"People were huddled under blankets, sirens were blaring, and dust and smoke was thick in the air.
"There were fires, helicopters with monsoon buckets hovering overhead.
"And amid all of this, aftershocks continued to shake the very ground we stand on today."
Christchurch mayor Bob Parker said Latimer Square became a centre for those who came to help from all over the world.
"The square in our city was transformed within 24 hours into a United Nations of international effort, of compassion, of courage."
Mr Parker acknowledged the countless emergency services, including the first responders who came to help.
About 500 people, including members of the public, attended the service.
Communities organise events
In addition to public services, Christchurch residents organised community events and gatherings, including floral tributes, public picnics, exhibitions and church services.
The people of Christchurch were invited to throw fresh flowers into the Avon River at memorial gathering points.
And in London, New Zealanders have been invited to evensong at Westminster Abbey, where prayers will be offered to earthquake victims.