(L) Christchurch Stands Tall © Christchurch City Library, (M) Temple of Christchurch © Jocelyn Kingshorn, (R) Christchurch Stands Tall © Christchurch Stands Tall

After the February 2011 earthquake, the center of Christchurch, especially its central business district, looked like a war zone. Nearly five years later, although some buildings still sit crumbling, awaiting demolition or repairs, most of the city center has been rebuilt. During the reconstruction efforts that began in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, public art began to pop up all over the city. These artworks, like colorful Band-Aids, have not only covered up Christchurch’s physical wounds, they have also very effectively helped communities come together and recover from psychological trauma. The grassroots artists and the support they received from government agencies also have become a model for other communities well beyond New Zealand as they heal from natural disasters.

New Zealand, as its nickname The Shaky Isles suggests, is accustomed to earthquakes. The Southern Alps, a mountain range that forms the spine of the South Island, is one of the most visible and active examples of plate tectonics in the world. Last year alone there were a whopping 89 quakes measured at 5.0 magnitude or higher in the country as a whole (Geonet, 2015). However, few earthquakes have been as physically devastating as the 6.3-magnitude tremor that struck almost directly under the center of Christchurch, South Island’s largest city, on February 22, 2011. This tremor, which killed 185 people and severely damaged the city and its surrounding suburbs, was part of a sequence of earthquakes in the district of Canterbury that began with the 7.1-magnitude Darfield Earthquake on September 4, 20101. The Canterbury Earthquake Sequence, was of greater length and intensity than any earthquake event in New Zealand’s recorded history.

Community recovery

In the two years following the devastating February 2011 earthquake, 13,000 aftershocks (with a magnitude greater than 2.0) were recorded (Froggatt, 2015). Studies have shown that these aftershocks caused acute stress symptoms in already traumatized survivors and compounded the effects of the initial earthquakes (Canterbury University, 2013). Keen to address psychological disruptions, such as loss of a loved one, a job, or a home, the New Zealand government began to work on a coordinated response.

In his May 11, 2011 briefing to the Prime Minister, Chief Science Advisor Peter Gluckman argued that the recovery of Canterbury should be primarily judged in terms of people feeling that they are coping with their lives and livelihoods, rather than just in physical terms. In order to accelerate this process of mental recovery, Gluckman called for a comprehensive and effective psychosocial recovery program that emphasized resilience, community participation, and wellbeing:

“[This program] needs firstly to support the majority of the population who need some psychosocial support within the community (such as basic listening, information and community-led interventions) to allow their innate psychological resilience and coping mechanisms to come to the fore, and secondly to address the most severely affected minority by efficient referral systems and sufficient specialized care” (Gluckman 2011).

Insufficient attention to the first group, Gluckman explained, will likely increase the number represented in the second group.

In his briefing, Gluckman warned of tension between survivor’s desire for an immediate response and the need for planning and risk reduction. This tension, according to Gluckman, can make survivors frustrated and angry, and it can exacerbate other symptoms, like feelings of loss and grief. To minimize this process, he called for the promotion of local empowerment and engagement by working closely in a collaborative way with the affected population. “A feeling of self-efficacy and community efficacy assist the population in reactivating their coping mechanisms,” Gluckman said. “Local governance, empowerment and ownership have been shown to facilitate recovery” (Gluckman, 2011).

(L) Public Art © Jocelyn Kingshorn, (R) Sound Garden © Jocelyn Kingshorn

Gluckman’s advice did not go unheeded: Helping people cope with the social and psychological impact of the earthquakes became—and continues to be—a cornerstone in the government’s management of the Christchurch recovery. Immediately after his briefing, government and nongovernmental agencies began to work together to develop a layered wellbeing-support system. This system included community information hubs, a helpline for survivors, free counseling services, and All Right?—a marketing campaign launched in 2013 to support Cantabrians to improve their mental health and wellbeing (CERA).

These efforts accumulated in the Community in Mind strategy, which was approved by the New Zealand cabinet in February 2014. This strategy, targeted for greater Christchurch, set out to help communities drive their own recovery through, among other things, community engagement initiatives (CERA).

Community engagement

In the past five years, myriad community engagement initiatives in Christchurch have rebuilt and strengthened community ties, which, according to Gluckman, is vital for emotional recovery. Sometimes this engagement was limited to informing communities of decisions made by the government—for example, decisions related to land rezoning— and giving communities opportunities to better understand the implications of these decisions. Other engagement initiatives have actively sought community input to inform government decisions. The design of the Christchurch Earthquake Memorial is a good example of a project that attracted enormous community involvement. Out of 331 entries, six designs were shortlisted in an international design competition, which ran from July to August 2014. The public and a so-called First Knowledge Group—bereaved families and individuals who were seriously injured from the earthquake—were asked to give feedback and advice to the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, in selecting the winning design.

Two other engagement initiatives are worth noting. The hugely successful city-wide Share an Idea campaign was held in May 2011. It generated more than 106,000 ideas for the Christchurch City Council’s planning team to consider for the design of a new city (NV Interactive). A similar, ongoing, initiative is called Let’s Talk. Launched in April 2011 by the Waimakariri District Council, Let’s Talk encourages community feedback and canvassed local opinions on projects related to land use in the Waimakariri District to the north of Christchurch (Waimakariri District Council).

Art and recovery

Parallel to these official initiatives to facilitate community engagement, grassroots efforts emerged with the same goal, but in this case through art. Artworks, including impromptu installations such as the Sound Garden (a garden that features plants, seating, and musical instruments made from recycled materials and junk) and a Summer Pallet Pavilion (a community center made of 3,000 wooden pallets) strengthened community ties, accelerated emotional recovery, and improved overall quality of life (Gap Filler 2015).

Both installations were initiatives of Gap Filler, a collaborative community group formed after the earthquakes to develop innovative ways to make temporary use of empty city spaces. The group’s projects, created for and by the community, were instantly popular among Christchurch’s residents, who had lost their movie theaters, cafes, bars, and clubs and were in need of entertainment as well as a place to meet with peers to share stories and process trauma. Furthermore, the act of building the installations became a cathartic experience for survivors and gave them a sense of self-efficacy.

Ballerina Mural by Owen Dippie, Christchurch © Jocelyn Kingshorn

Gap Filler’s whimsical response to the earthquakes triggered a grassroots movement of people who found creative ways to revitalize the city and its suburbs. The community-led project Mural Madness beautified bare walls and vacant spaces in New Brighton, a seaside suburb in Christchurch that was severely hit by the earthquakes, while the local public art project From the Ground Up did the same but then in the city (Mural Madness 2014 & Ironlak 2013)

A large-scale public art event, Christchurch Stands Stall, was another positive sign of recovery. This event, held in the summer of 2014-2015, celebrated the Christchurch that is rising up and standing tall. For 12 weeks, the city’s streets, parks, and open spaces were taken over by 49 giraffes decorated by both well-known and undiscovered artists. Another 50 giraffe calves were sponsored by schools and decorated by their students. At the end of the exhibition, the large giraffes were auctioned off. The event raised more than US $3 million for local charities, including Gap Filler (Christchurch Stands Tall 2015).

There were more striking examples of projects that meant to lift residents’ spirits and help the process of emotional healing. The Temple of Christchurch project explored emotional release, healing, and closure. It followed the tradition of the Burning Man festival, where each year thousands of people build a temple on site in the Nevada desert. Participants of the festival are invited to come and bring their own pain, troubles, and trauma to be expressed on the walls and then be burnt away on the last night. In Christchurch, artist Hippathy Valentine and his team took the Burning Man concept and reimagined it to allow people to find emotional release through art and writing therapy, and to help people deal with experiences they hadn’t been able to process yet. The project also facilitated communal dialogue over a common experience through reading what other people had written (Life in Vacant Spaces 2013).

These creative grassroots responses to Christchurch’s tragedy inspired more formal institutions to follow suit. For example, the Christchurch Art Gallery, the city’s pre-eminent art institution, was also driven to the streets, albeit out of necessity. Because the Gallery has been closed since February 2011, its curators decided to take art out onto the streets with its Outer Spaces program, which continues to exhibit new works of art across the city (Boosted 2013). Through this program, the Gallery wants to ensure that Christchurch’s creative community stays in the city. By commissioning murals on walls across town, Outer Spaces provides work for artists who lost their studios (Bergman 2014).

Creative grassroots responses to Christchurch’s tragedy inspired more formal institutions to follow suit.

Individual artists also have contributed to the city’s emotional recovery. In 2012 Peter Majendie created an installation, Reflection of Loss of Lives, Livelihoods and Living in Neighborhood, in the heart of Christchurch. Where a church once stood, 185 distinct white chairs each represent a life lost. The installation, which was immediately dubbed Christchurch’s unofficial earthquake memorial, sits on 185 square meters (2,000 square feet) of grass, representing new growth and regeneration (Boyd 2012). As with other official initiatives that are generally slowed down by red tape, it took five years before the design of the official earthquake memorial was chosen. Majendie, on the other hand, recognized the immediate need for a place where survivors and bereaved families can commemorate the lives lost. In an interview with news website Stuff, Majendie said the installation has served a useful purpose in lieu of an official memorial. “I think the chairs thing has been quite a tangible help to the grieving process,” he said. (Mann, 2015).

(L) Empty Chairs 2014 © Rose Holley (M) Hands Up © Jocelyn Kingshorn, (R) Christchurch Stands Tall © Christchurch Stands Tall

Antony Gormley also contributed a commemorative piece of art. This world-renowned British sculptor, who was commissioned by the Christchurch City Council Public Art Advisory Group, created two identical sculptures to commemorate the earthquake. One was recently placed mid-current in the Ōtākaro Avon River, offering a point of reflection and contemplation in a natural environment. The second figure will be installed in the Northern Quadrangle of the Arts Centre of Christchurch in early 2016 in celebration of the site’s restoration and the resilience of the people of Christchurch. In an interview with news website Press, Gormley said he wanted the sculptures to play a part in Christchurch’s healing process: “I believe in the therapeutic potential of art,” he said. “In objectifying a moment of pleasure or pain it can release us from the pull or continued return, whether of addiction or depression. The challenge (in the case of Christchurch) was to find both a location and a language to carry this potential. I wanted to make something that was in recognition of a traumatic change, but which could also take some part in its healing” (Gates, 2015).

A creative model of recovery

The explosion of creativity after the February 2011 earthquake has surprised many people and has prompted accolades from the national arts community. Stephen Wainwright, chief executive of Creative New Zealand, the national arts development agency of the New Zealand government, told Stuff that Christchurch “has been blessed by so many people who have responded (to the earthquake) so cleverly and creatively …People are positive about the arts and there is a greater awareness of the arts’ ability to contribute to social cohesion and the economy of the city” (Feeny, 2015).

In the past five years, Christchurch and its residents have come a long way. The city today is an exciting center of creative energy and a shining example of urban resilience. So much so that researchers have argued that Christchurch can serve as a guide and a model for recovery, especially for developed countries (Kwok Shi Min, 2014). The art-based initiatives discussed in this article have made—and continue to make—an important contribution to social wellbeing and community development.

The city today is an exciting center of creative energy and a shining example of urban resilience.

The biannual Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority Wellbeing Survey underscores how Canterbury’s emotional and physical recovery is well underway. The April 2015 survey revealed that 79 percent of respondents rated their quality of life as “good” or “very good,” while 22 percent reported an improvement in quality of life from 12 months prior. These are the highest results for both questions in the six times the survey has been conducted (CERA 2015).

Some challenges, however, still persist. Nineteen percent of residents still feel stressed, compared with 8 percent before the earthquake. With its Community in Mind strategy, the government addresses this need for ongoing psychosocial support. Targeted services continue to support individuals and communities still working through the recovery process. Alongside these efforts from above, grassroots artists and community-based organizations will also continue to create spaces that encourage survivors to emotionally heal

It sounds like an old cliché, but in every disaster there’s opportunity. The graffiti artists, muralists, installation artists, and urban gardeners, for whom the devastated city was a blank canvas, commemorated and beautified, showed how disaster spawned revival and innovation. As such, they set an example that motivated Cantabrians to face trauma before seizing this tragedy as the start of something new and perhaps something better. These grassroots efforts, strengthened by government support, illustrate how people can restore social and emotional terra firma after disaster, even to the Shaky Isles!

Special thanks to collaborator Jane Morgan, General Manager, Social and Cultural Outcomes at Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA)


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