It has been over eight years since the devastating earthquakes that affected the city of Ōtautahi Christchurch in Aotearoa New Zealand. Initially triggered by a 7.1 magnitude quake in September 2010 and followed by the fatal 6.3 magnitude earthquake on the 22nd of February 2011, the disaster wrought large scale destruction on residential and urban areas.
Yet as the old and damaged has been dismantled, the new has slowly and hesitantly emerged. Over these years the physical and political landscape has continued to shift and change throughout the amorphous phases of response and recovery.
Since the earthquakes I have been involved in research on the community level response and recovery to disaster and the potential for social and environmental change to emerge from these times of crisis. As we face an increasingly uncertain future we can learn much from the long-term recovery efforts at the grassroots scale.
Every year the frequency and scale of so called ‘natural disasters’ grow as the climate shifts and an increasing number of people populate urban areas in geologically active regions. In September 2018, a terrifying satellite image emerged of seven ‘super storms’ lining the equator. This stark representation of our changing climate is becoming more common as we continue to increase emissions and avoid the necessary changes to our society and economy.
We can, and should, theorise the broader politics of disaster. However, everyday stories of post-disaster action and resistance shed light on the small-scale, experimental grassroots interventions that bring forward hope in the midst of crisis. With the growing phenomenon of climate grief and despair, it would seem crucial to maintain some hopeful sense of the alternatives we can still create for ourselves. Either that, or we become paralysed into despondency.
Discussion on the use and misuse of crisis is now complemented by growing commentary on the solidarity that emerges in the immediate aftermath of disaster. Popularised by Rebecca Solnit’s book ‘Paradise Built in Hell’, this framing rejects the narrative that there is no alternative to the politics of disaster capitalism. Instead, there is hope in the response of individuals, communities and neighbourhoods, a potential for coming together in the immediate aftermath of crisis.
But what happens when the emergency fades, the media depart and the long hard work of recovery begins?
Street art depicting feelings of dissatisfaction with the political approach of the recovery was a common sight around the city, especially in the lead up to the 2014 government election. Featured here is Minister for Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee.
The Canterbury earthquakes fractured open the narrative of Aotearoa New Zealand, they laid bare not only our strength and ability to come together but also the deep rifts of inequality and government policy that have grown steadily since the 1980s. It is impossible to ignore the consequences of this shift. From people living in tents and garages to haphazard government consultation on plans for school closures, the politics of disaster infiltrated almost all aspects of the recovery.
We know from numerous studies of disaster and crisis that those in elite positions of power may see such fractures as a threat to their legitimacy as well as an opportunity to extend and entrench previously unfavourable policies.
Growing food amongst the rubble – the urban agriculture initiative Agropolis played a key role in greening the city centre throughout the mid stages of the earthquake recovery.
These small opportunities expose dynamics of power and politics and open a possibility for something new to be crafted from the destruction. The grassroots are a particularly fertile space for these challenges to power and politics in the aftermath of these increasingly routine ‘extraordinary’ events.
Participation in recovery is widely considered crucial for building a sense of purpose and ownership following disaster. Yet, in Christchurch, the central government was criticised for a centralised approach which reduced transparency and participation in local decision making processes.
In the first few years after the earthquakes, there was wide ranging evidence of dissatisfaction with this approach. One survey of 800 people conducted in 2014 found that over three quarters of respondents felt that the government was focussed on the wrong priorities, while only 54% felt they had been given the opportunity to participate in the recovery.
These quantitative findings were echoed in my qualitative research. As one participant stated:
“The government completely overrode the plans we made for ourselves and suddenly came up with their own incredibly unaffordable plan and then bullied the City Council into agreeing to pay for a lot of it. As a result of their grandiose ideas other people were shut out.”
Many communities fought against this, resisting exclusion and creating their own diverse forms of community led recovery. As one participant said, the earthquakes gave them “an opportunity to hope and to dream”. Grassroots organisations tackled a range of challenges emerging after the earthquakes. Building from the strength of pre-disaster networks, these diverse forms of community led recovery opened space for residents in the city to take back ownership and leadership of their neighbourhoods and city.
One of the most visible aspects of this has been an evolving transitional architecture movement that opened space for re-negotiating how the public interacts with space and notions of ‘property’.
There have also been multiple urban agriculture and art projects that have engaged with performance and creativity to co-create new spaces amongst the rubble. These actions have cultivated local economies and a sense of community within the bustle of the reconstructing city.
Now, eight years on, these types of projects have evolved and gathered pace as recovery in the city has progressed. Urban agriculture projects such as the Roimata Food Commons and the Ōtākaro Orchard are continuing the work of rebuilding the city around principles of community led participation and experimentation. Other organisations in the city also continue to focus on the shape of the rebuild and citizen participation such as, Te Pūtahi, the Christchurch centre for architecture and citymaking.
It is common for emergent post-disaster or post-crisis projects to be focussed on greening or gardening activities. The biophillia hypothesis suggests that humans have an affinity with nature that draws us towards the outdoors during a crisis. Community gardening and urban food forests also provide a way to localise food production and build social ties which can contribute to a shift in values away from individualist and consumerist ideas of wealth and happiness.
While these are small scale actions, they demonstrate what is possible, and when combined, may provide an opportunity to change how we operate as a society.
The Dance O Mat is a popular installation by Gap Filler which provided space in the city for people to dance and gather. A coin operated washing machine is wired to a sound system that plays music.
The role of experimenting to enact change is crucial to this formula. Ryan Reynolds, in the book ‘Once in a Lifetime: City-making after Disaster in Christchurch’ notes that the potential to create change through transitional projects lies in the chance for these projects to go beyond filling a need to “having an ongoing influence inspiring new ways of thinking about the creation – and ‘ownership’ – of city space”.[i] These interventions have a varied duration and impact on different people, but the possibility they unleash lies is the potential for things to be different.
In this sense, a rupture in the status quo might be seen as a “generative moment” of possibility that holds hope for a different way of operating and participating in the politics of disaster.[ii] This sort of hope doesn’t mean engaging in blind optimism, but instead enacts a desire to create a politics that places different values and norms around society and the economy.[iii]
Focussing on hope in disaster recovery is not intended to belittle or deflect from the injustice that is perpetuated through failed policies and blunt opportunism. Instead this focus renders visible the alternatives to the status quo that already exist and are being created right now. Ben Anderson describes this form of hope as projecting into the future yet “constantly being folded into the here and now” to create a different world.[iv]
But there is also a need for caution here. This action and solidarity in Christchurch emerged from the shared experience of disaster and, for many, trauma. These are by no means conditions to be welcomed. The serious consequences of the earthquakes and subsequent recovery have led to a barrage of ongoing effects for the residents of the city. Just one example of this was made clear when a study found as many as four in five primary school age children displayed the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is no doubt that these events can tear at the fabric of a city to further disadvantage those who already have the least to buffer them from these destructive forces.
In Christchurch, hope through recovery continues to emerge through the everyday actions of local communities that continue to experiment with and create different forms of urban space and recovery. These actions are creating local food networks, increasing biodiversity and fostering community support. The presence of hope is vitally important for creating wider political and social change beyond disaster and crisis events through opening up the possibilities for a different economy and society.
In the face of an ever changing and growing landscape of political and ecological crisis, more than ever we need to move beyond forms of politics that exacerbate injustice in response to both routine and exceptional events and towards a politics of possibility for people to come together, to build something new, to experiment, and in the face of failure and challenge, to try again. In this way hope arises through the regular and exceptional acts that occur in neighbourhoods, across backyard fences and amongst the rubble. Sharing these stories represents hope that the lure of crisis politics will be resisted, from which a more caring and just future can emerge.
[i] Reynolds, R. (2014). Desire for the Gap. In B. Bennett, J. Dann, E. Johnson, & R. Reynolds (Eds.), Once in a lifetime: city-building after disaster in Christchurch (1st ed, pp. 167–176). Christchurch, New Zealand: Freerange Press. (p172)
[ii] Head, L. (2016). Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Reconceptualising human-nature relations. London: Taylor and Francis. (page 166)
[iii] Cameron, J., & Hicks, J. (2014). Performative Research for a Climate Politics of Hope: Rethinking Geographic Scale, “Impact” Scale, and Markets: Performative Research for a Climate Politics of Hope. Antipode, 46(1), 53–71.
[iv] Anderson, B. (2010). Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies. Progress in Human Geography, 34(6), 777–798. (page 778)
Teaser photo credit: Mid demolition, traces of the homes and lives that took place here still remained. Now the red zone is an expansive government owned estate of green space and rewilding nature that curves around the Avon-Ōtakaro River.