New Zealand: Where art aids disaster recovery
MANILA, Philippines – It's a question that has confronted us since Super Typhoon Yolanda: how do we get back on our feet the best way possible?
I visited the New Zealand city of Christchurch in March and got a glimpse of a thought-provoking and inspiring strategy for recovery – one noticeably aided by art.
The city was rocked by a 2011 earthquake (in fact an aftershock of a 2010 earthquake) that killed 185 people. It's still a broken city, with shells of old buildings at almost every turn and caution tape caging empty spaces. At times I couldn't help feeling like I walked into a crime scene.
But just as ubiquitous as signs of destruction are emblems of hope manifested in an astounding array of art littered across the city.
Parking lots (formerly occupied by buildings) are towered over by wall-encompassing graffiti paintings: a study of a young woman's face, a ballerina, a sea of penguins.
A flock of sheep painted in stripes and crayon colors double as benches. A row of cathedral-style arches form a public space for weekend markets and concerts.
These splashes of color and humanity are as unassuming and surprising as a flower growing in the middle of rubble. They made me feel, as a tourist, like Christchurch was introducing itself to me. The city seemed to be asserting itself and its ability to survive.
'Colorful' recovery strategy
But what impressed me is the government support for these artworks.
In 2013, an art festival supported by the city council commissioned international and New Zealand street artists to paint on up to 10 walls in its city center.
The festival, aptly named RISE, aimed to bring back color to the damaged city.
"Colorful" is one way to describe the city's recovery strategy.
For starters, its Central Recovery Plan's campaign theme is dominated by rainbow colors.
When the City Mall fell to ruins, the government built a transitional shopping area where shopkeepers could continue doing business. The shops are housed in container vans painted in a kaleidoscope of colors.
The result is the Cashel Re:Start Mall that has become a major tourism attraction and a one-of-a-kind shopping experience.
Remembering the city
Christchurch's art is not just used to cover up the cracks and gaps, it's also used to remember.
The almost unbearably moving 185 Empty Chairs is a square piece of field with rows of empty white chairs each symbolizing the 185 unique individuals claimed by the quake.
One can't help but tear up reading the letters and poems written in the installation's guest book – words of condolence, grief, and hope from visitors all over the world.
A few steps away is the Cardboard Cathedral, a transitional church now being used by citizens since their old cathedral was ruined by the quake.
The triangular-shaped cathedral is made of cardboard, wood, and glass. Sitting in one of its cardboard chairs was a healing experience, watching a children's choir perform under a ray of sun piercing through stained-glass windows.
In Cathedral Square, the cultural heart of the city, an outdoor exhibit allows visitors and citizens to see the square as it had once been before the quake. Panoramic photographs and sketches depict the buildings and structures to ensure a bit of the "old" city survives.
Crowdsourced recovery plan
And so 4 years after the calamity, Christchurch has become what I would not hesitate to call "vibrant." It has emerged from the rubble, even managing to make the disaster part of its unique personality.
Such art can only come from noble aspirations.
The Christchurch City Council asked its citizens to "Share an Idea" on how the city should rebuild itself. The call-out attracted more than 100,000 suggestions.
The crowd-sourced ideas became the basis for the city's vision – a vision of a green city with low-rise and safe buildings, strong urban design principles, strengthened heritage buildings, high-quality public transport and housing, playgrounds, and parks.
But what got to me was this phrase in their vision statement: "An urban building fabric that speaks to our sense of place, our identity, our shared cultural heritage."
We should aspire for rehabilitation that is human-centric instead of politics-centric or personality-centric. It should be transparent with clear-cut roles disseminated to the public (see the list of roles and responsibilities for the Christchurch recovery here).
Rehabilitation will always be arduous and slow-moving, but it doesn't mean we can't enjoy the ride.
Art may seem a secondary concern (or not one at all) to some but I think art can be a valuable tool. In essence, art is a celebration of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive with emotion, love, hope, hate, dream, and fear.
If rehabilitation is about the revitalization of human communities, then art must play a role.
Art can remind our politicians and the private sector that rehabilitation doesn't deal only with progress reports, figures, and flowcharts. It must be centered on beating hearts and thinking minds. – Rappler.com