Opinion

Resilience, Toughness and Damage

January 24, 2012

In Christchurch, ‘resilience’ is a phrase used extensively by the media and government to try to contain the traumatised city’s afterlife. Yet as Lara Strongman identifies, perhaps this usage is a sleight of hand that conceals more than it reveals.

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‘Resilience’ is a word we’re hearing a lot these days in Christchurch. In fact, the visionary new draft Central City Plan includes the words ‘resilient’ or ‘resilience’ 36 times in 154 pages. Our ruined city will be rebuilt with a foundation of resilience. The new buildings that populate it will be resilient to the violent seismic activity we have now come to expect. Social resilience and the strength of communities will be considered in the construction of urban public space and in zoning decisions. Eventually the garden city – absent its Gothic Revival stone and iconic modernist buildings, and its low-lying river suburbs – will rise again as a resilient Utopia on the plains.

And significantly, the people of Canterbury, who in the last year have experienced a sequence of more than 2500 earthquakes of M3 and above, including three major events that have levelled the CBD and rendered entire neighbourhoods uninhabitable, are often said by national and local commentators to be extremely resilient. Tough, even.

That was how Radio New Zealand introduced its report on the devastating news that one in five homes in satellite town Kaiapoi would be demolished, due to severe land damage, which has been deemed uneconomic to repair. ‘They’re tough, in Kaiapoi…’

Except they’re not. And the people of nearby Christchurch are not. They’re the same as people anywhere, in Ponsonby or Temuka or Karori or Murupara. The people of New Zealand’s second-biggest city are not a sturdy-legged race of dour peasants with a high pain threshold. They’re you, and your mum, and your neighbours, and the guy in the dairy, and the people you went to school with. Just New Zealand people. No tougher, no weaker than anyone else. And a year’s worth of earthquakes, the loss of houses and possessions and, in some cases, friends and family members, has taken its toll on us all.

Dowsons Shoes, Lichfield St, Christchurch

Photograph by John Collie, courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

Like their counterparts in town, the people of the Kaiapoi red zone are likely to be devastated that they will be forced to leave their homes and that in many cases the payout they receive will be insufficient to buy another house. Many older people or people on low fixed incomes, of which there are many in the residential red zones (that fact is a story in itself), will be unable to raise a mortgage. They will be forced to rent, seeing the equity they once had in their homes drain into the pockets of others. They will see the modest savings that they had hoped to pass on to their children disappear into the profit statements of banks and property developers. They will be forced to leave their homes and their communities, where the personal relationships built up over years have ensured a means of social support for the vulnerable. The question of people’s toughness in the face of these repeated blows to their financial and social security is glib, irrelevant and insulting.

The story, clearly, is in what’s happening to the people, not in the presumption of their stoic emotional response. To describe the residents of the city collectively as ‘resilient’ is to effectively diminish the real-life effects of the disaster on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

If resilience is a measure of the amount of strain that can be absorbed before breaking point is reached, Christchurch people are at the limit of their elasticity. Doctor friends have told me quietly about the large volume of antidepressants they’re prescribing and, despite many outlets having closed, alcohol consumption is up across the city. The Problem Gambling Foundation reports that the use of pokie machines has tripled since February’s quake. I’m not surprised by any of this. Some days it’s not easy to find reasons to be cheerful. But to admit that the task ahead seems, at times, overwhelming – that one is not as resilient as one might be – is to admit to personal weakness. That’s what it feels like for many people, anyway.

To its great credit, Radio New Zealand instantly changed its tack in the interview with Kaiapoi’s mayor, after being tweeted about the inherent wrongness of the ‘they’re tough down there’ line of approach. The interviewer read out the tweet and asked if it were true that people were devastated. And, immediately, got a response in which the mayor described the great financial, social and emotional cost that local people, including him and his family, were faced with. The earthquakes were the first disaster; their financial consequences for individuals the second. The mayor’s voice cracked as he spoke. He sounded like a courageous man dealing with great uncertainty. This was proper radio journalism. The right questions were asked to get an accurate account of a person’s experience. It told a very different story than the ridiculous prepackaged ‘tough Southerners’ routine.

The frame that’s put round a view of the world has a great deal to do with the way we understand what we’re looking at. A tiny shift to one side or the other makes all the difference in telling a story. If you’re standing in any street in Christchurch, things may look much as they always have: but turn 45 degrees and there will be piles of rubble and gaps in the streetscape like broken teeth. The sheer magnitude of it all is only just starting to be realised: three major destructive earthquakes, the closing and levelling of the CBD, the sleepless nights, the deaths, the injuries, the financial cost, the insurance problems, the loss of certainty and peace of mind and personal security. The people are as damaged as the city.

Lara Strongman is an art historian and curator based in Christchurch.

  • Andrew Robins January 25th, 2012 11:38 am

    Thank you Lara for articulating so well what I and many others are feeling.

    I am a resident of Eastern Christchurch, and I still don’t know if my home will be repaired, or if it will be demolished.

    I do know that my community has been hammered, repeatedly.

    And that I am tired of trying to explain.

    Maybe that looks like resiliency and toughness from the outside.


  • Helen January 25th, 2012 1:02 pm

    It appears to be directly analogous to the Black Saturday (2009) fires in Victoria. People here still haven’t recovered from it, financially or psychologically.


  • Justine McLisky January 25th, 2012 8:09 pm

    Fantastic article, Lara – that’s exactly what my friends and family in Chch are expressing, although they’re trying to be seen as coping on top of it – a fragile layer of resilience which peels a bit with each continuing shake. The continuation of the aftershocks and the wider effect of it all is not known outside of NZ either – very few people here in the UK have any idea this is still going on post-the February quake.


  • Eddie January 25th, 2012 8:23 pm

    I’m a community worker in the hillside suburbs of Sumner and Redcliffs which have been severely affected. I’m seeing real exhaustion and high levels of stress and emotional strain. December 23 was something we really didn’t need.


  • The limits of resilience « The Standard January 26th, 2012 5:25 am

    [...] article by Lara-Strongman in the Australian Design Review provides a different perspective: If resilience is a measure of the amount of strain that can be absorbed before breaking point is [...]


  • Tony Milne January 26th, 2012 7:16 am

    Great article.


  • May January 26th, 2012 8:56 am

    This is a great article. I am sick of hearing the word ‘resilience’. We live here and have to deal with the daily aftershocks and whether or not the next one is going to be another biggie. This is not resilience, it is daily life. We plod along because there is no alternative. We are tired, stressed and living in what can be described as like a ‘war zone’. That may sound extreme, but you only need to walk around the corner to find rubble and broken roads – the endless reminder of what we are still going through.


  • Bridgitte Thornley January 26th, 2012 12:32 pm

    Thanks Lara, you speak for me in this article. I too am sick of the word “resilience”. Similarly, an article in the Listener after the September quake implied that we must not use the word trauma. This comes from a mistaken belief that a strengths approach which focuses on the positive will always lead to more positive outcomes. I believe this denies the truth – that the earthquakes have been traumatic. Telling the truth leads to healing, denying the truth ends in supression and depression – as indicated by the increased alcohol use and gambling in Christchurch.


  • Jojo January 26th, 2012 12:54 pm

    Fantastic article – so true. Have tried to explain it to so many people but can’t find the words without tears.


  • Joan January 26th, 2012 2:31 pm

    I didn’t think it was a great article, I think it was someone’s opinion, and not necessarily objective. I think the people of Christchurch and surrounding areas are the toughest there are, we have been to hell and we haven’t come back yet. Resilient, well I don’t know how to determine that, if the rebuild goes according to plan and we end up with the garden city reborn I think most would like to be described as resilient. That for the most part is out of our hands. I live in Kaiapoi and am thankful everyday we didn’t suffer too much damage. I was so thankful that I sent hot meals to the city following February for those who were so much worse off, and whilst there was no damage to our home, there has certainly been “head damage”. These events are the most frightening thing to go through, but we are still here. Christchurch and Canterbury are our home and we don’t intend leaving unless it is absolutely necessary. That is not to say that I criticise those who have had to go, or to say they weren’t tough, but they have gone. Fear is the worst thing to have to deal with and I am surprised by my own “resilience” to fight it everyday. “Resilience and toughness” are largely a state of mind and on many levels, so whilst the article may resound with a great many people, it won’t with just as many.


  • Fiona Cleary January 26th, 2012 2:59 pm

    Thanks Lara, for putting down so clearly what is often difficult to verbalize. I sometimes think that people want to think of us as tough and resilient because then they don’t have to think further! It is an easy out for those not caught in the thick of it.


  • Jenna January 26th, 2012 3:22 pm

    Oh how I wish there was a massive big “LIKE” button for this article – I would hit it repeatedly!

    I have spent my life planning to move to Christchurch, and finally, 5 years after I finally did, it fell apart, and so did I. My house will be repaired but no-one knows when, my cat died horribly because overchlorinated water shutting his kidneys down, my business has suffered badly as I work from home and now have a fraction of the workroom space I had.

    I am tired of the constant battles to achieve each tiny step forward, and tired of finding out they weren’t really headed forward after all. I’m tired of constantly checking out the best escape route every time I enter a new building, tired of bumpy roads and potholes and if one more person uses the “at least we’re still alive” line, I may scream. Being “still alive” doesn’t make the rest of what we go through every day any better.

    I’m constantly ashamed to think it but am confronted with it repeatedly: I’m tired of everyone thinking that the “worst hit” suburbs are the only badly effected ones. My house is central, near AMI stadium, and we had to leave in February when it started to collapse. I’m tired of people being so surprised that we had any damage at all, And I’m tired of those same suburbs being the only ones receiving assistance, support and attention because of that assumption.

    Mostly, I’m just tired. Tired and constantly sad. I want to go home.


  • Jo January 26th, 2012 7:11 pm

    Interesting article, interesting point of view. I live in the East, I drive a 4WD just so I can actually drive down the road or in some instances on the footpath. I think I am tough and resilient, not only have I managed to live through the shakes, I have managed to raise my two very young, very traumatised children. But also been a part of an amazing “Eastern” school team guiding and supporting nearly 700 children and families through this too. I think in your article you have forgotten to mention the kids in all of this. We as adults are unable, at times to understand, be “strong” cope and make sense of all this. Imagine how our children are feeling. Not only are they terrified about the shakes they in some instances have lost their major support beam – The adult who always tells them “everything is going to be alright” In this city, our city, there are some incredibly sad little people. We are broken, but we are also resilient in our ability to try and maintain our “past” life. We go to the malls, we go to the grocers, we smile when it shakes and tell our children “look honey, I told you it would stop, see, don’t be frightened” We are resilient. (ha ha how many times did I use that word in this comment?)


  • Mark January 26th, 2012 9:11 pm

    Lara, thank you. Although Aussies, my wife and I lived for six years in Aotearoa and our hearts remain there along with two adult children. We have many friends in Christchurch and did business there. Our hearts ache for you. It is timely to hear your wisdom: the people of Christchurch are bone-weary. They deserve praise as well as sympathy, but the oft-repeated of words meant to inspire now angers more than helps. People need to feel free to stay or to go. Leaving is not a lack of resilience, simply one of several understandable ways of responding. People cannot and will not live without hope — but they may need to seek it elsewhere.


  • Vincent January 26th, 2012 9:56 pm

    Great article… and very poignant for the casualties and damage caused post-disaster. UNISDR, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has been working with local and national governments to ensure that they know their disaster risks and take preventative and resilient measures to protect their communities. Your article highlights that “resilience” is a systemic issue that needs to consider both human and environmental factors pre and post-disaster. The aftereffects of what NZ is going through is a reminder that disasters have very real and personal impacts. It’s also a reminder that governments and communities have a responsibility to build (back) better so that citizens are not overstretched to the point of breaking.

    For more info on UNISDR, visit: http://www.unisdr.org/


  • how are some more certain of everything than i am of anything?…. » Blog Archive » reading notes January 27th, 2012 2:09 am

    [...] http://www.australiandesignreview.com/opinion/16811-resilience-toughness-and-damage [...]


  • Denna Jones January 28th, 2012 8:37 pm

    A must-read article with wider implications regarding the global housing crisis. I predict in December 2012 I will reflect that this was one of the most important articles I read this year.


  • Karen February 2nd, 2012 9:43 am

    Thank you Lara,I so resonate with your opinion. It is important that we can express our vulnerability and our losses – even if only to ourselves – rather than feel we have to be stoic and meet someone else’s description of us.


  • Hayley February 6th, 2012 12:30 pm

    I will be passing this article on to as many people as I can and I thank you for writing it.


  • Linda Gage (Hornblow) February 6th, 2012 7:24 pm

    So well said Lara. Sometimes I feel resilient and sometimes close to breaking. We have lived here all our lives, lived overseas for a time and come home again just like you. We are here for the long haul but the reality is dawning. Our home was munted in Sept ’10 and we are one of the lucky ones getting close to rebuilding.


  • Maria February 8th, 2012 4:13 am

    Great article, so true. And the aftershocks we have had now total 10,000+. I think this needs to be mentioned because, living in East Christchurch, we feel the 2′s as well as the 3′s+ so resilience only goes so far when you do the maths on how many of those shakes happen every day/night. Stretched nerves and questions remaining unanswered do make it hard to look to the next 5 years but Chch is our home, our family is staying.


  • Jill February 8th, 2012 4:31 am

    Very well written and a true indication of what Chch people are living through – 2 years ago who would have imagined it?
    What a lot forget is the effect on animals. The many dogs who ran frightened, to be picked up by Dog Control before being returned to owners; the hundreds of cats frightened from their homes, some to take up residence in new homes and some perhaps still wandering lost; not to mention birds, hedgehogs, and other wildlife! And then there are the animals left behind when their supposed loving owners fled the city, leaving them abandoned in back yards or in houses, to fend for themselves. Thank goodness for the City Council Dog Control Officers and the SPCA staff who have worked tirelessly over these months with very little recognition. I’m proud to still be here in the city in spite of it all, and though life is difficult, will be here a long time yet!!!


  • Julie February 8th, 2012 6:21 am

    Have read your article a number of times Lara, thank you, says it all for me. I’m not tough and now I don’t feel bad about it.


  • Rebekah February 8th, 2012 9:35 am

    I like your article and think a lot of people will relate, obviously all of the people that have responded. But I also think we are resilient. The definition of resilience in short is based on a stress/strain graph where it is stretched to all capacity then recovers. I totally agree that some are at their wits end and aren’t coping but the majority of Christchurch are. We have to. For our children, for our future. This has become a way of live, but we can’t let it eat us up, or we would all be in a crumbling heap. I am very passionate about what we are going through and think resilience is the best word, we might not be that tough with it but by far the majority is doing so. And I keep hearing everyone is leaving, not true at best with figures pushed higher than stated maybe 2% have left. That leaves 98%.


  • Leon February 10th, 2012 9:39 pm

    I’m torn. I agree with everything in this article and I haven’t lived in Christchurch for well over a decade now.
    However,having lived in Auckland for almost 7 years now I still believe that there is a certain Canterburyness that is in the character of people in the area which is not commonly held elsewhere.

    I don’t mean to diminish the trauma of the people of Christchurch and Canterbury – God knows I haven’t had to live through it – but I can only say from my experience of living in Auckland that the people here would not have coped as well as my Southern brethren (and sisters). In my opinion the people of Canterbury do have a quality which is not common in the nation and it is not a diminishment of their suffering to recognise that


  • Circa regna tonat March 4th, 2012 9:46 am

    [...] those writing from out-of-town seek alternative narratives. You know the kind. Most of them involve resilience, that outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual free market come to save the people and [...]


  • Rachel May 20th, 2013 9:22 am

    Great article Lara. We were there for all of the big earthquakes and have moved overseas since. It seems both a long time ago and in a heartbeat it all comes back. The tears, the emotion and stress are easy to recall. In following the rebuilding, the restart project, the cardboard cathedral it all seems ingenius. I am proud to be a kiwi, proud to be a Cantabrian and from a distance now, I follow it all with gratitude and belief. Many of my friends and family members are demonstrating such strength and courage. Kia kaha to you all


  • Shelley March 26th, 2014 8:14 am

    We’re now well into our 4th year since the 7.1 quake, and the powers that be continue to credit us for our resilience. Yesterday a Facebook group entitled “Rebuild Christchurch” recently asked what we think when we hear the word resilience and the responses were overwhelmingly negative. We’ve all had enough and want the torment to end. https://www.facebook.com/rebuildchristchurch?fref=ts


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