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.
‘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.