Resilience, Innovation, and Art: At the Heart of Seattle’s Sister City

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I’ve never been to a ghost town, but this last week I was introduced to something of that nature. Our program traveled from Auckland to Christchurch, a city that is in shambles due to a series of earthquakes, most notably the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in February 2011. Although much rebuilding has occurred, the desolate state of the city demonstrates just how severe the earthquake was. Many of the buildings, if not in heaps of rubble, were abandoned due to their unstable state. We peered through windows to find businesses and restaurants just as they were on February 22, 2011: offices adorned with piles of papers on desks, cafes with dining wear splayed across tables with mugs once filled with coffee. It was just like an abandoned movie set. And this feeling—this surreal, movie-set sensation—is what was most intriguing and terrifying. Every day we returned to Christchurch—Seattle’s sister city—the feeling did not settle or dull, but instead it intensified as more and more rubble was revealed around every street corner. While our study abroad group is composed of a “gaggle of girls” (as termed by our professor) that constantly talk, walking through the city ceased our chatter.

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However, amongst the rubble and abandonment are pockets of resilience, growth, and movement. People developed organizations such as “Greening the Rubble” to add life to a once vibrant city. There are different activities and spaces that bring out Christchurch’s vitality, including a music-making garden, enormous living room furniture made of astro turf, interactive playgrounds, putting greens, a mall made of shipping crates, a cardboard cathedral, and a stage for buskers (street performers), among others. One of my favorite creations was “Dance-o-Mat,” a stage with a washing machine converted into a speaker system. For two NZ dollars, you can hook up your iPod to the washing machine and blast music for half an hour. We boogied to the music the entire time as passersby stopped to examine and photograph our great/terrible dancing. The earthquake may have shaken up the city, but the community’s innovative, artistic response to the damage solidifies their determination to rebuild Christchurch.

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One morning, we visited the University of Canterbury, sitting in on a panel of PhD students and professors. The panel founded Resilient Organizations, a group that researches organizations—large and small, non-profit and for-profit—recovering from earthquakes. They analyze economic modeling, as well as leadership and management techniques to better organizations’ resilience. The panel we were fortunate enough to sit in on discussed the progress of each PhD student’s progress on their studies regarding Resilient Organizations. Listening to their conversation gave us a better idea of what is actually being done to rebuild Christchurch—not in terms of physical structures, but the structure of organizations.

Their confounding results suggested that the city is not just resilient, but also that strong connections individuals and organizations made pre- and post-earthquake have furthered the city’s progress. Listening to their unfiltered, genuine academic discussion produced an overwhelming feeling of optimism that helped diminish my view of how forsaken the city appeared at face value. While Christchurch is still being reconstructed, the massive movement to better the city resonated with me. Perhaps it will not be rebuilt precisely as it once was, but Seattle’s sister city has a promising future filled with resilience, creativity, and innovation.

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