BLOG: Reflections in the field #4

outdoor cinema

The PS Centre has asked Jolie Wills, Psychosocial Knowledge Sharing and Research Advisor for New Zealand Red Cross, to share her experiences in and impressions of psychosocial recovery work with the readers of the PS Centre’s website.

Creative energy and creative minds

When I meander around Christchurch, New Zealand, I begrudgingly notice how the physical and social environment has changed – the bar where my 21st birthday was celebrated (a quintessential kiwi milestone), the building where I apprehensively began my first professional job out of university, the restaurant where I had the first date with my now husband, the café where our kids devoured pumpkin and chocolate muffins with sticky fingers while gazing at the iconic red caterpillar trams through the window … Now the dust, sounds and vibrations of demolition equipment assault the senses and have changed the landscape into something foreign and disorientating.

In 2010, three major earthquakes hit the Canterbury Region in New Zealand and continued to shake the affected area for nine months afterwards. New Zealand Red Cross undertook a range of activities, including psychosocial support, search and rescue and support to the emergency operations centre.

In sharing this story with those on far off shores, my narrative focused on the social and the emotional challenges, along with the impacts of chronic stress – anxiety created by 14,000 aftershocks, the process of rebuilding altered communities and the unrecognisable social landscapes. I sought to reorient attention from the physical infrastructure to the less tangible, but equally vital, social and psychological impacts. I also wanted to highlight the way that we, a traditionally conservative conclave, embraced the creative, fought to find joy, meaning, humour and opportunities and have gleaned a more powerful understanding of the human experience – this is such a vital component of our story.

The Gap Filler initiatives in Christchurch conceptualized and inspired young minds to think outside the box. Gap Filler capitalizes on the window of opportunity between demolition and reconstruction to realize the potential of temporary blank spaces. By creating quirky artistic landscapes, people are engaged and drawn back into the inner city, curiosity is once again stimulated and hope is renewed amidst the sobering environment that is our city.

Central Christchurch 2014 showing both devastation and the artwork which serves to lift the spirits of residents (Source: Jolie Wills)

Central Christchurch 2014 showing both devastation and the artwork which serves to lift the spirits of residents (Source: Jolie Wills)

Christchurch mural donning a blank wall bordering an inner city lot left vacant after demolition post-quake (Source: Jolie Wills)

Christchurch mural donning a blank wall bordering an inner city lot left vacant after demolition post-quake (Source: Jolie Wills)

: In the protracted period where flushing toilets were no longer part of Christchurch residents’ reality, humour led to innovative adornment of backyard toileting facilities (Source: Jolie Wills)

: In the protracted period where flushing toilets were no longer part of Christchurch residents’ reality, humour led to innovative adornment of backyard toileting facilities (Source: Jolie Wills)

Gap Filler book exchange in vacant lot using an old commercial fridge (Source: Jolie Wills)

Gap Filler book exchange in vacant lot using an old commercial fridge (Source: Jolie Wills)

I found similar stories elsewhere. In the Japanese city of Ishinomaki, which was decimated by the tsunami in 2011, things are happening – wild, creative, exciting things. Before the tsunami, Ishinomaki was already a city heading in a downward spiral with the economic recession and an ageing population, resulting in the closing of an increasing number of small, formerly thriving, locally-owned businesses. The tsunami, inundating the inner city area, added insult to injury.

It is within this tragic context that hopeful, creative and unusual things happen. A group named Ishinomaki 2.0 formed, consisting of young people who saw an opportunity to contribute to the recovery of Ishinomaki and make their mark on the world in an innovative, meaningful and interesting way. Spaces in abandoned buildings have been redesigned; the old notion of the walled-off office has been challenged and replaced with communal spaces for business, study and gatherings. Cardboard or wooden furniture made by local craftspeople are housed between whiteboard walls that allow anyone to scribble their ideas and thoughts, meeting minutes and notices. Social enterprise initiatives resulted in turning vacant premises into a bar, hotel space for visiting workers and funky apartments to attract and house newcomers to the city. Other more kid-friendly projects include mobile playgrounds painted by the children themselves and created in blank spaces according to the children’s specifications.

The elements of surprise, ingenuity and the promise of possibility are creating their own energy in Ishinomaki – a veritable rolling stone. In the words of Kyoko Watanabe from Ishinomaki 2.0:

“In Japan as a whole, the development of big cities everywhere… it feels done, finished. There are not many places for young people to contribute or express themselves. Here it is more of a blank slate where we can contribute, express ourselves and bring our ideas to the fore. … Idea generation and the ability to enact ideas – these translate to energy.”

Initiatives like Ishinomaki 2.0 and Gap Filler bring fun and frivolity in addition to reinstating utility to spaces in our cities. Young social innovators, undaunted by obstacles, have identified the possibilities, challenged the status quo, thought creatively and exhibited the drive required to translate ideas to realities. In doing so, they also inspire others and help rebuild disaster impacted communities.