11837480396_4b34134182_cIn December last year, a World Social Science Fellows seminar, held in New Zealand, brought together 21 talented early-career scientists to share and exchange expertise and knowledge on the Risk Interpretation and Action project of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk programme. The Risk Interpretation and Action framework re-thinks risk communication and meanings of uncertainty, particularly for communities living under the constant threat of disaster. The fellows debated and discussed how to appropriately integrate indigenous knowledge into decision and policy-making for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, and how to communicate across scales in the resettlement and reconstruction phases. Visits to Christchurch provided an apt backdrop for the struggles that researchers face when framing such problems. Over the coming weeks, the ISSC will feature some of the stories from the ISSC seminar in New Zealand.

“If you want to change the weather of the world, you should find yourself another wizard”

Words etched on the side of a plastic cup filled to the brim with flat white –  signature coffee for this region of the globe. Words familiar to those versed in all things Tolkien. Words that are a frequent reminder that we are in middle earth, the land of the hobbit, and that New Zealand survives on its tourism industry. In Christchurch we would witness a different type of tourism.

The flight to Christchurch from Wellington is not long – time enough to reflect on the past day’s activities. Bumpy. The turbulence is unavoidable. From the air you get more of a sense of why New Zealand is referred to as the “land of the long white clouds”. The plane bounces from one white cloud to another. The turbulence reminded one fellow of her research trips deep into the Amazon, on rickety two or even one propeller planes – built to fly, but not for long.

The conversation of our Fellows, grouped two-by-two in a sturdier Air New Zealand pressurised cabin, turns to the anticipation of meeting the Maori tribe that lived through the earthquakes in Christchurch many years ago and helped to put the city back on its feet.

Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand, and the country’s third-most populous urban area. On the surface, the way into Christchurch from the airport does not give much away. Idyllic bungalows and two-storey houses elegantly designed. Hagley Park serves as the centre piece of a city planned thousands of miles away in London during the 19th Century. It is a city that needed every detail of it to be designed, because it was built on a swamp. Christchurch is one of a group of only four cities in the world that was carefully planned following the same layout of a central city square, four complementing city squares surrounding it and a parklands area that embrace the central city. One of the first things the planned Church of England settlement built was a Cathedral. IRDR’s Scientific Committee Chair, David Johnston, who helped put together much of the seminar’s programme is a native New Zealander and has a special connection to Christchurch as his great great grandfather helped build the cathedral.

As you move further into the city the signs of earthquake damage begin to show. Some literally – construction signs on every road side. Others metaphorically – the silence of a city centre void of any hustle and bustle. On the edge of the park, a statue of Queen Victoria looks out onto the corner of a junction, across from a desolate Starbucks — its letters faded and some lost.

The most violent quake was on 22 February 2011, and killed 181 people. Thousands more were made homeless and a vast area at the heart of the city is deemed uninhabitable.

In March 2012, work began demolishing Christchurch Cathedral. During the earthquake, twenty people were thought lost and trapped under the rubble. After searching for days, rescue workers breathed a huge sigh of relief when noone was found. This story was shared by some of our Fellows – those with a personal connection to New Zealand, either as a native or otherwise. For some, this was the first time returning to Christchurch since the earthquake hit. Awkward and off-putting to move through a town you once knew. Except no people. No life. And no activity.

In a city devoid of all life, GapFiller has tried to resuscitate life. A creative urban regeneration initiative, started in response to the September 2010 Canterbury earthquake. When the more destructive quake hit on February 22, 2011 the charity had to expand efforts. Today, Gap Filler aims to temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects for community benefit, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city.

Over the course of six weeks in 2012, thanks to an army of volunteers and 2,600 hours of hard labour, GapFiller built the Pallet Pavilion (made out of pallets) – a transitional architecture project and community space and venue for events. Gap Filler, along with local creatives, has also created a variety of musical instruments from recovered and re-appropriated materials. The Sound Garden. The instruments have been installed for passers by to play, to make some sound on an otherwise silent street corner of Christchurch’s former central business district.

The emphasis of much of the projects is on play and having fun and – most of all – on experimentation.

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