What does it take to change?

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

by Joel Levin

At 12.51pm on Tuesday 22nd February 2011 the City of Christchurch was changed for ever. It took just 10 seconds of a 6.2 scale earthquake to cause a thing called liquefaction of the soil and the destruction of much of the city and surrounds. 185 people lost their lives and large tracts of land have now been deemed uninhabitable.

While it is not uncommon for people to come together in a crisis, something quite remarkable has emerged from the rubble… a community lead vision for both the short and long term rebuilding of the physical and social infrastructure of the city.

Vacant land, where buildings once stood and are still waiting to be rebuilt, has been turned into parklets and playgrounds. Some have even been turned into paid parking, where the funds are quarantined for other community development activities.

There has been thought given to active transport (cycling, walking, E-Scooters) to reduce the pollution of cars, work done to initiate urban farming that delivers a paddock to plate supply chain within the CBD and even returns the waste back to the paddock for composting. This is a self-sustaining commercial venture that demonstrates sustainable ways to reduce food miles.

By all accounts the people of Christchurch have grabbed with both hands the opportunity to review and regather. It’s not perfect, there are still issues in the City and there is still healing and rebuilding to be done. It has been going on for close to 10 years and it is not nearly complete…but the start that they have made is inspiring.

However, what is interesting to consider is the way in which our built form - our buildings - locks in a certain way of relating and being with each other. It is interesting to consider the way that buildings not only shape how we move around a place but how we interact with each other.

Coming from the social sector, I have long heard people talk about the need to change the various institutions that surround us. The thinking is that it is the ingrained systems within these institutions that serve as a speed bump or even a dead end on the road to change.

But the example of Christchurch could be showing us two things;

1) That institutions and people can change ingrained systems and ways of working.

2) That what locks us in is not just the structure of institutions but the built structures of the City.

While it is important to celebrate the institutional change achieved, it is sobering to consider the level of tragedy that it took to make a fundamental shift. Then to consider how this level of change can be achieved without the need for tragedy.

There is something about Humans that seems to be hard wired to maintain and even defend the status quo. It is not until people seem to be quite literally broken that our humility kicks in and we become willing to work in a different way.

What is intriguing in the Christchurch example is that the walls of these institutions came crumbling down before the institutions and systems changed. It is interesting to consider the impact of our built environment on our interactions with each other. On some level it makes perfect sense. If the systems that are locked into a certain way of living are the ones building the buildings, then those building are created to support the system that is there.

It is also interesting to consider the aspects of our own lives that we developed and then fortified in our homes, the photos on the walls, the order of the rooms,