Melanie Leigh Wilbur

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel explains how her city is treating the rebound from natural disaster as a creative Year Zero.

For some cities, seeing their entire downtown leveled might signal the beginning of an unstoppable downward spiral. For Christchurch, New Zealand, however, the earthquake the city experienced in 2011 has actually kick-started a rebirth that has not just drawn international applause, but hopefully fired a permanent creative reboot for the city’s culture. Speaking Monday at The Atlantic’s CityLab 2015 summit in London, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel outlined how her city is treating the rebound from natural disaster as a creative Year Zero.

“We’re not going back to what we were before—we can’t. What was there was gone. Instead, we’re changing the way we think, [asking] how do we embed a sense of vibrancy, energy, creativity and innovation into our rebuild?”

Among the responses have been brilliant projects such as the architect Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral, a cluster of street art that’s spawned its own festival and public art commissions that actively involved local citizens in their creation. The rebuild has also shaken up ways the city does business. Life in Vacant Spaces, an umbrella organization intended to match vacant sites with temporary tenants, is emerging as an all-purpose bureaucracy-neutralizing machine for citizens, says Dalziel, one that could well have a future after the rebuild is complete.

While some rebuild era projects (such as the startup nurturer Ministry of Awesome) should continue, other aspects of the rebuild will necessarily remain fleeting. Dalziel herself is ruing the imminent departure of a mural depicting a ballerina that will disappear following reconstruction around the city’s Isaac Theatre Royal. What must nonetheless remain overall, Dalziel insists, is an understanding that the arts have a role far greater than merely creating an attractive city.

“Resilience has to include the cultural as well as the economic, the social, the environmental. If you take any one of those out of the mix, then you won’t have a resilient city.”

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