And from there, between the cracks, new life sprouted…
On six separate days across 2010 and 2011, Christchurch was shaken by earthquakes that took 186 lives and left parts of the city uninhabitable.
On 15 March 2019, an unprecedented terrorist attack struck Christchurch. At least one of the accused came from my country. As I type, 49 people have been confirmed dead and the pieces of what happened are being collated. Friends are confronting another rupture in their city’s fabric.
I won’t lie: This is hard to write. My words can’t begin to convey the horror, nor what those closest to it are going through (others will do that better than me).
The story I’m going to tell though is not one about terrorism, hate crime or tragedies in cities. It is an ode to this place, its people and its spirit; the mettle and generousity of Christchurch and its power to teach us all.
October 2018: The sun was shines on what to my eye is an unusually verdant landscape. The airport is still part construction site, light wood lining the walls. A friendly construction worker points me to the city-bound bus and a lifelong bond continues to form…
There was something about you, Christchurch…and it only took a day to reveal itself to me: A cleared city block, covered in gravel, with a washing machine in the corner. But this is no ordinary washing machine: This is the Dance-o-Mat: An emblem of the generousity, conviviality, ingenuity and strength that quickly formed my vision of the city.
Complete with its own stage, sound and light set-up, the Dance-o-Mat is activated by two Kiwi dollars and plugging in a portable music device.
The Dance-o-Mat has been moved around vacant sites in the city since the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011: The ultimate expression of life growing between the cracks, of healing, of bringing people together, and of reinvention.
The night I visited, I didn’t need my iPod – as part of the excellent Festival of Temporary Architecture an excellent soul DJ was spinning records and a plethora of people were showing their appreciation. I didn’t have to part with a single cent to enjoy the music, nor hear stories of survival and compassion that have propelled the city forward.
The Dance-o-Mat is one of many things that has made Christchurch a standard-bearer in placemaking: Humble in scale, it is deeply novel, seemingly simple but really ingenious. Most of all, the Dance-o-Mat radiates heart, soul and generousity: It takes so little and yet gives and gives back to its place and people, providing a stage (quite literally) for bringing people together, for connection, memory, making meaning and forming new bonds.
This is great placemaking at work. It’s also emblematic of the humanity, strength and character that must hold strong against forces of hate and division. Dance-o-Mat is one of those places that reminds us of the power of planning, designing and making place as a way to infuse cities with moments of joy to all, regardless of who we are. We as planners, designers, placemakers and citizens would do well to heed the lessons of its success.
Christchurch and its most brilliant people have taught me and many others so much. Now, it’s time to give back.
Tonight I’m thinking of you, Christchurch: of all the wonderful Cantabrian practitioners, colleagues and friends I have been fortunate to meet. I’m also thinking of this wonderful city confronting a different kind of rupture. Know that a world of placemakers inspired by your amazing people and landscape is standing with you.
May you stay strong, Christchurch. May your love outshine all and may your best and brightest keep lighting the way. Amid the ongoing fight against hate, may we all act with generousity, compassion and care. May we take our cues from you and your Dance-o-Mat as we care for place and for each other.
FIND OUT MORE: Check out this wonderful collection of essays: City-building after disaster in Christchurch (worth every cent).
Added 17 March 2018 – For a snappy introduction to efforts to infuse Indigenous approaches to design and planning in Christcurch’s rebuild, head here
More suggestions? Feel free to leave them, and your Christchurch stories, below…