During my time abroad, I had the pleasure of going on a guided tour with Ryan Reynolds—no, not the movie star Ryan Reynolds. This Ryan Reynolds works for Gap Filler, a creative social enterprise in Christchurch, New Zealand that was born in response to 2011’s devastating earthquake. By fostering community, art, and new ways of thinking, Gap Filler is setting an example and helping rebuild the broken city.
We began at a spot called “The Commons,” a yet unused plot of post-quake land that was once a hotel. Due to the enormous price of the property, it hasn’t sold yet. Rather than let it sit empty, Gap Filler borrows the space, creating pop-up cafés, food trucks, and shops that encourage locals to use the area constructively. Even something as simple as adding two sets of inexpensive wooden archways has enhanced the site’s character. The mere presence of these symbolic archways has inspired so much pedestrian traffic that the government declared this public pathway permanent, even upon sale of the land.
In the inner city, most damaged buildings were demolished. Insurance companies concluded that it was more cost-effective to destroy them and start over than to restore what remained. A lot of people feel lost because the physical locations they knew—the same ones that were a part of daily life and that held so many memories—are gone. The connection we feel to the places we know can be strong, sometimes even a part of our identity. When we lose a place, we lose a part of ourselves.
Visiting Christchurch helped me realize this. Like so many others, my family was severely affected by the flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Seeing the aftermath of the earthquake in Christchurch and how the people there have responded was truly inspiring. I’ve recognized the fact that I haven’t completely processed what happened in Houston or the toll it’s taken. I’m grateful for this recognition. Because my experience in New Zealand has bestowed new ideas about how to deal with the ramifications that I still feel almost a year later, I feel confident in my ability to make progress in the complex psychological and emotional process. It’s ironic that it has taken me going to the other side of the world to see clearly, but that’s why studying abroad is important: it grants us the opportunity to apply what we learn upon our return home. With a universal issue like disaster recovery, we need as many success stories as we can find. Natural disasters aren’t a new occurrence. In today’s world, we hear about these horrific events all the time. What we’re not accustomed to, however, is the healing force at the intersection of art and community that abounds in Christchurch. Gradual change is a part of life, but when a place becomes unrecognizable overnight, we must find something to inspire hope.
Gap Filler is doing just that. There’s a lot we can learn from Ryan and his colleagues about the balance between economy, commerce, public space, and the enduring value of art and community. I hope that other people in other places will take notice of what the folks in Christchurch are doing and find ways to apply this “filling the gap” concept to their own situations, just as I have.
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