I like Traffic Lights

When I was in Christchurch last August, I had time to do an early morning walk around the city. The CBD was still cordoned off, and some buildings looked like a warzone, others looked like they were just waiting for the building manager to open up for the morning, from the outside looking undamaged. Then there were the ubiquitous traffic cones (I heard it described yesterday as Christchurch has more traffic cones per capita than anywhere else, and have become an irreverent symbol of the recovery), hoardings, and great spaces.

While I hate the constant reference in disaster management to war (In peacetime, we do this, or we plan for that), it must have been how many in Europe and Japan felt after World War Two. Except, of course, war is a human decision…i was about to say man’s decision as a deliberate reference to men making war, but then I thought of the Falklands War).

Having been to Christchurch twice before, once as recently as 18months before the first quake, the city was at least familiar to me (and I have a pretty good sense of place and direction). However, walking around the CBD periphery, with the absence of visual cues and reminders, my mental map of CHCH was disturbed, and I felt disoriented.

There were two things that stood out in this eeriness. One, the silence. It was very silent, none of the sub-sonic noise of CBDs, garbage trucks, cars, buses, automatic doors opening and shutting, street sweepers. Quiet. The other was that the traffic lights were set to amber flashing. This may not seem strange to anyone, but I was struck by this. Amber flashing traffic lights usually means something is not functioning properly, and here they were two years after the first quake, still flashing. It felt somewhat symbolic

Place is important to us as human beings, and is one of the least understood aspects of disaster impacts. It is unfortunately not well researched or written about in the disaster literature. As someone who has sometimes put geographer in an occupation box on a form, I find this strange. Hugh Morgan says

The places where we discover the magical sense of being connected to a neighbourhood – the pub, the park, the church, the schoolyard, the shops – lodge in our memory.

Places anchor us, and help serve to shape a sense of identity.  There is a warmth and familiarity to them. Some exist only in our sub-conscious. Even as something as simple the route to work, shops, school become routines (and routines are important to us, comforting rhythms of life). I always think of the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi, and the line You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.  They are also a shared heritage. From big cultural icons, to local schools and railway stations, all have stories, and people can share their own experiences and stories.

Yi-Fu Tuan, the great Human Geographer describes place as security and stability, whereas space denotes freedom (think of the phase “just gimme some space”, “space the final frontier”).

So when destructive disasters strike, these visual cues are changed, whether it be buildings or landscapes or both. It may also not be the destruction. A favourite cafe or business may close because the business is no longer there.

This is when loss of identity and control that people often report post disaster, comes into play. While a lot these feelings are focused on individual circumstances changing, it is also that people’s places have changed. It is no longer warm or familiar.

In an interview we did for our preparedness program,  Brett Ambrum talks about how his neighbourhood has changed “A lot of places aren’t there anymore. It’s a lot of heartbreak really” People can experience a sense of grief, mourning for the loss of places. Again, a book I mentioned in a previous post, Peter Read’s Return to Nothing is worth looking at to understand the grief people go through.

Not to forget as well, the practical element. It takes longer to get places because of road closures, Shops, schools, shift. Parks or paths no longer available to walk the dog, or go for a run.

This crucial factor is often lost in the rush to fix things and put things right, and get the basics back. Because disasters appeal to our basic instincts (loss of life, shelter, food etc), the focus is on these things.

These less tangible issues such as place, tend not to be considered or given as much importance in decisions. It’s probably because we don’t really understand it. This is an area of real interest to me, and one I think we should. These are some really basic thoughts, and I hope to do more reading and writing in this area

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