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Disasters as opportunities for sustainability: the case of Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand


Disasters can catalyze change in different ways, among others: they allow reinforcing pre-disaster exploitation and inequities, enhancing disaster risk reduction policies, or introducing alternative pathways guided by sustainability. Only few studies have investigated the latter: how people were able to leverage disasters for change towards sustainability. This study deals with such people who were able to see, seize, and sustain opportunities for sustainability following a disaster. The study generated data through semi-structured interviews with sustainability change agents in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, active during and after the major earthquakes period 2010–2012. The study finds that progress towards sustainability to date is mixed. While Christchurch was less successful in leveraging the immediate opportunities for sweeping change towards sustainability, the sustainability change agents continued to see, seize, and sustain post-disaster opportunities to move sustainability forward. The study derives advice on how to best leverage disasters for sustainability.

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(Adapted figure from Ombler 2015)

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  1. Daily activity fields include: housing, working, educating, eating, shopping, recreating, worshipping, engaging, caring, communicating, and being mobile. This research insufficiently addresses the fields of shopping and worshipping as they were less emphasized in the interviews. Caring includes caring for people and for the environment. In Māori culture people are the land and the land are people. Recently, this translated into law, with river systems being legally defined as a person (Rousseau 2016).

  2. Third Sector Organizations (TSO) is the term often used in Aotearoa New Zealand to describe organizations that are neither statutory nor commercial entities; they include non-for-profit, non-governmental, and civil society organizations.

  3. This is the format for identification of interviewees. They are anonymized, but I have provided brief descriptions of respondents’ positions, organizations, and locations of work in the appendix.

  4. CERA hired more than 400 staff and 1000 consultants to work on the recovery strategy’s 29 programs, entailing 116 projects.

  5. At the time of writing (2016) the East side (New Brighton) will receive support for the regeneration phase. Some community leaders, see this as a unique opportunity. The challenge lays in harnessing the opportunity with good governance in mind. (The Christchurch Press, 2016, Sept 5.)

  6. Christchurch was elected to partake in the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.

  7. Wiek & Kay, 2015.


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I would like to thank my dissertation committee, with Dr. Hallie Eakin, Dr. Daniel Sarewitz, and Dr. Adenrele Awotona for their guidance. I thank my husband, Dr. Arnim Wiek, for his support throughout the process. I would also like to thank Dr. Bronwyn Hayward, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ, Katherine and John Peet, and Becky Hickmott for their support of this research. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their review of this article and thoughtful comments.

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Correspondence to Katja Brundiers.

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Handled by Akhilesh Surjan, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia.

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Brundiers, K. Disasters as opportunities for sustainability: the case of Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand. Sustain Sci 13, 1075–1091 (2018).

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