Charlotte Cohen

Charlotte Cohen (University College) is completing a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History at the University of Oxford. Read about her experience on UC’s 2018 Reimagining the City: Christchurch programme.   

Three weeks, two projects, one question: How do we make Christchurch more resilient to climate change? This was the challenge posed to eight students from the University of Oxford when we arrived in New Zealand in September 2018.

You might ask whether this was fairly large question to answer within a short space of time- you would be right! We were thrown right into the action, shaking off jet-lag quickly to get to grips with the new urban and academic landscapes we were facing. The first half of the project was not research-focussed, but instead structured around learning about the impact of the earthquakes upon the city, the response of citizens and governments to these crises and the unique multi-hazard future now faced by its inhabitants. As we settled into life at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch struck us all as a city in still in transition, tentatively adopting a future-orientated approach to planning even as it dealt with the legacy of the earthquakes.

The research element of the process kicked in when we split into two groups to develop concrete proposals, in my case for the eastern neighbourhoods of Southshore and South New Brighton. We spoke to a wide-range of stakeholders, from community leaders to employees of Coastal Futures planning department. It was an excellent education in how narratives of reconstruction and reimagination are construed. In this way we got a sense of the positive developments that were happening in the area, and what might be absent. As we researched possible solutions, we had to be cautious and use our status as outsiders to the process sensitively- dealing with “live” issues in research was a novelty, as our academic backgrounds were largely unrelated to matters of current affairs or community engagement.

We presented our proposals to members of the university, city councillors and community leaders at the end of our project. Given that our backgrounds were in the humanities and social sciences, we had concentrated on developing the legal, political and economic apparatus that might govern the neighbourhood as the physical environment changes over the next a hundred years. We proposed a format for a compulsory purchase- leaseback scheme, untried as yet in any part of the world, but incorporating the lessons learned from government schemes in New Zealand and the US. We hope that our presentation and the accompanying report can be one of many foundations for the local government and the community to build on as they plan for their future.

The programme provided a unique opportunity to get to grips with how cities are shaped, who shapes them, and how current approaches will evolve to deal with the obstacles posed by climate change. It was fascinating to be at the coalface of such issues- to be part of a pioneering city that is actively thinking about such things. All of us had done undergraduate research before, but in Christchurch we were placed out of our academic comfort zones, forcing us to consider interdisciplinary approaches. This broader perspective is something we will all carry home with us and bring into our studies- alongside very fond memories of New Zealand and the University of Canterbury.