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AFTER THE FLOODS: CREATIVE RECOVERY IN NORTH BUNDABERG

SHELLY PISANI | ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF CREATIVE REGIONS & SASHA MACKAY | ASSOCIATE PRODUCER OF CREATIVE REGIONS

THE STORY OF NORTH

 

North Bundaberg is an example of a suburb still reshaping after disaster. In 2011, the Bundaberg region was hit by devastating floods, and while still in recovery mode in early 2013, the remnants of Cyclone Yasi hit. Flooding rains, storm surges and tornadoes combined to create widespread disaster.  Although the flood-waters from inland took their time and gave warning, the sheer force of water broke the banks of the Burnett River, which then carved a new path and elevated the urgency of evacuation in North Bundaberg. Homes and businesses washed away, houses sunk into the ground, and personal treasures were lost forever in the mud.

 

The immediate impacts of disaster – shock, stress, trauma and guilt – were deeply felt throughout the region. Council, local service providers and the Army focused on the physical recovery of place. Arts production company Creative Regions looked for how arts and community-led projects could restore a place’s character, identity, and rekindle a community’s spirit and sense of belonging.

 

Creative Regions is a not-for-profit company based in Bundaberg that began to deploy creative recovery projects after the 2011 floods, in partnership with local government. The 2013 floods brought about a larger pool of funding for creative recovery and statewide arts sector collaborations to assist communities. The Afloat Creative Recovery project delivered in 2013-14 employed a range of arts intervention strategies and became a testing ground for Creative Regions’ emerging place activation methodologies.

 

Through a community think-tank process in late 2013, North Bundaberg emerged as the priority suburb for the first iteration of a new Place Activation Program, funded by the Bundaberg Regional Council and managed by Creative Regions. The floods had created numerous social and economic issues for North Bundaberg: real estate prices crashed, lifetime residents moved away after losing their homes, and new residents moved in, contributing to drastic social change. The floods also exacerbated existing misconceptions that North Bundaberg was “an ugly part of town”, “full of mosquitoes”, with limited social or recreational options. After the floods, people from other parts of Bundaberg avoided crossing the bridge to North for fear of stirring trauma or being seen as an onlooker. The Place Activation program offered an arts and community-led approach to reimagining the suburb’s identity and reconnecting people with place and each other.

 

 

FACILITATING CONVERSATIONS

 

As a producer of socially-engaged artistic work, Creative Regions places artists and creative processes at the centre of initiatives that respond to social issues and aim to affect social change. Our mantra is “connecting communities, delivering creative experiences” and our place activation philosophy is formed around the following key principles:

 

  • Genuine community engagement and participation, remaining responsive and adaptive to community needs;

  • Telling stories of place;

  • Artist-led engagement;

  • Fostering innovation in others, and;

  • Promoting artistic quality.

 

Specifically in North Bundaberg, we set out to facilitate a series of projects that would enable people to feel a sense of pride, community and belonging within their suburb; to revitalise spaces where the community gathered; and to reinvigorate places whilst remaining true to their unique identities and histories.

 

Although North Bundaberg had been rebuilt physically – new concrete paths were installed, fences were rebuilt, and houses were restumped and given a fresh lick of paint – these did not restore the suburb’s character. Residents felt the suburb no longer reflected their community. Restoring character and fostering connections to place and between people were some key areas that Place Activation could address.

 

Creative Regions saw its role as a broker and facilitator whose key purpose was to foster meaningful connections between the community and local artists. It was those connections that made it possible to develop creative spaces where people could feel pride and belonging. 

 

To garner community ideas, feelings and hopes about North Bundaberg, Creative Regions facilitated a series of think tanks in 2015 to ask people what they wanted to see in their suburb, and what would make them feel proud of and ‘at home’ there. The think tanks were vital for not only generating project ideas and tapping into local knowledge, but also for providing residents and business owners with a sense of ownership over processes of community building and place activation.

 

While Creative Regions and contracted artists led the development and implementation of all the projects, the ideas and inspirations had emerged from the community itself.

 

TAKE IT TO THE STREETS

 

‘Take It to the Streets’ was inspired by a café that opened in North Bundaberg after the floods. These proud residents established a distinctive space that has become a thriving business. Creative Regions worked with the café owners and three other food-based businesses in North Bundaberg to explore how street-side dining spaces could encourage social interaction and build business confidence. For one of the ‘Take It To The Streets’ projects, local artist Marlies Oakley used recycled materials to create a vintage backyard scene. Palette seating, synthetic turf and timber flamingos were installed in a car park by a busy connecting road and attracted a lot of attention from passers by.

 

One night a group of backpackers vandalised the installation. This was an awful outcome for the artist, but the public outcry on social media from local residents and businesses was one of the positive outcomes of the project. The dismay and anger expressed by the community demonstrated they felt a strong degree of ownership over the temporary structure. The community had embraced it as a sign of positive change. 

 

THE GAVIN STREET COMMUNITY GARDEN

 

The Gavin Street Community Garden was an example of changing perceptions at many levels. This project was a challenge to deliver due its expense and the presence of some highly negative opinions of community gardens in the Bundaberg region. People were concerned that community gardens were usually unattractive, that people would steal the produce, or vandalise the space. However, by partnering with a diverse combination of individuals, businesses and community groups, and by employing a local designer and landscape architect, we were able to create a beautiful, inviting space.

 

The Garden’s partners include a hotel, a church fund, a local Lions Club, and Bunnings Warehouse, along with a number of farm and irrigation supplies businesses. The produce is used by numerous North Bundaberg residents who are welcome to take some herbs and vegetables in exchange for a little bit of time spent caring for the Garden. The Garden has been established for eight months now and – despite initial concerns – there has been no vandalism or theft. To us this suggests that by involving many people in the idea-generation and project planning phases, and by finding the right partners within the community, individuals can feel ownership over spaces and want to preserve them.  

 

OUR LEARNINGS

 

Projects such as ‘Take It To The Streets’ and the ‘Gavin Street Community Garden’ represented small but significant steps towards restoring a suburb’s character and fostering a sense of pride and belonging in North Bundaberg. While these projects generated in and with the community, Creative Regions’ role as a broker and facilitator was instrumental for making them happen. Someone occupying the middle ground is often the missing link in regional communities where there is limited leadership or capacity, especially when the community is in crisis or recovery.

 

Brokers and facilitators can take various forms and they can deliver larger outcomes that inspire communities to take action of their own volition. Arts and community-led responses to place activation can be deeply meaningful for communities in various ways. For us, though, demonstrating to a community that their ideas could become realities and so inspiring them to initiate their own creativity in the community were amongst our greatest rewards.

 

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Artistic Director Shelley Pisani has over 20 years’ experience as a community cultural development worker, curator and project manager, and a drive for genuine community engagement in the arts.

 

Associate Producer Dr Sasha Mackay specialises in research, writing and new media, with a particular passion for delivering digital storytelling programs with regional youth.

 

issue 03. autumn 2017

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