Harnessing creativity to build resilience: An artistic toolkit for disaster risk reduction practitioners

Author(s) Meg Parsons
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Community engagement and empowerment are just as important as research and policymaking for successful efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change and reduce disaster risks.

Traditional approaches often rely on scientific data and employ technical jargon - but for many people this just makes climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction seem distant and disengaging.

Yet, as we continue to witness the worsening impacts of climate change and exacerbating disaster events, it is becoming more and more important that we find effective ways to involve and motivate individuals and communities to engage in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction actions. This is where the transformative power of art comes into play, providing innovative strategies to communicate complex climate- and disaster-related issues, engage diverse groups, and foster actionable resilience strategies.

Bridging the gap with art

Creative arts have a valuable ability to transcend language barriers and connect with individuals and groups on an emotional level. Through visual arts, theatre, dance, and other participatory artistic endeavours, communities can explore the abstract concepts of climate change and disaster risk in tangible and impactful ways.

These creative approaches do more than just inform people about the issues: art can also inspire action by making challenges that seem remote from people's daily lives (such as climate change at the global level) into personal and community-centred issues that can and should be addressed by individuals, communities, businesses, and nations.

To harness this power, we created a climate resilience toolkit that includes a range of different art activities that can be used by researchers and practitioners working with different groups (students, policymakers, communities, farmers, and so on) to inform and inspire action. Moreover, the tools are highly flexible and can be adjusted to fit with the unique geographical, socio-cultural, and technical settings that practitioners are working in, as well as the specific adaptation and disaster risk reduction (DRR) priorities of different communities and organisations.

"The Resilience Tree": Visualizing connections and solutions

One art-based activity in the toolkit is the "Climate Justice Tree", which could be easily adapted to fit with the priorities of disaster risk reduction practitioners into the "Resilience Tree".

In this activity, participants work collaboratively to paint a large mural depicting a tree, in which the roots represent underlying causes of climate change (or disasters), the trunk illustrates the impacts of climate change (or disasters), and the leaves show potential solutions and future hopes.

This visual metaphor helps participants see the interconnectedness of climate (or disaster) actions and consequences, highlighting how local behaviours can link to global climate change and environmental risks.

The activity not only educates but also fosters a sense of shared responsibility, which is crucial for motivating people to meaningfully engage in community-led climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction initiatives.

Workshop art activity on awareness
Adaptation path: Awareness. Photo: Meg Parsons

"Pathways and Journeys": Climate adaptation and disaster preparedness

The "Adaptation Pathways: A Climate Change Journey" is another art-based activity that we developed to guide groups or communities through the stages of understanding, preparing for, and responding to the impacts of climate change.

Participants creatie a visual map of the steps for envisioning and enacting climate adaptation on a long roll of paper, which helps them to visualise their community's journey from awareness of the problem (the impacts of climate change at a local level) to actions that they and their community need to take to reduce their vulnerability and enhance their resilience.

The activity helps to personalise the climate adaptation process, making it more relatable and understandable, and encourages community members to consider their role in each step of the climate adaptation journey.

The activity can be easily adjusted to fit the purpose of disaster risk reduction. Instead of focusing on preparing for and responding to the impacts of climate change, researchers and practitioners can simply shift the focus onto disaster preparedness and responses.

"United We Stand": Sculpting community resilience

Our research participants declared this art tool, dubbed the "United We Stand" activity, their favourite.

The activity involves participants using clay - we used plasticine, but any form of modelling clay would work - to create figurines that represent different community members or roles that they consider important for their community's resilience. Past figurines created by our participants included a nurse, firefighter, grandmother or grandfather, meteorologist, and tribal elder.

The hands-on approach helps individuals to recognise the diverse contributions needed for effective disaster responses and climate adaptation actions at a local level. By physically modelling a resilient community, the activity can also help to strengthen community bonds and emphasise the importance of collaboration and collective efforts in tackling climate- or disaster-related challenges.

Why art is a vital tool in climate and disaster risk reduction actions

Actively deploying art in climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction communication, planning, and on-the-ground projects can be useful for several reasons.

  • Enhancing engagement: Art makes abstract and often overwhelming environmental issues (including climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and disasters) more accessible and less daunting.
  • Stimulating emotional responses: Artistic activities tap into people's emotions, which can be powerful motivators for action.
  • Encouraging creative problem-solving: Art offers a platform for innovative thinking and generating alternative perspectives, which are critical for developing effective, efficient, equitable, and culturally situated solutions.
  • Building community cohesion: Art-based activities can strengthen connectivity and community ties, and can foster a sense of solidarity and shared purpose amongst participants - all of which are vital for creating and sustaining action.

As we navigate the complexities of climate change and its impacts, which include increasingly intense extreme weather events and heightened disaster risks around the globe, the creative incorporation of art in engaging communities is not just beneficial - it is vital.

Art provides an important bridge between different knowledge systems (scientific, local, and Indigenous) and community understandings. Art also offers a means to translate awareness into action, which can transform the resilience challenge from a daunting task to a collective journey of empowerment and creativity.

We encourage you to try our Climate Resilience Toolkit, to adapt the tools to fit the needs of the communities you work with, and to explore how art can help to build more resilient communities capable of facing the future, whatever it may hold.

Download the toolkit

Of New Zealand Māori (Ngāpuhi), Lebanese, and Pākehā/European heritage, Dr Meg Parsons is an Indigenous geographer whose research adopts transdisciplinary and decolonising approaches to examine how Indigenous communities’ understand and respond to intersecting processes of social and environmental changes. The majority of her research and teaching focuses on bringing a decolonial lens to theories, policies, and practices surrounding climate change adaptation, environmental governance and management, and sustainable transformations. She is a Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, the co-Editor-in-Chief of Climate Risk Management, the author of more than 50 peer-reviewed publications, and the contributing author to two chapters (Small Islands and Climate Resilience Development Pathways) of the IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report. Her current research projects include: 1) examining Aotearoa New Zealand’s climate policies through an intersectional climate justice lens; 2) exploring the climate adaptation for urban Indigenous peoples; 3) co-designing arts-based climate resilience toolkits; 4) understanding the framing and implementation of climate adaptation justice. 

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