The Importance of Memory and Place in Heritage Resilience

By Rodney Swink, Senior Associate for Planning and Development at Heritage Strategies International
Habitat III will be covering a wide range of topics related to Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development. Among Habitat III issue areas are “urban ecology and environment, including resilience, Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change”. Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) are much in the news, with the seeming rise in natural and manmade disasters at hand. Communities, even entire nations, are looking for strategies to enhance their resilience and reduce their disaster risks in the face of recurring or potential catastrophes.
Early efforts to bring the concept of resilience into the heritage preservation conversation have been focused on buildings and their sometime capacity to withstand and recover from storms and other disasters. But increasingly, we are learning that our heritage plays important roles in our social and cultural resilience as well.
One definition (Merriam Webster) of resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” This definition was chosen as it relates most closely to social and cultural resilience. It speaks to how people react to and recover from “misfortune or change,” which can certainly be a byproduct of disaster. This definition can be applied to both people and the built and natural environments and should be applied to cultural heritage. Heritage properties are among those at risk, and cultural heritage should be a central tenet to any resilience and DRR plans.
UNESCO, ICOMOS – ICORP and others have written an excellent paper, Heritage and Resilience: Issues and Opportunities for Reducing Disaster Risks.” This paper creates a framework for both understanding heritage risks and also seeing the importance of recognizing heritage value. The authors note: “Each year disasters caused by natural and human-induced hazards result in the destruction of countless historical properties, museums and archives that hold the history of humanity within their walls. Cultural landscapes and natural heritage are being destroyed, and with them valued ecosystem services.”
One significant value of cultural heritage is its role in contributing to one’s social and psychological comfort. A visible presence of heritage within our communities adds to our sense of connection with both the past and present; it serves as an anchor to place, a reassurance that we are part of something larger but also something special. Those who preceded us created a place that we now value, and one that we can and should protect for those who follow. When our symbols of place, reflected best in our natural and cultural heritage, are threatened, we instinctively look for ways to protect and if necessary reclaim them from disaster. Likewise, when our lives are at risk, we look to our natural and cultural heritage symbols for comfort. As noted in the UNESCO, ICOMOS-ICORP paper, “The symbolism inherent in heritage is… a powerful means to help victims recover from the psychological impact of disasters… Heritage contributes to social cohesion, sustainable development and psychological well-being. Protecting heritage promotes resilience.”
Yasumichi Murakami, Director of Cultural Assets Office, Hyogo Prefecture Board of Education, writes about the major earthquake that struck the Tohoku region of Japan on March 11, 2011. “Amid this situation, however, efforts are being made to rescue a single pine tree that has somehow survived the catastrophic damage from the tsunami that hit the Important Natural Monument Takata pine forest in Rikuzen-Takata City in Iwate Prefecture. As the sole tree that survived in a forest of 70,000, it has been named the ‘Pine of Hope.’ Although our generation cannot expect to witness the recovery of the pine forest, the local residents say they wish to pass on the story to posterity.”
He goes on to report, “On children’s day, members of the community who had evacuated to various locations gathered once again and together cleaned a local shrine that miraculously remained standing. It is said that a resident who happened to find a lion mask among the rubble performed a spontaneous lion dance and put tears in everyone’s eyes. There are many such stories as this that convey the real meaning of history and culture… In disaster-stricken communities, there are people who pin their hopes on protecting a single pine tree or a single jizo (guardian deity of children) statue that has survived… as though to piece together the fragments of their memories, and everywhere that people assemble, a traditional rite is performed. The historical and cultural heritage of a community has the potential to keep memories intact and to provide reassurance to its residents. This is why, at this precise moment in time, society must appreciate the true value of jizo statues and other symbols of culture and provide emotional support to people who wish to protect and carry on the history and culture of their community.”
People develop emotional ecosystems and while those are mostly built around social interactions, emotional ecosystems are also influenced by culture and its physical manifestation. One’s physical surroundings and the traditions associated with place are integral to a sound emotional ecosystem. Dr. Mindy Fullilove writes about such ecosystems and has borrowed a term from gardening, “root shock,” to describe “the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem.” When people are uprooted and displaced and they lose not only their connections to neighbors but also to those elements of familiarity that help to anchor them to a place, their emotional ecosystem suffers. Being able to reconnect with physical manifestations of place helps to stabilize one’s stress and minimize the trauma. It contributes to their resilience, their ability to “recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”
From earthquakes in Iran, Italy, Turkey, Japan, New Zealand and Haiti, to floods in Thailand, India, and the United States, heritage properties have been damaged or even destroyed. Where they remain, they have the opportunity to contribute to social and psychological recovery. As people search desperately for ways to re-establish their emotional ecosystem, they may find it in reclaiming their heritage and historic places.
When we talk about the need to be resilient, and stress the importance of heritage preservation as an element of resilience, we need to recognize not only the physical qualities of heritage properties, but also their social and psychological contributions. The UNESCO, ICOMOS-ICORP paper confirms, “Cultural heritage, as a key component of cultural diversity, is a critical consideration for any strategy to build the resilience of communities.”

Heritage and Resilience: Issues and Opportunities for Reducing Disaster Risks

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
  • International Council on Monuments and Sites, International Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICOMOS – ICORP)
  • United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)
  • Marsh – United Kingdom
  • International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)

Murakami, Y., Director of Cultural Assets Office, Hyogo Prefecture Board of Education Disaster. (2011). ‘Risk Management of Cultural Heritage Based on the Experience of the Great Hanshin Earthquake’. Available digitally here.
Fullilove, Mindy. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. Access it here.

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