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A trip down memory lane

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In his latest book, The Earth, Richard Fortey argues that 'human beings seem to be programmed to love their home territory'. But is this concept of urban memory true, or even desirable? Austin Williams reports

The urban memory debate is one in which aspects of the city, town or village - hidden quarters, alleys or buried artefacts - are revived into the modern setting to provide an added dimension to people's appreciation of the built environment. Often abstractions such as memories, historical events or folklore from a previous generation are captured, reinterpreted and given a role in redefining the sense of what the place was? and is.

Often finding expression in public art and urban signifiers such as plaques, streetsigns, refurbishments or abstract reference to historic objects, the point is to reinstate some memorial of people and places past; to reclaim access to the commons or simply to understand our place in the development of the urban context. The purpose is to hold on to the past - in the same way that our cockles might be warmed by stories told by our grandparents - and to create added colour within the contemporary urban lived experience. Through urban aide-memoires we can recognise historic events, say the practitioners, that would otherwise lie uncovered and undisturbed, and through a process of osmosis we can better understand the urban framework.

In many Middle England contexts, these memories are often light recollections of historical fripperies - sites touched by figures and events of renown or ancient burial grounds. Conversely, there is a tendency, especially in the Irish context, to reference the darker side of modern historical memory - teasing out the residue of conflict that most people want to, and have often tried to, forget.

Celebrity 'philosopher' Alain de Botton advocates Ruskin's view that 'many places strike us as beautiful not on the basis of aesthetic criteria? but on the basis of psychological criteria, because they embody a value or mood of importance to us'.

It is undoubtedly true that we have subjective and objective responses to 'place' and both responses may be triggered by a memory of an event that took place in those spaces many years previously. After time, the occurrence may still be sufficiently memorable to conjure the sense of the original physical experience, in the same way that certain isolated smells, tastes and sounds can transport us back to reminiscences of things past.

These may engender positive or negative reactions and sometimes even instill in us a physiological response premised on the original sensory experience. While there may be an element of psychosomatic neurosis about these feelings, it is undoubtedly true that place-memory can have an emotional reality for many of us. Some bitter, some sweet. But the current debate is not an innocent enquiry, but a political search for communality through subjective and psychologised response to material issues. Thus the paradox is that, in the debate about urban memory, the flux of community is reinterpreted as its fixity - community is a thing to be remembered and recreated.

As far back as the late 19th century, urban analyst Walter Benjamin wrote of the tendency for memories to be unpredictable and, above all, unconscious - often sparked off by the most anodyne of stimuli. But is there any merit in attempting to develop a theory of how these individual responses - randomly triggered in the urban environment - can be understood and generalised to society at large? Well no, not really. It is a bit like trying to theorise about why some people find some jokes amusing while others don't. However, there is a political resolve among the theorists that rises above the need for scientific rigour, it would seem.

The main problem with the debate today is that our individualised responses to places and objets trouvÚs are being squeezed into a policy framework that, instead of trying to improve the physical environment in a tangible way, is seeking to generate an intangible urban feel-good factor.

Living in the past Such is the desire for communality that only 'correct' memories will be tolerated, usually resulting in real inconvenient history being forgotten. Removed from any political context, the result of urban memory practices is often simply the celebration of attachment to place for its own sake. Whereas good urbanists (and there are many) aspire to have a transformative impact on the public sphere with their projects, urban memory is often simply a tool to create a sense of passive introspection. In this way, history becomes simply a story. The shift from urbanism as the challenge of material reality (the way that we think and act on a place to change it and ourselves), to one where urbanism is seen as a critique of the psyche (the way that we think and feel about ourselves in a given space), attests to a broader malaise in modern society.

Frank Furedi argues that today's world is 'characterised by the loss of the web of meaning through which people make sense about who they are and where they stand in relation to others'. As such, the battle to find a renewed clarity of purpose has led to an 'unprecedented concern with the question of identity? and the politics of recognition'. It would seem that the current infatuation with the past, with (the pretence of ) unity, with cultural identity, with place as an emotional haven, or with therapeutic mechanisms to help us situate ourselves in the world, is summed up in the clamour for urban memory. As a result, there has been a rise in the 'place-making' industry, as new theorists attempt to counter the sense of societal alienation by associating the role of 'places' with our sense of self.

But the policy of naturalising personal responses to 'place-memory' has deposited the ownership of the discussion in the hands of activists, advocates, counsellors, educationalists and politicians, who have turned it into a significant force in designing urban intervention. In this way, real civic history is often demeaned by the celebration of any old snippet of historical memory, which is not even left to be discovered for ourselves, but is revealed, signposted and flaunted in order to give people a clear point of 'connection'.

This consequent clamour for 'participation', 'engagement', 'recognition', 'inclusion', 'community', etc, may resonate across the barren landscapes of post-industrial Britain, but is so void of definitional meaning that it is proposed more for the benefit of the bornagain advocates of urban memory theory (and their grant applications) than for the indigenous populations themselves. You never really see a campaign of local residents spontaneously demanding that their urban memory be protected. Conversely, busloads of professionals are regularly brought in to 'respond' and 'give voice to' local communities' unspoken desires - desires that are often unspoken primarily because nobody really knew that they desired what is now being offered in the first place.

The memory industry Reflecting on the rise of new 'civic' buildings and grands projets, Katheryne Mitchell says:

'In the attempt to harness nostalgia and foster a sense of collective memory? the development of museums and anchoring institutions? all help to sanitise spaces and provide an image of enjoyable leisure and endless present.' Everything is laid out so that we can be in no doubt that these creations are more than just buildings - they are symbols of place; of regeneration. Nowadays, it seems, we are building with a view to remembering.

Stemming from the heritage industry's rationale to recreate a sense - not of place, but of experience - urban memory is all about an intuitive relationship to events. This downgrades a rational and contextualised understanding of place-making history - of actions and consequences - and replaces it with a celebration for the spontaneity of the moment; the natural; the 'relevant'. Once memory, any memory, is deemed equally valid and of contemporary relevance, then anything goes. As far as I am concerned, a little bit of critical distance is called for.

Localism and personal introspection is constantly reinforced through books such as de Botton's that pontificate on the nature of the ordinary, which is just a philosophical game to content us with limits, and to rein in what is now perceived to be unattainable aspiration. Surely we have lost our sense of direction - lost a sense of purposefulness - when passive contemplation, instead of active intervention, is posited as a way of engaging with the world. We need to be turning outwards and understanding the world and shaping the future, not contenting ourselves with our locality, our past or our subconscious.

Nowadays, the official response is to encourage us to reflect on the interesting features of our own locality - to find ourselves in our own backyard. In essence, then, urban memory is the celebration of the parochial. Aspiring to learn from the best of the past is one thing; celebrating the mundane from the past (or any other period) is quite another.

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