Sophie Gleizes an Urban Geographer and policy practitioner now working at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, launches a new UD/MH series on traumascapes, urban design and mental health.
Take a moment and think about your personal mental map of a city you are familiar with, one you may have known for a while. Are there places you avoid more than others because of some negative association? Do any places in your neighbourhood cause distress for you? Have you ever felt vulnerable in your urban environment?
We project emotions, memories or ideas onto particular places which influence our decisions to visit them or not, and how we feel when we get there. This means the imagined and symbolic attributes of a place are an important key to understanding people’s psychological responses to their setting. Geographical frameworks offer valuable insights on how place and space affect the wellbeing of city residents, helping us understand ‘emotional and psychological responses to places and their significance for well-being,’ according to health geographer Sarah Curtis.
One feature of a healthy urban community looks at whether its members experience a sense of belonging and ease where they live. That said, what ought to be done when people undergo a troubled relationship with a place, potentially jeopardizing their happiness or mental health?
Some places seem to be keepers of memories that trigger distress, shame, fear or sadness, particularly those that have formed the stage for a traumatic event such as urban violence, natural disasters, military conflicts or terrorist attacks.
According to the editors of Post-Traumatic Urbanism, an urban trauma describes ‘a condition where conflict or catastrophe has disrupted and damaged not only the physical environment and infrastructure of a city, but also the social and cultural networks’. Maria Turmakin coined the term ‘traumascapes’ to denote spaces that still bear wounds from a traumatic incident, both in their physical state and in their inhabitants’ minds. A traumatic incident dislocates the continuity of the “lived and imagined landscape” of the city. It disturbs places at the core of our ‘emotional ecosystems’: they are no longer, and never will be, the same again. Displacement and damage spread confusion in people’s mental maps of a city, as victims lose literal or mental sight of landmarks. A physically hurt environment has real emotional impacts on remaining inhabitants, with related consequences for community resilience. We cannot but think, for instance, of the physical blow of the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11/2001, which not only has left a vacuum in the urban fabric, but also generated deep feelings including insecurity, distress, horror, and vulnerability among city residents, blurring the perceived boundaries between "safe" and "threatening" places. These feelings have been brutally reactivated during the Paris attacks on 13th November 2015. Even though the physical damage in Paris was lower than in New York, profound wounds have been left in our imagined landscape of the city.
Reconstructing place – restoring its familiarity – is therefore crucial in the process of healing from trauma. Urban geographers, for instance, are interested in how city dwellers, visitors and designers process this disruption and adjust (or not) to the new situation. Urban designers and city-makers alone may have inadequate competencies and insights for handling such complex, locally sensitive issues This seems to be a responsibility best shared by different actors (residents, academics, artists, etc.).
To help understand the issues and urban design opportunities in the complex field of traumascapes, my upcoming series of op-eds will particularly focus on several places in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a post-traumatic city besieged for four years during the war of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. During the siege, the physical urban space where people were dwelling was subject to a brutality conceptualised as “urbicide” – the murder of a city. In 2014, I conducted research in Sarajevo that to identify how different groups of people process traumatic memories, and understand what that showed about their collective and individual identities relating to a place.
The ruins of a bombed hotel on Mount Trebevic, a former popular recreation area near Sarajevo.
Photo by author, 2014.
Traumas are not only contained in a place and an event, but also in the ways they are lived and represented across time. Places are endlessly reinterpreted in power struggles and through (in)formal negotiations over their meaning and representation. Deliberately or not, planning decisions can impede communities’ ability to process extremely stressful events in their history by maintaining a sense of trauma associated to a place. This is all too often visible in Sarajevo’s urban built environment, parts of which remain derelict or in ruins. In this vein, places can serve as powerful tools for furthering the political vision of certain groups or institutions. Urban design challenges are thus particularly acute in a country where inter-ethnic issues remain sensitive. There is a widely held interest in how to achieve healing without forgetting traumatic episodes: similarly, we must ask how urban planners and policy makers can engage with traumatic places while taking into account a plurality of publics and generations.
This is the first in a series of op-eds intended to inform designers, planners, policy makers and anyone interested in questions of trauma, resilience and place-making from a social scientific and geographic perspective. Taking a qualitative approach, these insights highlight the complexity of ‘senses of places’ and practices relating to ‘traumatized’ built environments. This leads us to observe the difficulty of designing projects that effectively respond to the various needs of different individuals and communities.
This series claims no straightforward guideline for practice. The site of trauma is a particularly challenging object, insofar as there exists no simple, universal solution. There may be larger issues at stake, such as post-conflict peacebuilding that includes institution-building, civil society regeneration, etc. As we will see, responses to these spaces vary in terms of perceptions, cognition, personal histories and resilience, as well as the embodied experience of the place in the moment.
Lastly, at a time when our everyday mental maps seem increasingly vulnerable to the eruption of shock and violence, it is crucial to develop knowledge of the effect of trauma on cities and their various realities in order to develop appropriate and effective solutions.
As this traumascapes series proceeds, I will be discussing:
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