Compromised memory: how crises change a place’s narrative

Places, Crisis & Conflict

Crises change places irrevocably. They alter the fabric of a place, and the relationships we have to it — so how do they affect a place’s story?

When we think of crisis, we tend to think big. But as post-crisis reconstruction expert Marie Aquilino points out, crisis and conflict happen at a range of scales, from the large-scale to the everyday. A crisis is a hurricane; it’s also the slow erosion of a district and its livelihood, a descent into poverty and struggle. By either definition, in an era where climate change is rising around us, economies are still rippling from the impacts of the global financial crisis and international geopolitics are in flux, crisis may be an increasingly common feature of the world we inhabit.

Narratives are often a way of making sense of the world, and in a crisis that purpose becomes even more important. Communication theorists Matthew Seeger and Timothy Sellnow have identified a typology of crisis narratives, exploring the different kinds of stories we tell about crises in our attempt to understand events, articulate the experience of loss and begin to outline a way forward. For Aquilino, these narratives reveal that crises compromise the way we remember — they expose the ways in which place is intimately entwined with our daily lives. The destruction of a house reveals its importance as a home; the closure of a park reveals its role as a community hub and social meeting place; the collapse of a temple is the loss of living rituals.

However crises also undo our sense of the continuity of place, creating a newly uncertain relationship to time that makes narratives much more difficult. Should we try to preserve the past; recreate the ‘present’, just before the crisis struck; or attempt to imagine and construct a new future? As Aquilino notes, narratives in this post-crisis period are often contradictory and fluid, as people search for stories or approaches that will make sense. Eventually, the crisis itself will be part of a place’s story.

Often thought of as isolated events, crises should also be viewed as part of larger narratives — part of the way in which places are caught up within larger, rolling tides of social change. The patterns that determine how a crisis will happen, or how a place will respond, may already be laid down. This might be a case for fatalism, or it might be an enabling way to build in resilience even beyond a single place. The influential urban theorist Jane Jacobs writes: “dull, inert cities… contain the seeds of their own destruction. Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

Finally, crisis can also create or heighten a sense of palpable urgency, acting as a catalyst for change. Designer Mariana Martinez Balvanera identifies what she sees as Mexico’s current state of crisis as a call to action that may trigger a new wave of community-led approaches to place, and above all a radical rethinking of who place belongs to.

Read the full interview with Marie Aquilino on, or discover Mariana Martinez Balvanera’s unique approach to performative places.