Interaction with Memory: Preserving the Past While Embracing Change

“The process of planning is very valuable, for forcing you to think hard about what you are doing, but the actual plan that results from it is probably useless.” – Marc Andreessen

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” – 1984, George Orwell


Cities not only represent the future but also have the responsibility to preserve their past. This summer, while exploring ancient monuments and historic sites in India, I also read about modern and newly constructed memorials all around the world representing various incidents of significance including the war in the Middle East and the world’s first memorial for a melted glacier in Iceland. Most cities today are rapidly growing without taking into account their history and character. In many cases, city planners do not acknowledge monuments or memorials as integral parameters in long-range planning. Hyderabad in India is one such example. I have been lost in this city numerous times, both alone and accompanied, and always end up with the same experience: the streets seem to fold onto me suddenly and every single corner I turn to seems familiar and surrounded with history while simultaneously having high towers that rise from nowhere. I have wondered how my city reinvented itself around me all these years.

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Qutb Shahi Tombs, Hyderabad    Photo Credit: Siri Nallaparaju

 

As professionals, we think of urban planning as a two-dimensional subject that consists of “space” and “utility” or in generic planning terms, “land” and “use”. I, however, have recently discovered that there is a third dimension: human behavior. Planning, today, has the need to influence a certain human behavior. This instinctive behavior needs to be captured through design and should be channeled into being a monitored definitive movement. It need not be something that is momentarily influenced but as a continuous loop that is structured by a fixed dimension, such as space. While we do look into physical aspects of design, the question of ‘who’ gets influenced by the design arises. Various themes revolving around concepts of inclusivity, gender specificity, and even neutral cities have risen. However, with a continuous growing circular economy, there is a need for cities to cater to global interaction unlike traditional beliefs of modern followers of the Bauhaus. One such aspect is the concept of memorials and monuments and how these spaces symbolize the value of freedom of expression as well as introduce a sense of belonging. 

Planning theory states that cities, in order to grow, need to be established from a specific focal point. An alternate theory comes to mind: what if they need to be established based on human behavior and certain incidents that play a vital role in the growth and well-being of the citizens? Planning in ancient India was evident through the great Indus Valley civilization where spaces were designed based on social behavior. Similarly, in the Western world, Paris was built with the Notre Dame as its center and the preliminary road network nodes forming a star shape. Likewise, temple cities in India such as Madurai and Thanjavur grew from the focal point of temples. 

While eminent journalists such as Jacobs, Geddes, Mumford, and others focused on physical and materialistic aspects of planning, Henri Lefebvre focused on people’s expression.  He adopted the techniques of these ancient cities and civilizations, understood their importance and mirrored them to reflect today’s cities. In ancient planning, non-market values, such as civic responsibility, were resources for planning as a purely societal tool. In an era where planning is dominated by slum rehabilitation in Mumbai or massive structures such as The Vessel of the Hudson Yards in Manhattan, where urban revival and affordability are the most sought after problems, the necessity of protecting the sense of character and history of a city is secondary. 

However, in his book Production of Space, Lefebvre focused on specific elements of urban design that help build a city for the future as well as preserve it. Whether it’s the valley of Kanchanaburi in Thailand with its never-ending Hellfire Pass, the long-forgotten Tombs of the Qutb Shahi rulers of India or even the National 9/11 Memorial that’s surrounded by Manhattan’s dense urban fabric, these memorials are a symbol of a relationship of an eternal memory surrounded by a city that is constantly changing and developing. With developing countries having rapid urbanization rates, their heritage is at risk unless Planning takes it into account as a necessary parameter. 

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New York City, 9/11 Memorial. Photo Credit: vikwaters, Creative Commons. 

While Lefebvre’s analysis and perception of cities are noteworthy, what was staggeringly profound was his description of the advancement of technology and its inability to change social relationships as well as the relationship between people and memory in a positive manner. Citizens will one day need these spaces to escape the monotonous cacophony of urban lifestyle, he says. Today, Space is defined as something quantitative in a financial district while it can be analyzed as a more qualitative and pure aspect in reference to a memorial. We are now stuck in a circle where development overruns bring to light more issues such as agglomeration, lack of urban services, etc. Furthermore, modern capitalism has strengthened the value of place arousing a longing for a specific community which thus, led to the concept of community planning. 

While acknowledging the success of many cities in achieving planned growth, it is perhaps the intangible aspects of personal and public spaces, as Lefebvre mentioned, that bring the symbolic eternity into focus while being surrounded by a heavy, dense yet mundane environment. With New York City working on its first-ever master plan for public memorials, it is important for planners to decide whether to lock down areas today for a future where commemorative planning can remain open to various themes and forms of remembrance that are yet to be imagined or even accepted. 

In a busy world such as ours, humans need the sanctity that these memorials and monuments offer, a true space with sentimental purpose while bringing about collective identity. Memorials and monuments act as spaces for engagement and interaction which makes cities more efficient and inclusive not of gender, race or creed but of thoughts and opinions.

About the Author: Siri Nallaparaju is a second year Master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her research interests mainly focus on global climate change, international development, and environmental degradation. As a planner, she is interested in bringing about a positive change in the world through sustainable development. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and experimenting with various cuisines of food while simultaneously trying to solve all the planning questions that constantly revolve in her head.

Featured Image: Evening Kites, Hyderabad, India. Photo Credit: Frank Starmer

Citations:

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Wiley-Blackwell; 1992

Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life, Verso, 1991

Knapp M L, Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction, Rinehart & Winston, Holt, New York, 1978

Lewis Mumford, “What is a City,” (first published in Architectural Record, 1937) The City Reader, (Fifth Edition) Richard T. Le Gates and Frederic Stout, (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 91-95