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Risk homeostasis and spatial memory: towards a (socially) sustainable post-disaster urban reconstruction

Supervisor(s): Gisèle Gantois
Campus: Ghent
Language EN

Description of the project (1) 

The exercise tackles two important issues:  

First: How can we come to a better resilience to contemporary risks  

Second: How can the spatial memory of victims of a devastating disaster be used as a guideline for post-disaster urban reconstruction?  

To delve deeper into these two intertwined research questions, we dive into the case of the municipality of Pepinster in the province of Liège. The Vesdre valley, in which Pepinster is situated, suffered from a major flooding in the summer of 2021 and is still recovering from this disaster.  

First: How to live with risks? The more we protect ourselves, the more our memory of risk (risk homeostasis2) erodes. Additionally, we are confronted with an unprecedented memory break resulting from the process of globalization.  

The relationship between nature and culture is complex and multifaceted but by studying the impact of (past) disasters on societies (risk and vulnerability) and their response over a longer period of time, insights can be gained that can serve as a basis for adaptation strategies today that enable the reduction of the vulnerability of ecosystems and communities exposed to disasters. In this sense, cultural heritage has a lot to teach us. 

Second: In the light of the many conflicts and disasters that impact cities worldwide, governments are ever more challenged to understand and improve the impact of urban planning after disaster on local communities (both original residents coming back and newcomers). However, all too often the planning of the reconstruction of historical urban landscapes after disaster happens in a top-down way following the four-stage model of recovery based on ‘emergency’, ‘restoration’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘commemoration’ devised in 1970 (Vale & Campanella, 2005). Despite increased attention for communities and their socio-cultural and ‘non-tangible’ heritage, the fast material reconstruction of urban areas after disaster often appears more valued than the peculiar social life they hosted and bred before the disaster.  

Starting from existing knowledge in different disciplines, this assignment focuses on the production and negotiation of spatial memory in everyday urban environment and this from an architectural (planning) point of view by using (graphic) observational and design tools combined with research methods from ethnographic studies such as observational walking and open interview. 

Expected output:  

Given the complexity of the subject, an intense research design process in tactile sketches, narratives, models, drawings and maps is proposed:  

  1. in parallel with a written literature review to enable the creation of a solid theoretical framework and knowledge background in order to generate a position towards existing research (a) on concrete (historical) examples of projects that used historical lessons to reduce the vulnerability of local communities, (b) on spatialising memory and environmental studies on the position of built heritage in urban planning processes in view of reconstruction after disaster, (c) and on architectural and urban heritage ‘beyond materiality’: social significance of architectural heritage in urban areas and community involvement in these processes. 

This literature review will be followed by the analysis of publications that are relevant for the students’ individual research topic. 

  1. this exercise will further draw from immersive design driven fieldwork in the case of Pepinster. The observational Interactive Walking method (Gantois, 2022a, 2022b) will be used as a methodological approach to investigate the multifarious and complex interactions between people and their living environment of which heritage is an integral part and the diverse (and often conflicting) forms of social life that it houses. 

This interpretative three-step mapping method, which combines ethnographic tools with the skills of the architect will be used to detect, unveil and to map the role of (destroyed) heritage and its spatial memorial imprint in the process of recovery. It will draw from multiple data sources, including open interview through observational walking, spatial analysis, archival research ([historical] maps, photographs, newspaper clippings) and mapping. 

  1. This process will result in: 
  1. the development of a masterplan for the affected area 
  1. a design proposal for the reconstruction of the area 

 Study trip (+ timing): Week 7 SEM3 Intensive Research week on location in the Vesdre valley (Wallonia, Belgium). Different visits in SEM 4 

 References/Further reading:  

Altman Irwin, and Low Setha M., 1992. Place Attachment. Springer. 

Bachelard, Gaston, 1969/1958. The Poetics of Space. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press: pp 11-12 

de Certeau Michel, 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. CA: Berkeley, University of California Press 

Delforge Paul. Inondations : “L’histoire peut aider à entretenir la mémoire du risque” 


Gantois Gisèle, 2022a. ‘A rambling field role for the heritage practitioner: A means to come to more socially sustainable heritage (re-) development projects’ in Fouseki Kalliopi, Cassar May, Dreyfuss Guillaume, Ang Kah-Eng Kelvin (eds), Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Heritage. New York, Routledge. eBookISBN: 978 1 00303 895 5; Extent: 582 pp – Chapter 34.​​​​​​​ 

Gantois Gisèle, 2022b. ‘The Social Potential of Interactive Walking’ in Christoph Rausch, Ruth Benschop, Emilie Sitzia, Vivian van Saaze (Eds). Participatory Practices in Art and Cultural Heritage. Learning Through and From Collaboration; Springer:eBook ISBN 978-3-031-05694-9;  


Garnier, E., 2019. A memory for a better resilience to contemporary risks. Contributing Paper to GAR 2019 


Lewicka Maria, 2011. ‘Place attachment: How far have we come in the last 40 years?’ in Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31: pp. 207–230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.10. 001 

Malpas Jeff, 1999. Place and experience: A philosophical topography. Cambridge University Press: p.5 

Mustafa, A. M. E. S., Bruwier, M., Archambeau, P., Erpicum, S., Pirotton, M., Dewals, B., & Teller, J. , 2018. Effects of spatial planning on future flood risks in urban environments. Journal of Environmental Management, 225, 193-204.  

Relph Edward, 1976. Place and placelessness. London: Pion Limited 

Schumaker Sally A., & Hankin Janet, 1984. ‘The bonds between people and their residential environments: Theory and research’. in Population and Environment, 7: pp. 59-60 

Trentelman Carla K., 2009. ‘Place attachment and community attachment: A primer grounded in the lived experience of a community sociologist’ in Society and Natural Resources, 22: pp. 191-210 

Tuan Yi-Fu, 1974. Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. Prentice-Hall. 

Vale, Lawrence J. and Campanella, Thomas J. (ed.), 2005. The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. New York: Oxford University Press. 


Reference for the image
Blurred Memories by Gisèle Gantois (based on original picture by Photo News, published with newspaper article HLN, 10-09-2021 “Veertigtal woningen in Pepinster wordt afgebroken”)