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Meaningful memories inspire urban planning

This is where Helsingborg's new district, Oceanhamnen, is emerging. Jessica Engvall and Elisabeth Högdahl think about how memories from what was previously a port area can be brought to life in urban planning. Photo: Sven - Eric Svensson

Allow stories to speak and weave in memories. A multidimensional vision could make urban development less stereotypical, according to ethnologist Elisabeth Högdahl, who is the manager of the research project ‟Developing and Building Locations Through Human Memories”.

‟I hope that the site developers of tomorrow will think more broadly and allow space for people’s stories.”

Can memories build places? Can what has meant something to people become new, valuable building blocks for the development of residential areas?

‟You create your identity in relation to other people but also in relation to places, which is why it is hard when things are torn down. Then you demolish what underpins our memories, while building new things in which we don’t recognise ourselves”, says Elisabeth Högdahl, ethnologist at the Department of Service Management and Service Sciences at Campus Helsingborg.

Port area to become residential

Helsingborg’s new, growing city district, Oceanhamnen, was previously a vital part of the port area with boats loading and unloading fruit, vegetables and coffee. Boats also left for Oslo from here, and if families with small children were heading to Legoland in Denmark, this was the most convenient starting point for the trip.

Over a one-year pilot project, Elisabeth Högdahl and Jessica Engvall from the City of Helsingborg met with old longshoremen, former ferry crew members and crane operators, among others – all people who had worked in the area, a previously bustling place with a lot of activity. How could their memories be reflected in the new streets and buildings that were now to occupy the space instead? Stories, memories and rumours were collected in an interactive map for use in urban planning.

The well-worn everyday path and what it means to people should be visible

One example of how to preserve a cultural environment is an old crane in Oceanhamnen. It was brought back to life with the help of many people’s memories of crane operator Gullberg, a man partial to chomping on raw sausages, who sat at the very top and was in charge of the levers. This kind of knowledge creates a deeper understanding; the old crane becomes more than just a crane.

Digital toolbox

Experiences from collecting the memories in Oceanhamnen led to a new research project, with support from Formas, on how to connect everyday stories with overviews and detailed plans, for example, so that they can function as tools in urban planning.

The group was reinforced by researchers Ola Thufvesson, from the Department of Service Management and Service Sciences, and Anja Persson, who works at Dunkers Cultural Centre in Helsingborg. The municipality of Järfälla was also actively involved.

A digital toolbox is now available, showing in various ways how people’s stories can be translated and interpreted into urban development.

‟We have created a method, a digital toolbox, on how to transform people’s memories to occupy space in new buildings, road networks and street names. The inhabitants are fantastic experts on their own neighbourhoods, but not experts on urban development.”

Through collaboration, the project also tested working with different urban development processes, for example with Helsingborg’s new overview plan, an architectural competition and the development of the centre of Jakobsberg in the municipality of Järfälla.

Building from underneath

Within urban planning, people are invited to take part in a dialogue and inhabitants are given opportunities to give their opinion on what is being built. Often, this happens when much has already been decided. Instead, Elisabeth Högdahl and her colleagues suggest involving the inhabitants early on, at the start of the planning stage, through planners actively listening to stories and learning what has been important in the area. If you construct new buildings from underneath, using what has been meaningful to people through the years, it broadens the view of what the area could look like. Otherwise, there is a risk of losing the soft values. What street names, materials, colours and shapes we choose can in turn create more personal and unique locations.

‟The well-worn everyday path and what it means to people should be visible. Through people’s perspectives, we understand both the history of the location and what it means to us today.”

Governed not by trends alone

Elisabeth Högdahl also wants the urban developers of tomorrow to think in a broader perspective and not only on the basis of financial and technical factors. The dialogue with students gives rise to new thoughts.

‟They are fascinated by the way you can look at the city on the basis of intangible assets as well. It is not only trends that can govern a location, but how we have lived in it and how our memories are reflected in the area.”

“More municipalities and more architectural firms need to take a broader view, new discussions need to begin, new areas need to include their history in shaping the future”, says Elisabeth Högdahl:

‟I hope that we can loosen up the processes and include more voices from all generations, including the young. For this, I see the urban planners meeting the inhabitants at an early stage. Not as they do now, when they first develop a detailed plan and then go out and walk around with people. Since it is the people who create the identity of the location, we need to listen to them. That way, we are listening to the place itself.”