Reconstructing Heritage: Places, Values, Attachment

Reconstructing Heritage: Places, Values, Attachment

Lisa Giombini


As natural catastrophes alter the environment, historical towns and other sites of heritage significance are at risk of being damaged, if not disrupted altogether. How should we confront the prospect of these disasters? And how are we to cope with the reconstructions that will be needed as these phenomena occur?

In this paper, I explore philosophical tools for thinking more deeply about the choices surrounding heritage conservation. Recent work in environmental psychology has investigated people’s emotional bond to places and how changes in a place’s structure may pose a threat to individual and social cohesion. Similarly, everyday aestheticians emphasize the role played by quotidian intercourse, relationship, and attachment for the ascription of aesthetic qualities to a site and the environment.

Drawing on these researches, I argue that strategies for a sustainable reconstruction must consider the affected community of people, and then the affected artefacts. The leading question is thus whether reconstructions are able to keep the values alive for the people for whom the site is perceived as significant.

Key Words
everyday aesthetics; heritage; natural catastrophes; place attachment; reconstruction


1. Introduction

Earthquakes, flooding, landslides, and other natural disasters have always been shaping the history of human dwellings and settlements, with reconstruction processes leading to a variety of architectural, aesthetic, and social outcomes. For example, historical evidence suggests that in Italy post-seismic reconstructions have been carried out since the Middle Ages, with seismic disasters occurring, on average, every 4 to 5 years in the last 150 years and causing nearly 150,000 casualties.[1]

The intensity and impact of these seismic events on territories with historical background, architectural relevance, and housing density have revived discussions regarding the conservation of cultural property in Italy. Although the peninsula, as a single country, possesses the largest number of heritage sites listed by UNESCO, the issue crosses national borders. How should we approach the prospect of these natural disasters, with all these valuable places at risk of being devastated?[2] And how are we to cope with the ongoing reconstructions that are needed as these phenomena occur?

The aim of this paper is not to adjudicate different anti-seismic measures or even to address any particular environmental policy, although this is certainly a question of the utmost importance today, partly in view of possible future damage caused by climate change.[3] Rather, I will focus on articulating some conceptual tools for deeper thinking about the implications that surround choices for reconstructing heritage sites following extreme natural events.

There are reasons why I restrict my attention to natural catastrophes here, while leaving aside disruption caused by human agencies like armed conflicts, terrorism, or vandalism. When discussing reconstruction strategies, it is questionable whether the same considerations may apply to all cases of destruction.[4] In addition, my focus is on sudden and unpredictable devastation caused by events such as earthquakes, landslides, and so on, rather than the standard aging processes that are slow and non-traumatic. These processes indeed require separate consideration.[5]

In considering sites that have been damaged by natural catastrophes, I argue that an enhanced understanding of the notion of heritage suggests that symbolic, aesthetic, and broadly conceived affective factors are as important as scientific, architectural, and engineering issues. These sites are included as part of our heritage primarily because they matter to us. People live in, form relationships with, and derive existential meanings from them. In this sense, natural catastrophes pose more than a challenge to our material properties. They are also a challenge to the values these properties embody as a result of the role they play in the everyday life and social practices of people, who transform them into places of human significance.

2. Top-down versus bottom-up approaches to heritage

How does a place become a heritage site? And what makes it part of the world’s heritage?

Technically, the process of selecting a site for inclusion on the World Heritage List is managed by a body representing the sovereign state of the territory where the site exists, which then submits it to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which evaluates all nominations. A site receives formal recognition and is placed on a heritage register, in a process that constitutes the dominant top-down approach to the creation of “official heritage.”[6] Once a certain place is recognized as belonging to the world’s heritage, it is typically construed as having “outstanding universal value” and is thus subject to a series of provisions on how it should be treated differently from other places.[7] In particular, it is expected that the place is meticulously managed and maintained, and funds are allocated for this locally and internationally.

Furthermore, how national and international institutions choose which sites deserve to be part of heritage and how to conserve them is influenced by how society represents itself in relation to its past, but also to its present and future. Heritage is not a passive process of keeping and conserving places but an active process of selection.[8]

Although a place only becomes “official heritage” upon inclusion in the UNESCO list, heritage sites are more than mere items on a catalog. A place becomes heritage, in a substantial sense, when it is perceived as a site of human significance, that is, when its particular features come to matter to individuals and communities. As such, heritage can exist only in relation to some individuals or group of individuals.[9] Thus, while the notion of heritage seems hard to define, the understanding of heritage sites as places of human significance is relatively uncontroversial and is the one I adopt for the purposes of this paper.[10]

More specifically, I understand this significance as an intangible “web of meanings”[11] that wraps around the objects: buildings, places, constructions. Each heritage site is surrounded by a series of immaterial aspects—the language we use to describe it, its cultural significance, its role in mundane routines, and so on—that are crucial in determining what we can call the perceived significance of the site and contribute to deciding its formal recognition as heritage.

An important point is that part of the intangible significance heritage sites possess depends on their being reference points by which a certain social group understands itself in relation to the world around them. Apart from their officially recognized value, heritage sites function as landmarks for the individuals who interact with them on a daily basis and shape their ways of knowing, making sense, and valuing their everyday experiences.

Here, we should emphasize the everydayness of this experience, a notion to which I shall return momentarily. Everyday practices are indeed responsible for what may be defined as a bottom-up process of heritage creation that is not in conflict but rather adds to the official significance of a site as heritage.[12] The bottom-up process identifies the relationship between people and places that is largely responsible for generating perceived heritage significance at the local level. Adopting a bottom-up approach to heritage management, in turn, implies accounting for the bond that ties communities to their living environments, and also focuses on the multitude ways through which these environments are invested with heritage significance. As we shall see in Section 5, such an approach has relevant implications for post-disaster reconstruction management.

3. Heritage and place attachment

Drawing on the work of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, heritage scholar Denis Byrne refers to the ways by which communities quotidianly use heritage sites to strengthen their connection to particular places and to each other as the “production of locality.”[13] Locality production processes are all the stronger when the site is a public place, as in the case of many urban centers in Italy that are officially part of the World Heritage. Locality is produced, for example, in most old towns’ historic squares, where the gathering places are located.[14] There, the site plays the role of a unifying hub around which the routines of residents unroll.

Consider, for example, Piazza del Campo, the main square of the city of Siena, Tuscany. The official heritage status of the square resides in its legislative protection as part of the historic center of Siena World Heritage Site, inscribed on the basis of the city’s undiscussed historic and artistic value. The site’s everyday significance, however, resides in the set of practices surrounding its use by different people, who gather there to meet, stroll, and perform their daily activities. These and similar present-day uses of the square demonstrate the ways through which a heritage site can create a sense of connection between people and place.[15] The special bond that arises between people and places can be considered “topophilia,” a term proposed by the Chinese-American geographer Yi-fu Tuan. According to Tuan, topophilia, the love for a place, refers to both a sense of belonging to a setting, the acceptance of a local identity, and a “sense of community.”[16]

In recent years, the analysis of the feelings people develop toward certain places and the function these places fulfill in their lives has received increasing attention from environmental psychologists. Since the pioneering work of psychologist Mark Fried,[17] studies show that places have a dramatic influence on how people self-represent themselves and their relations with their environment.[18] This relationship is known as “place attachment,”[19] the affective rapport, link, or involvement between people and specific locations of their everyday life that develops over time, often without awareness.[20] According to many authors, place attachment is an integral part to identity-creation processes, for individuals and for members of cultures and communities.[21]

One of the ways in which humans build their personal identity is through relation to the physical setting that surrounds them.[22] There is indeed a mutually constitutive interaction between people and their living environments. How we inhabit an environment and the practices we perform in our daily life both express and shape who we are. This underpins a construal of place as a psychological concept permeated by the “variety of meanings associated with that location by individuals or groups.”[23]

Researchers have identified two interrelated dimensions of place attachment: place identity and place dependence. While “place dependence” refers to the functional features of a place that facilitate certain activities and social connections, “place identity” denotes the more emotional rapport by which physical and symbolic features of places come to be incorporated in an individual’s sense of identity.[24] Through long-term intercourse with a certain environment, a locale becomes a befitting part of a person’s individuality and starts to serve as a sign or locus of the self.[25] Imbued with the personal meanings of our daily life, the external setting is thus transformed into a symbolic extension of our mind, a landscape into a mindscape, and space into place.

The role of quotidian experience in the process of place-making emerges from geographer Edward Relph’s notion of “insideness with place.”[26] According to Relph, to be inside a place is to belong to it and to identify with it, so that the more profoundly “inside” a person is in a place, the stronger is their identity with the place. It is important to note that the sense of insideness is at once physical, social, and autobiographical; it is the awareness of living within a known, familiar setting, with its associated daily routines (intimacy); within an order of shared community life and social exchange (immersion); and within a personal landscape of meaningful memories.[27] These three aspects of insideness together strengthen our emotional attachment to a place, giving rise to the positive feeling that we “wear the setting like a glove.”[28]

Although there is still no agreement among scholars over what kind of places people develop attachment to, what place aspects or dimensions are more likely to awaken attachment, or what physical, social and temporal variables influence attachment, it is widely acknowledged that heritage sites represent strong purveyors of place attachment feelings.[29] Indeed, these sites are deeply embroiled in the construction and reflection of personal and group sentiment, in the sense of both dependence and identity. As Jane Jacobs puts it, heritage can be seen as a mechanism of place-making. The very transformation of a place into heritage is a device whereby collectivity is shaped and social orders are reproduced or challenged in interactions with an environment.[30]

Enmeshing personal and community sentiment, individual and social experiences, and a lived and variously utilized setting into a complex cultural symbol, heritage sites become placeholders for distinct local identities. Through their iconic material features, echoing memories of the past, they “fuel the imagination of myth making”[31] and create the basis for shared narratives that facilitate feelings of belonging and “being in place.”[32] It should be emphasized that these feelings are not wholly dependent on the official values of the site itself, but rather are generated collectively through the everyday interaction between people and the environment. Collective attachment occurs because there is a basic agreement on the part of present-day users that a place has some value to them. If people no longer attach value to a place, the place simply loses its (heritage) status.[33]

Although the people-place bond tends to be relatively stable over time,[34] economic, social, and environmental change affect our sense of place, thus endangering a site’s perceived heritage significance.[35] This challenges the idea of heritage as an immutable set of objects with fixed, inherent meanings.[36] Heritage is rather an intersubjective phenomenon resulting from the complex processes through which a certain community selects those things that are of value to be kept for future generations. Importantly, these processes are specific to a certain time and place.[37] For this reason, as Laurajane Smith contends, all sites of heritage need to be constantly re-evaluated and tested by current social practices, needs, and desires that link the values, beliefs, and memories of communities in the present with those of the past.[38] Over the course of history, for example, old, built structures have been constantly used and reused, according to the aims and purposes of the present. Take the Quirinal Palace, in Rome, Italy. With its monumental size and its prominent location over the city, the palace has served various political authorities in their attempt to assert power in the peninsula.[39] Currently, the site hosts the official residence of the Italian president, and a popular public museum with thousands of visitors each day. The present heritage significance of the place emerges only in consideration of the different roles the palace has played in shaping the dynamics of Rome’s political and social life throughout history.

While considering complex heritage values, it is therefore crucial to ponder the meaning a site embodies for a certain community, its everyday uses, and how it is perceived as a resource for the local people to meet their own economic, social, personal, and emotional needs. These people are generally defined as “internal stakeholders” in the heritage literature.[40] In general, stakeholders are any group of people with an interest in or concern for a given object.[41] Metaphorically, stakeholders own a small part of something bigger and, since they are affected by decisions regarding it, they have the right to have a say on its fate. Internal stakeholders, in particular, are members of resident communities, local organizations, and institutions, in addition to all subjects who have a direct impact on heritage existence and preservation and would be significantly affected by changes in the site concerning the satisfaction of their personal needs and relations with the environment.

Notoriously, determining who counts as an internal stakeholder is a contentious matter and cannot be decided once and for all. Stakes are impossible to objectively quantify, as they are unstable and situational. How can one calculate precisely the number of people for whom a site is especially meaningful or measure how much those people would be affected by a given alteration on it? Moreover, it is assumed that sites recognized as part of World Heritage have a global significance, so there is the potential for a range of different ways of relating or feeling attached to it. In certain situations, these differences may give rise to conflicts over who has the right to determine management of the site, and the official and the local can be thought of as in competition.[42]

Instances of such controversy occur when heritage sites are seen as endowed with a particular religious or ritual significance for a living culture.[43] In these cases, the local community’s ascription of a special significance to the place may be incommensurate with the values otherwise ascribed by heritage professionals or foreign visitors.[44] An example is the latest reversion of the site of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, into a mosque by the Turkish authorities.[45] The resolution has met with outrage from many international institutions and has been firmly opposed by UNESCO representatives, who declared that the property’s World Heritage inclusion is now at risk.[46] Tensions, however, can also arise within the very same culture. For example, in 2009 the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany, a rich, cultural landscape along the Elbe River, was delisted by the UNESCO committee because of the negative visual impact of the planned construction of a new bridge in the area.[47] Interestingly, a poll conducted after the delisting found that the majority of Dresden citizens were willing to relinquish World Heritage status for the bridge; in fact, citizens saw the bridge as an asset that would improve their heritage and quality of life.[48]

These episodes illustrate the potential clash between heritage values recognized through internationalized standards and the community stakes held by the locals. While we shall later come back to the issue, we should acknowledge the conundrum that while heritage sites are given universal significance by the values ascribed by international heritage professionals, the daily practice involved with substantiating and reproducing these values and the related place experience are equally or even more meaningful for the sites’ preservation. It is through such practices and experiences—bringing together people, place, memory, and identity—that heritage is kept alive.

4. Heritage and everyday aesthetic value

An interesting aspect in this regard is that there seems to be a close relationship between the attachment generated by a heritage site and its everyday aesthetic value. Clearly, one main criterion for a place (archaeological, natural, artistic) to be inscribed on the World Heritage list rests on its having exceptional aesthetic character and appeal.[49] However, here I suggest that the aesthetic value should not be understood in the sense held by traditional aesthetic theory. Instead, it should be understood in the expanded sense recently developed in everyday aesthetics and environmental aesthetics that considers quotidian intercourse, relationship, and interaction central for the ascription of aesthetic qualities to objects and places.

As is often recognized, the relationship between everyday aesthetics and traditional aesthetics is controversial in many respects.[50] Confusion arises from alternative ways of construing the scope of so-called traditional aesthetic inquiry. For the purposes of this paper, however, I take the main difference between the two approaches as relying on the role they attribute to personal associations and investments in the context of aesthetic judgments. As Yuriko Saito points out, while according to “traditional, art-oriented aesthetic theory, our personal relationship to and stake in an object should be irrelevant to its aesthetic value,”[51] these affective elements lie at the basis of the engaged approach promoted by many everyday aestheticians.[52] The relevance of the engagement concept also justifies what brings me to combine investigations into everyday aesthetics and environmental aesthetics. Although these areas do not necessarily coincide, since historically natural aesthetics can be considered an integral part of traditional aesthetic theory, they converge in prioritizing the interactive character of our aesthetic encounters and focusing on the entire lived experience of our environment.[53]

Authors specializing in these fields agree that our everyday lives have a characteristic aesthetic import that emerges when we are involved in, engage, and interact with the objects of our daily experience.[54] In this sense, the attribution of aesthetic value is an experience of pleasure and meaning that results when a special relationship exists or is established between a subject and an object.

In her oeuvre, Saito, for example, has consistently supported the claim that our appreciation of an object cannot be dissociated from the personal, and the cultural and societal, relationship we have with it. Particularly regarding environment, our personal relationship and affective response should not be detached from the perception of its aesthetic value. Referring to Tuan’s notion of topophilia, Saito believes that people’s involvement and engagement toward the environment should be fully considered in an account of the aesthetic value of places.[55] Attribution of aesthetic value is inseparably linked to how we feel in a given locale and what meaning we give to it, which indicates the existence of a significant relational component in our aesthetic appraisal of places.

In line with this approach, environmental aestheticians have pointed the way to appreciating aesthetic qualities of a place by focusing on the entire lived experience we make of it.[56] Whether the subjects are native to a particular place, having lived and worked there their entire life, or just tourists passing through will affect how aesthetic value is attributed and what kind of aesthetic experiences are engendered. Emily Brady, for instance, has contended that aesthetic value cannot be reduced to any of the place’s constituent qualities.[57] To grasp the aesthetic value of a place, one must experience it firsthand, because aesthetic judgments concerning the environment have a strong experiential basis. To this extent, according to Brady, the aesthetic qualities that we perceive, our emotional responses to those qualities, and the meanings we attach—upon which all aesthetic values rests—vary depending on the subject-environment bond.[58]

The importance of the connection between subjects and places is similarly acknowledged by Arnold Berleant, who describes it as a sort of “sympathetic interrelationship.”[59] This interrelationship, he contends, lies at the basis of our aesthetic appreciation of the built environment. What we call “a place” is the result of a combination of factors, among which are the people who live in the place; the architectural structures and the meanings associated with them; our perceptual involvement; and the shared spatial dimension of the place itself, that together are responsible for engendering an aesthetic experience. All these factors, according to Berleant, testify to the profound “interpenetration, indeed the continuity” that exists between people and places.[60]

As Arto Haapala has suggested, this interpenetration is reflected in the two basic modalities we have to relate to a place, what he refers to as “strangeness” and “familiarity.”[61] Strangeness is the basic experience we undergo when we find ourselves in a new environment, for example, when visiting a foreign city for the first time.[62] Familiarity, on the contrary, is the quality of everyday living environments that brings us aesthetic pleasure through a feeling of “comforting stability:” “things are in their places; they are there where they should be, where I am used to seeing them.”[63] When we have settled down into an area, Haapala claims, not only do we recognize the buildings and locales, but we also establish a personal relation to them. This relation is as much existential as it is aesthetic, because it generates a specific form of aesthetic appreciation.[64]

Happala’s analysis of familiarity adds an aesthetic component to the notion of “insideness” discussed in Section 3, above. While these studies confirm that being “inside with a place” generates positive feelings of personal and interpersonal wellbeing,[65] such feelings, following Haapala, also affect our aesthetic perception. In this sense, part of the pleasure we gain from developing intimacy with an environment through frequent quotidian experiences, social immersion, and memory building is purely aesthetic. Just like well-functioning tools and objects, familiar places give us aesthetic delight inasmuch as they are “there,” accompany our mundane routines, and enable us to be ourselves, that is, “to act out” our “existential structure.”[66]

Interactions between aesthetic and existential aspects in the process of place-making give further ground to the importance of attachment in our appreciation of the environment. Particularly when it comes to culturally significant locales like heritage sites, the importance of their affective dimension for our aesthetic appraisal should not be ignored. As we have seen, our appreciation of heritage seems to be a complex, holistic phenomenon involving perception, interpretation, evaluation, personal memories, and abstract knowledge.[67] All these factors equally contribute to make a site appreciated and valued. So, whereas the specific architectural, artistic and structural features of a place are key for attributing UNESCO value to it, everyday happenings are key for the formation of feelings that are responsible for and constitutive of the place’s everyday aesthetic value. This is not to say that the two sets of values are independent from each other, for there is always an interplay between a site’s official and its perceived significance. In the next section, we will explore the effects of this interplay between top-down and bottom-up values on the issue of heritage reconstruction.

5. Effects on the logic of reconstruction

Whether construed in the light of the everyday aesthetic character of a site, the daily activities we engage in within those environments, or the meanings we ascribe to them, place-making lies at the heart of heritage’s perceived significance. They are crucial to understanding what happens when a site is severely damaged or disrupted, for example, as a result of an environmental catastrophe.

Earthquakes and other natural disasters bring communities to face important tangible losses: a massive part of their artistic and historic properties, landscapes, and cityscapes are endangered as a result of the physical transformation. But along with the material loss comes a profound loss of meanings, histories, and memories that is nothing short of tragic. This dual threat is all the more frightening when considering a country like Italy, where most heritage properties consist of urban and architectural clusters,  ranging from single buildings to districts, town centers, and whole cities, that have never ceased to be inhabited over the centuries.[68]

Empirical research has shown that people who are more attached to a place are also more sensitive to changes occurring in that place.[69] Place disruption, including unwilling relocation, abrupt landscape alteration, or forceful modification to a place’s functional designation, has serious consequences that affect people’s psychological and social stability.[70] In particular, in the aftermath of a catastrophe, members of the involved community tend to experience states of emotional grief, apathy, and disorientation, as if they have been robbed of a part of themselves, together with the disrupted place.[71] As long as the place is disrupted, this sense of losing identity remains.[72]

A natural disaster can thus be seen as a harm done to a generation by robbing it of something it cares about by forces it has no control over. This brings about the moral claim that victims of a disaster have some kind of right to reparation, in that what has been taken away should be restored to them.[73] Justice demands that we compensate them for their loss. Seen in this light, the important question for reconstruction is how people can get what they deserve, that is, how they can actually be compensated or restituted.

This argument—the claim that what has been taken away from a community should be restored to them—has consequences upon the whole logic of heritage conservation. If the harm caused by natural calamities acts on both the tangible and the intangible level, reconstruction too should be carried out accordingly. Although this principle does not give us clear instructions on what to do in all circumstances of destruction, it provides us with a guiding principle to steer our actions.

In the first place, it may lead us to reconsider skepticism about so-called stylistic reconstructions, that is, restorations designed to replicate the damaged item in its previous form. Up until now, the dominant view of heritage professionals has been to err on the side of caution with respect to these kinds of interventions. Much resistance in this regard is based on a commitment to the material authenticity of the original site’s structure.[74]

Focusing on place attachment casts new light on the issue. Once heritage’s perceived significance is acknowledged, respect for material authenticity simply ceases to appear the most pressing criterion to be followed in reconstruction. The task for conservation becomes rather to implement actions that are primarily able to keep the values alive for the people for whom the site is especially valuable. In this sense, reconstruction works as a value-restoring process, focused more on the harmed subjects than on the damaged physical items themselves.

This does not amount to a plea for integral restorations.[75] Reconstructions may reproduce a destroyed site exactly “where it was, as it was,”[76] and yet be unable to recreate the people-place bond. An example is the village of San Giuliano di Puglia, Italy, where the rebuild undertaken after the 2002 earthquake was imposed by central authorities without consulting the local community and eventually led to disastrous results.[77] Indeed, the fact that interventions should aim to reconstruct an “image of the ancient villages where the inhabitants can recognize their own place-identity” does not necessarily imply that “everything has to be preserved;” rather, it means including “an evaluation of the social and territorial transformations occurring on the sites.”[78]

What is crucial in this approach is that those with a greater degree of attachment to a site, who are also directly affected by the site’s disruption, that is, the so-called internal stakeholders, have a greater degree of authority than those for whom the object has less perceived significance. The authority people have on heritage objects indeed is based on two interrelated factors: (1) their perception of the site’s significance, and (2) their being affected by the site’s alteration.[79] In this regard, although the number of people potentially affected by heritage destruction can vary from a single individual to all humanity, people’s right to impose their views should be proportional to their involvement with the place. Internal stakeholders’ aesthetic and existential interests, needs, and priorities should take precedence over those of outsiders or visitors. Again, this is because the appreciation or depreciation of locals is rooted in their constant interaction with the site and invested with their life values; it profoundly impacts their lives on a daily basis.

The realization of this idea has also implications for how reconstruction projects are received and assessed. As everyday aestheticians argue, people’s everyday involvement with a site generates affection and attachment that leads to a positive aesthetic appreciation. One effective way to recreate a positive experience of a particular harmed place is thus for people to be participants in creating it, for this will strengthen their affection, attachment, and aesthetic appreciation of the reconstructed place.[80] This means, in the first place, that we try to make local people partner in the project’s implementation.

Such thinking can be referred to a newly emerging discourse called “civic environmentalism,” which recognizes and emphasizes citizens’ commitment in planning solutions to various challenges facing the environment.[81] No matter how sound and well-intentioned a certain goal, policy, or project may be, if it is perceived as something imposed on citizens from above or outside, such as by a government or an outside institution, its success and cultural sustainability are doubtful. On the contrary, when citizens are enfranchised, this sense of empowerment will positively affect their appreciation of the place and project.[82] Interestingly, civic environmentalist finds echoes in the growing body of research on place attachment, where inclusive and participatory governance processes incorporating place-related identities and meanings are taken to reduce place disruption and facilitate effective adaptation planning.[83] As recent Italian history testifies, when local people, place, and community-bound values are duly considered, reconstructions obtain positive results.[84] This is evidenced, for instance, by the experiences realized in the aftermath of the ruinous 1976 earthquake in the Friuli region of Northern Italy. Here, interventions on the local heritage not only followed the “where it was, as it was” principle, but the government partially decentralized recovery at community levels, involving the participation of local actors in planning and implementing choices.[85]

Obviously, most decisions in heritage reconstruction require scientific and technical expertise; no common citizen can be authorized to decide which material is best suited to withstand humidity or what thickness a reinforcing wall should have. The conservation profession has such experts-only features, but it also has many aspects beyond technical knowledge that call into question people’s feelings, memories, preferences, and interests.[86]

Here, it is understandable that local communities’ stakes may sometimes differ from that of the professionals, according to their specific perception of the site. While professionals may tend to regard material preservation and careful curation of heritage places as an end in itself, the former may regard heritage as a means to a variety of social ends, including economic gain, social justice, and the like. When conflict arises, however, the strategy should not simply be determining which stake is the most relevant or which stakeholders better deserves to be satisfied. Rather, we should try to integrate the conflicting views as much as is reasonably possible, thus favoring a negotiation-based over an agonistic approach to conservation, whereby diverse stakeholders are allowed to bring their own values and factors of different nature are considered.[87] Conservation decision-making is not so much a matter of vote counting as it is an attempt to find an agreement between the diverse stakeholders. This agreement, however, will vary depending on each situation. So, for example, where museum objects or archeological findings are concerned, the opinion of the experts may have a higher impact at the negotiating table. However, when a disrupted heritage site is concerned, even if it is also a work of art or a historical record, the voice of the local community may grow stronger and even be louder than that of the experts. It is indeed through this voice that the past can resonate in the present.

7. Conclusion

I argue that an effective reconstruction project for the compensation and mitigation of heritage harm caused by natural catastrophes should include a more comprehensive strategy for preserving the social meanings and values connected to that site. Weaving together insights from environmental psychology and everyday aesthetics, I show that heritage resides in the sympathetic interaction between humans and a given place to which significance is attached. While a place is seen as the background of human action, the setting where social and personal dynamics take place, heritage reflects the societal perception of such dynamics, acting as both the producer and the product of collective and individual identity. Within this perspective, everyday significance and attachment are considered key elements on which to base effective reconstruction programs. Emphasizing the relationship between people and places is indeed essential to achieve interventions that are both positively received and aesthetically appreciated by the affected community.


Lisa Giombini

Lisa Giombini is a Researcher in Aesthetics at the University of Roma Tre (Italy), Department of Philosophy, Communication and Visual Arts. Aside from a long-term interest in the philosophy of music, Lisa’s current research work focuses on the philosophy of art conservation and restoration and on the ethics of cultural heritage. She is the author of Musical Ontology: a Guide for the Perplexed (2017) and a member of several philosophical associations, including the Italian Society for Aesthetics (SIE), the European Society of Aesthetics (ESA), the International Association of Aesthetics (IAA), and the American Society of Aesthetics (ASA).

Published on November 16, 2020.

Cite this article: Lisa Giombini, “Reconstructing Heritage: Places, Values, Attachment,” Contemporary Aesthetics, 18 (2020), accessed date.

Author’s note: I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers of my paper for their insightful suggestions.Their comments have contributed immensely to improve the quality of this work.This paper has also greatly benefited from the editorial work of CA Editor, Yuriko Saito, to whom I would like to express my most sincere thanks.



[1] Emanuela Guidoboni, Gianluca Valensise, Il peso economico e sociale dei disastri sismici in Italia negli ultimi 150 anni, (Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2011); Matteo Clemente, Luca Salvati, “Interrupted Landscapes: Post-Earthquake Reconstruction In-between Urban Renewal and Social Identity of Local Communities,” Sustainability, 9 (2017):1-13, ref. on 1.

[2] There are more than fifty such places. The Unesco World Heritage List can be consulted at: Accessed October 20, 2020.

[3] On the effects of climate change on heritage, see: Ariane Nomikos, “Place Matters,The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 76, 4 (2018): 453-462; Erich Hattala Matthes, “Environmental Heritage and the Ruins of the Future,” in Philosophical Perspectives on Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials, eds. J. Bicknell, J. Judkins, C. Korsmeyer (New York: Routledge, 2019), pp. 175-186.

[4] The question here is how important the nature of a certain act is when coping with its consequences. In legal systems, a distinction is made between material and nonmaterial damage types. When it comes to compensating for a nonmaterial damage, whether or not the harm was caused by willful misconduct makes a difference in how we approach and perform its reparation. This arguably applies to human-made intentionally inflicted damage, too. For discussion concerning heritage protection in war, see; Erich H. Matthes, “Saving Lives or Saving Stones? The Ethics of Cultural Heritage Protection in War,” Public Affairs Quarterly, 32, 1, 2018: 67–84; Janet Bicknell, et al. (eds.), Philosophical Perspectives on Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials, Part 3, pp. 187-290.

[5] We generally appreciate the result of slow decay processes that transform buildings into ruins. Conversely, sudden destruction only produces unattractive rubble or debris. For the role of temporality in distinguishing between rubble and ruins, see Zoltán Somhegyi, Reviewing the Past. The Presence of Ruins (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), pp. 19-20, 147, 149.

[6] Rodney Harrison, Heritage. Critical Approaches (London-New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 13-14, 23.

[7] For critical discussion, see: Henry Cleere, “The concept of ‘outstanding universal value’ in the World Heritage Convention,” Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, 1, 4 (1996): 227–233.

[8] Rodney Harrison, Heritage, p. 4; David Lowenthal, “The Heritage Crusade and its Contradictions,” in Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States, eds. M. Page, R. Mason (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 19-44; Jonathan Friedman, “The past in the future: history and the politics of identity,” American Anthropologist 94, 4 (1992): 837–859, ref. on 853.

[9] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 48-53.

[10] For heritage as a “conveniently ambiguous” concept, see: David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[11] Salvador Muñoz-Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Restoration (Oxford: Elsevier, 2009), p. 160.

[12] Rodney Harrison, “What is Heritage?,” in Understanding the Politics of Heritage, ed. R. Harrison, (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 8.

[13] See: Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996); Denis Byrne, “Heritage as Social Action,” in The Heritage Reader, eds. G. Fairclough et al. (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 149-73.

[14] Giuliana Andreotti, “Geografia e cultura,” in Geografia Culturale: Idee ed Esperienze, eds. G. Andreotti, S. Salgaro (Trento: Artimedia, 2001), pp. 55-68.

[15] Matteo Clemente, Luca Salvati, “Interrupted Landscape,” p. 13.

[16] Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974).

[17] Mark Fried, “Grieving for a lost home,” in The urban condition: People and policy in the metropolis, ed. L.J. Duhl (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), pp. 124-152.

[18] Maria Carmen Hidalgo, Bernardo Hernàndez, “Place Attachment: Conceptual and Empirical Questions,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21, 3 (2001): 273-281.

[19] The phenomenon has been also referred to as “community attachment” (John Kasarda, Morris Janowitz, “Community Attachment in Mass Society,” American Sociological Review, 39, 3 (1974): 328-339) or “sense of place” (David Hummon, “Community Attachment,” in Place Attachment. Human Behavior and Environment vol 12, eds. I. Altman, S. Low (Boston, MA: Springer, 1992), pp. 253-278). For terminological discussion, see Kathleen Gerson, et al., “Attachment to Place,” in Networks and Places: Social Relations in the Urban Setting, eds. C.S. Fischer et al. (New York: The Free Press, 1977).

[20] See: Setha Low, Irwin Altman, “Place Attachment,” in Place Attachment. Human Behavior and Environment, 12: 1-12; David Hummon, “Community Attachment.” For place attachment as an unconscious process, see: Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness (London: Pion, 1976); Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and place: The perspective of experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).

[21] Gerard Kyle, et al., “Effects of Place Attachment on Users’ Perceptions of Social and Environmental Conditions in a Natural Setting,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24 (2004): 213-225; Christopher Raymond, et al. “The measurement of place attachment: Personal, community, and environmental connections,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 4 (2010): 422-434.

[22] Bernardo Hernández, et al., “Place Attachment and Place Identity in Natives and Non-natives,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27 (2007): 310-319.

[23] Patrick Devine‐Wright, “Rethinking NIMBYism: The role of place attachment and place identity in explaining place‐protective action,” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 19 (2009): 426-441, ref. on 427.

[24] For the notion of “place dependence,” see: Daniel Stokols, Sally Shumaker, “The psychological context of residential mobility and well-being,” Journal of Social Issues, 38, 3 (1982): 149-171, ref. on 157-158; for the notion of “place identity.” see Harold Proshansky, “The City and Self-Identity,” Environment and Behavior, 10, 2 (1978): 147-169.

[25] Marjorie Lavin, Fredric Agatstein, “Personal identity and the imagery of place: Psychological issues and literary themes,” Journal of Mental Imagery, 8, 3 (1984): 51–66; Harold Proshansky, “The City and Self-identity.”

[26] The notion, introduced by Edward Relph in his Place and Placelessness (New York: SAGE, 1976), has received substantial development in Graham Rowles’ work. See Rowles’ “Aging in rural environments,” in Human behavior and environment: The elderly and the physical environment, eds. I. Altman, et al. (New York: Plenum Press, 1984), pp. 129–52.

[27] Graham Rowles, “Geographical Dimensions of Social Support in Rural Appalachia,” in Aging and Milieu: Environmental Perspectives on Growing Old, eds. G. Rowles, R.J. Ohta (New York and London: AcaPlace, 1983), pp. 111-130.

[28] Graham Rowles, “Geographical Dimensions of Social Support in Rural Appalachia,” p.114.

[29] See for example: Denis Byrne, et al., Social Significance: A Discussion Paper (Sydney: Department of Environment and Conservation, 2001); Erica Avrami, et al. (eds), Values and heritage conservation (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2000); Laurajane Smith, et al., “Community-driven research in cultural heritage management: The Waanyi Women’s History Project,” International Journal of Heritage Studies, 9, 1 (2003): 65-80, ref. on 66.

[30] Jane Jacobs, Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 35.

[31] William Shack, “The construction of antiquity and the egalitarian principle: social constructions of the past in the present,” in Social Construction of the Past: Representation as Power, eds. G.C. Bond, A. Gilliam (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 113–118, ref. on 115.

[32] Jane Harrington, ‘Being Here’: Heritage, Belonging and Place Making, (Townsville: James Cook University, 2004), Ch. 5. Urban communities often use local heritage imagery to identify their identity. This phenomenon contributes to the construction of a positive self-image and a shared rhetoric for collective feelings and local identification. See Anselm Strauss (1961), Images of the American City (New York: Routledge 2014), and Gerald Suttles, “The Cumulative Texture of Local Urban Culture,” American Journal of Sociology, 90, 2 (1984): 283-304.

[33] Salvador Muñoz-Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Restoration, p. 153.

[34] Lynne Manzo, Patrick Devine-Wright, eds., Place Attachment. Advances in Theory, Methods and Applications (New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 31-32. As the authors notice, however, longitudinal research on place attachment is restricted to a limited number of studies (p. 31).

[35] See: Barbara Brown, Douglas Perkins, “Disruptions in place attachment,” in Place attachment, eds. I. Altman, S. M. Low, (New York: Plenum), pp. 279–304; Mark Fried, “Continuities and discontinuities of place,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20 (2000): 193–205; Patrick Devine-Wright, Yuko Howes, “Disruption to place attachment and the protection of restorative environments,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (2010): 271–280.

[36] This idea is largely accepted in contemporary heritage studies. See: Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage.

[37] Erica Avrami et al., Values and Heritage Conservation: Research Report (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2000), p. 6.

[38] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, pp. 44-84. In particular, Smith claims that: “a heritage place may represent or stand in for a sense of identity and belonging for particular individuals or groups” (p.77).

[39] As archaeological findings testify, the site has been in use since Roman times. The current architectural ensemble served as a papal summer residence until 1870, when it started hosting the Royal Palace of Italy’s newborn kingdom.

[40] The notion comes from Edward Freeman’s seminal book, Strategic Management. A Stakeholder Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 160 ff. According to Freedman, “external stakeholders” are those who indirectly benefit from the profit made by a site, including international authorities and the media.

[41] Used for the first time in 1963 by the Stanford Research Institute, the concept has been thoroughly discussed in contemporary heritage literature. See: Anna Góral, Cultural Heritage as a Shared Resource: instead of a period? The role of collaboration between stakeholders in Cultural Heritage Management, in Cultural Heritage. Management, Identity and Potential, eds. Ł. Gaweł, E. Kocój (Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2015), pp. 55-65; David Myers et al.  (eds.), Consensus Building, Negotiation, and Conflict Resolution for Heritage Place Management (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2016); Erica Avrami, et al. (eds.), Values in heritage management. Emerging Approaches and Research Directions (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2019).

[42] For an exploration of conflicts among stakeholders, see especially: Helaine Silverman, Contested Cultural Heritage: Religion, Nationalism, Erasure, and Exclusion in a Global World (Berlin-New York: Springer, 2010).

[43] For discussion, see: Miriam Clavir, Preserving what is Valued: Museums, Conservation, and First Nations (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002).

[44] Peter Ucko, “Foreword,” in The Politics of the Past, eds. P. Gathercole, D. Lowenthal (London: Routledge,1994), pp, ix–xxi, ref. on xvii; see also Erica Avrami et al. Values and Heritage Conservation; 2000; Marta de la Torre, Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage: Research Report (Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2002).

[45] See: Zena Chamas, “Why is there controversy over Turkey declaring Hagia Sophia a mosque?,” News (07/13/2020), Accessed October 20, 2020.

[46] The UNESCO statement on Hagia Sophia can be found here: Accessed October 20, 2020.

[47] The case is extensively debated in Erica Avrami et al. (eds.) Values in Heritage Management, Part 1.

[48] Mark Johanson, “Dresden Bridge That Got City Booted Off World Heritage List Opens,” International Business Times, (08/26/2013), Accessed October 20, 2020.

[49] For example, the UNESCO reports that a site must be either a unique “masterpiece of human creative genius” or contain “areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.” Cf. with Accessed October 20, 2020.

[50] For discussion, see Gioia L. Iannilli, “Everyday Aesthetics,” International Lexicon of Aesthetics Vol. 1 (Milano: Mimesis, 2018).

[51] Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 106.

[52] See especially, Arnold Berleant, Art and Engagement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991); Yuriko Saito, “The Ethical Dimensions of Aesthetic Engagement,” Espes, 6, 2 (2017): 19-29.

[53] In Allen Carlson’s reconstruction, the aesthetics of everyday life is considered a subpart of environmental aesthetics arisen at the beginning of the twenty-first century. See: “Environmental Aesthetics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

[54] Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), Aesthetics of the Familiar; Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadephia: Temple University Press, 1992); Thomas Leddy, “The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics,” in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, eds. A. Light, J.M. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), pp. 3-22.

[55] Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar, p. 107.

[56] See, among the others: Emily Brady, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003), “Aesthetic Value, Ethics and Climate Change,” Environmental Values, 23 (2014): 551–570; Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment; Thomas W. Leddy, “The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics.”

[57] Emily Brady, “Aesthetic Value, Ethics and Climate Change,” p. 554.

[58] Ariane Nomikos, “Place Matters,” p. 454.

[59] Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment, p. 149.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Arto Haapala, “The Everyday, Building, and Architecture: Reflections on the Ethos and Beauty of our Built Surroundings,” Cloud-Cuckoo-Land: International Journal of Architectural Theory, 22, 36 (2017): 171-182; “On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness and the Meaning of Place,” in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, pp. 39-55.

[62] Ibid., p. 43.

[63] Ibid., pp. 50; 6.

[64] Ibid., p. 45; p. 50.

[65] On the relation between place attachment and personal wellbeing, see: Graham Rowles, “Habituation and Being in Place,” The Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, Supplement 2000, 20 (2016): 52-67.

[66] Jonathan Smith, “Introduction,” in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, pp. ix-xv, ref. on xi.

[67] Michał Jaśkiewicz, “Place attachment, place identity and aesthetic appraisal of urban landscape,” Polish Psychological Bulletin, 46, 4 (2015): 573-578, ref. on 573.

[68] Eugenio Turri, Semiologia del paesaggio Italiano (Milano: Longanesi, 1979); Il paesaggio come teatro. Dal territorio vissuto al territorio rappresentato (Venezia: Marsilio, 1998).

[69] Gerard Kyle, et al., “Effects of Place Attachment on Users’ Perceptions of Social and Environmental Conditions in a Natural Setting,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24 (2004): 213-225; Marit Vorkinn, Hanne Riese, “Environmental Concern in a Local Context: The Significance of Place Attachment,” Environment and Behavior, 33 (2001): 249-263.

[70] Patrick Devine-Wright, “Think global, act local? The relevance of place attachments and place identities in a climate changed world,” Global Environmental Change, 23, 1 (2013):  61-69.

[71] See: Kai Erikson, Everything in Its Path (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976); Barbara Lucini, Disaster Resilience from a Sociological Perspective. Exploring Three Italian Earthquakes as Models for Disaster Resilience Planning (London: Springer, 2014).

[72] Barbara Brown, Douglas Perkins, “Disruptions in Place Attachment,” ref. on 291-293.

[73] Derek Matravers, “The Reconstruction of Damaged or Destroyed Heritage,” in Philosophical Perspectives on Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials, pp. 189-200, ref. on 191.

[74] See: Jukka Jokilehto, Joseph King, “Authenticity and conservation: reflections on the current state of understanding” (Paris: Unesco ICOMOS, 2001) pp. 33-39.

[75] In the literature, the notion is used to refer to all forms of restoration that aim to reconstruct a ruined or collapsed building “piece by piece,” so as to faithfully reproduce its original structure.

[76] The slogan was used for the first time by the major of Venice during the aftermath of the collapse of the San Marco Bell Tower in 1902. See: Jukka Jokilheto, History of Architectural Conservation (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 345.

[77] Barbara Spinelli, “La ricostruzione faraonica che deturpa San Giuliano,” La Repubblica (06/25/2012),; accessed October 20, 2020; Carmine Gazzanni, “La ricostruzione dopo il terremoto? Basta che non sia come quella del Molise,” Linkiesta (11/09/2016),; accessed October 20, 2020.

[78] Matteo Clemente, Luca Salvati, “Interrupted Landscapes,” p. 11.

[79] Salvador Muñoz-Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Restoration, p. 161.

[80] Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics, p. 214.

[81] See especially: Andrew Light, “Urban ecological citizenship,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 34, 1 (2003): 44- 63.

[82] Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar, p. 107.

[83] Jennifer Fresque‐Baxter, Derek Armitage, “Place identity and climate change adaptation: a synthesis and framework for understanding,” WIREs Climate Change, 3 (2012): 251-266; Timo von Wirth, et al., “Exploring the influence of perceived urban change on residents’ place attachment,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 46 (2016): 67-82.

[84] Matteo Clemente, Luca Salvati, “Interrupted Landscapes,” pp. 9-10.

[85] For details on the Friuli reconstruction, see: Robert Geipel, Long-Term Consequences of Disasters: The Reconstruction of Friuli, Italy, in Its International Context, 1976-1988 (New York: Springer, 1991).

[86] See: Salvador Muñoz-Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Restoration, p. 162.

[87] Erica Avrami et al. (eds.), Values and Heritage Conservation, p. 16.