By Kaela Scott (Involve UK; co-operation partner of Smart Urban Intermediaries and part of the Scottish delegation to the Lisbon Transnational Lab)
Thinking back on the study visit to Lisbon in January, what has stuck with me is the importance that constructing stories of ‘history’ has for creating a sense of community, and for being an impetus for driving change.
On the morning of the first full day, as we walked together to meet our local hosts, a simple left turn meant we suddenly left the streets of suburban Lisbon and found ourselves in a slightly surreal ‘urban’ wasteland – a bizarre mix of seemingly abandoned land and occasional farm animals, criss-crossed by major roads. It was an environment disconcerting enough to have many of us questioning whether our designated ‘map readers’ were really up to the task!
A few hours later, walking almost the same route with our local guides from the Curraleira community, we heard the stories of the shanty town that had previously occupied this space.
Walking through this environment for the 2ndtime, and listening to local resident Nuno identify with pride the foundations of his family’s home amid the remains of what was once a bustling (if struggling) community, made the spirit of the place come alive. It also made the estate we could see in front of us assume a distinct identity as a site of relocation, urban development and community!
What fascinated me even more however, as our tour continued, was the way members of this community owned and identified with the stories of the area’s past (even when it was not their own ‘story’) Hearing our translator (also named Nuno) retelling the stories at the memorial to the young girl who had died when a fire broke out in the cramped streets of the former shanty town, highlighted the importance of the memory of the origins of this community, even to those whose family history was outside this specific space. This passing on of memory and history to the wider community struck me as an important, if possibly often undervalued, tool for building a collective will for change.
Listening to the stories, as we walked, also reminded me of how the community in Govan uses the stories of the area’s past – both more recently as a strong shipbuilding community and also those that position Govan with a significance stretching back over a century or more as a site of Christian prominence within the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The work that has been done there by SUIs (Smart Urban Intermediaries) to highlight this history operates as a powerful reminder to long-term residents, visitors and incomers to the area, of Govan’s back-story. Here these stories are used to build a sense of pride, permanence and perseverance within the community.
Unlike Govan, however, the key emotions underpinning the ‘story’ of Curraleira appeared not to be about pride and resilience, but instead formed around a narrative of abandonment and resistance. As the stories unfolded about neglect, poor service and unequal regard for the residents of Curraleira (e.g. the sewerage treatment plant in their area being the only uncovered one within the city) it became clear that ‘history’ here was being used to serve a different purpose: functioning as an emblem of neglect, discrimination and an on-going poverty of opportunity.
To me, however, the most interesting thing was that, while these ‘stories’ work in different ways, each serves to build a sense of community, and community momentum to work for change and betterment in their own local environments. Further, it makes me wonder how a ‘story of a community’ can be developed in locations that don’t have a physical history (e.g. ‘new towns’ or suburban areas of a city that have witnessed substantial population displacements)?
Overall, however, in what we have seen it seems the sense of ‘story’ could be an important motivator for generating energy around delivering progressive change in local areas. A key question for me then is how local SUIs can create stories for ‘new’ local environments, based on themes of evolution and inclusivity, which will encourage people to buy-in to a sense of community that supports collective drives for change?