Disaster Heritage Landscape: Balancing the Contradiction

On the day of May 12, 2008, I was preparing to go to school from home. Suddenly I felt the building shaking violently. Without thinking anything else, I rushed out of my apartment as fast as I could. One hour later, we learned that a magnitude 8.0 earthquake occurred in Wenchuan, Sichuan province of China. Over 87,000 people lost their lives in that quake.[i] Now 11 years have passed. After the reconstruction, people there have begun a new life. The local ruins have been preserved as national disaster heritages and a new memorial museum has been built for survivors and descendants commemorating the deceased and their lost relatives.

Fg.1 The disaster heritage in Wenchuan.
Fg.2 The Wenchuan earthquake memorial museum.

Recently, the local government has attempted to transform the heritage site which has been remained untouched for a decade to a “5A class” tourism attraction for benefiting the economic,[ii] which caused huge controversy in China.

From the perspective of landscape architecture discipline, disaster heritage landscape is a unique type of memorial and cultural landscape. It has complex cultural connotations, and multiplicity in functionality as well. As a complicated space with multiple meanings, therefore, the disaster heritage landscape will meet certain contradictions in the process of being protecting and redeveloping. As a landscape architecture student, I consider it has practical meaning to inquire how disaster sites can pursue a balance between the commemorative meaning (“genius loci” of the place) and their commercial value.

How to deal with the dual characteristics of disaster heritage needs to be discussed. On the one hand, the disaster landscape does have the potential to promote local tourism and economic development. Back into the 1980s, memorials to disasters such as earthquakes, wars and conflicts were constantly being built around the world.[iii] They are constituted as “dissonant heritage” or “dark heritage”. The tour is labelled as “dark tourism” or “thanatourism”,[iv] providing the visitors with unwonted experience and sensibility associated with life and death, past and now.

On the other hand, the disaster heritage landscape has significant intangible spiritual meaning, which I consider is more important than the commercial value. Given the site’s historical background, the heritage should be a place where people mourn, where the tranquillity is preserved. Earthquake relics and memorials together constitute a bizarre reality and symbolic cultural landscape. Their relation to the memories and attitudes towards history establish a specific connection between the past, present and the future. For the public, the heritage landscape creates a reinterpretation of the disaster, remembering the victims and warning people to cherish the preciousness of life. Using it as a resource of economic interest or a source for entertainment, in my opinion, is blasphemy for lost lives.

Thus, when it comes to the redevelopment of disaster heritage landscape, the protection of the spiritual essence of the venue should be at the first priority. To treat the disaster ruins, designers are supposed to pay respect towards the site. The core theme of the disaster landscape ought to explore the relationship between man and nature, using the concept of “less is more”, to pin the grief of the lost, to seek and encourage the meaning of life. Designers should handle the relationship between the memorial and the visitor in terms of functional and spatial arrangement, minimising the manual intervention, and maintaining the integrity and solemn atmosphere of the site. Facing such a special cultural landscape, only by understanding the authentic connotation of disaster commemoration can we redevelop the site into a memorable place that meets people’s spiritual and emotional needs, and have long-term social and economic value.

[i] “After-Shocks of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake,” 2018, accessed 15 April 2019, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/05/09/after-shocks-of-the-2008-sichuan-earthquake/.

[ii] Qin Jianxiong, Tang Yong, and Chen Xing, “Research on Earthquake-Induced Geologic Landscape System and Related Tourism Development Model: A Case from the Wenchuan Earthquake Site,” CHINA POPULATION RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENT 23, no. 5 (2013).

[iii] Kenneth E Foote, Shadowed ground: America’s landscapes of violence and tragedy (University of Texas Press, 2003).

[iv] Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley, “Consuming dark tourism: A thanatological perspective,” Annals of tourism Research 35, no. 2 (2008).


“After-Shocks of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.” 2018, accessed 15 April 2019, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/05/09/after-shocks-of-the-2008-sichuan-earthquake/.

Foote, Kenneth E. Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press, 2003.

Jianxiong, Qin, Tang Yong, and Chen Xing. “Research on Earthquake-Induced Geologic Landscape System and Related Tourism Development Model: A Case from the Wenchuan Earthquake Site.” CHINA POPULATION RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENT 23, no. 5 (2013).

Stone, Philip, and Richard Sharpley. “Consuming Dark Tourism: A Thanatological Perspective.” Annals of tourism Research 35, no. 2 (2008): 574-95.


Fg1. “Wenchuan Earthquake.” 2012, accessed 15 April 2019. http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_81c892910100zxwh.html.

Fg.2  Yongjie, CAI. “Earthquake Memorial in Sichuan.” 2012, accessed 15 April 2019. https://www.world-architects.com/en/architecture-news/reviews/earthquake-memorial-in-sichuan-1.

Siqi Zhao

Landscape architecture student at UWA.