Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Understanding Sense of Place

Cover of "Discovering the Vernacular Land...Cover of Discovering the Vernacular Landscape

Understanding Sense of Place by Nathaniel James, Spring, 2001 Link to document can be found HERE.

Defining sense of place
Sense of place is important in any discussion of land conservation and growth management because sprawl development tends to eliminate unique features of the landscape. This is clearly recognized by proponents of smart growth. As Daniels writes, "Community design is about place making. The physical layout of the community can and should connect people with each other, with the community, and with the surrounding countryside." (1)

Sense of place may appear a fuzzy or purely subjective concept, but there are clear definitions that begin to narrow its focus. The National Trust for Historic Preservation offers a straightforward approach, calling sense of place:

Those things that add up to a feeling that a community is a special place, distinct from anywhere else. (2)

Kent Ryden provides a more textured response that recognizes the necessity of inhabiting place:

A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines. (3)

Finally, the well-known geographer J. B. Jackson offers this elaboration:

It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity. (4)

From these slightly different definitions, it can be seen that sense of place is primarily about the human landscape, our legacy of impact on the land, and, perhaps most importantly, memory. A number of other characteristics about sense of place might also be enumerated. Sense of place is:

* Difficult to quantify and abstract — place is frequently referred to as "fuzzy" or difficult to locate geographically. (5) In addition, one definition of place may not transfer across political or geographic borders.
* Comprised of natural features, patterns of human settlement, and social relationships — the connection between people is a key component of place.
* Determined by local knowledge — while it may be possible to broadly describe place as an outsider, intimate understandings of place are best expressed by natives.
* Embodied in folklore, personal narrative, and amateur history — intimate descriptions of place rarely show up in "official" documents, that is, those prepared by government or bureaucratic agencies.

Inventorying place
Descriptions of place can take many forms, but one of the most effective, with respect to municipal planning and smart growth, is an inventory of cultural resources. A comprehensive profile of the cultural landscape aids not only in preservation of existing resources, but can provide direction for future growth. Throughout this study, cultural resources can be thought of as comprising historic buildings, sites, and landscapes; scenic roads and viewsheds; and special places that have local cultural significance.

There are a number of guides to understanding and improving land use practices in rural communities. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Scenic America, and individual publishers such as Island Press have produced manuals for documenting and preserving cultural resources. These guides advocate conducting environmental inventories that detail both natural and cultural features. (6) In Rhode Island, the Watershed Approach includes provisions for the organization of local Watershed Action Teams to monitor stream quality and perform community assessments. (7)

Typically, volunteers are advised to break into small groups, go out into their neighborhood with maps and perhaps cameras, and document the areas with visual, historic, or personal significance. Maps, pictures, and descriptions recorded on inventory forms are then compiled in either report or poster format. The data collected is usually qualitative. Local residents are attempting to document the features of the built and natural landscape that make their community unique and appealing. These techniques can be performed and led by volunteers and the costs are minimal. The quality of the data depends on the consistency of collection, the number of individuals involved in preparing the inventory, and the number of distinct resources surveyed. As Harker and Natter write, “This is not a science; it is an art. The bottom line is that the scenic quality of your area can add greatly to the quality of your life." (8)

The typical product of these efforts is hand drawn maps and reports. The manuals encourage the use of multimedia (usually images) representations of data and lengthy description. Because there are no guidelines for collecting data to be entered into a GIS, the development of GIS data layers based on citizen generated data is difficult.

Sense of place in South Kingstown
The New England landscape has a sense of place rooted in a long history of settlement. South Kingstown's Comprehensive Plan recognizes the importance of place in contributing the to Town's quality of life:

One of the major positive influences on the Town's historic settlement pattern has been it's strong sense of place. Much of this "sense" derives from those features that contribute to it, including the Town's small identifiable villages, New England architecture, natural and scenic areas, and agricultural tradition. As overdevelopment can ruin the Town's small character, it can also disturb and even eliminate its sense of place. (9)

Despite the language in the Comprehensive Plan, South Kingstown did not begin an inventory of place drawing on local knowledge until 1998 when the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island initiated a project with the Planning Department to develop an inventory of important cultural features. The goal of the project was to involve residents in a proactive planning effort, the kind that is not frequently undertaken by an overworked planning board. The report, An Inventory and Analysis of the Village and Rural Qualities of South Kingstown, was produced by more than 140 residents over several months. According to one of the project's coordinators, community participation was overwhelming. (10)

Teams of residents were directed to map the boundaries of village, rural, and other areas as well as inventory the defining features of each district. The resulting report runs over 150 pages and includes maps from each of the eleven districts of the town. Although the Inventory represented one largest community planning efforts in the Town, little has come of the effort. With the help of an intern from the University of Rhode Island, the Planning Department produced a composite GIS coverage of the areas identified as village, rural, and other. However, none of the individual sites were mapped in the Town's GIS. The lengthy descriptions were not analyzed and the results of the report have not been included in amendments to the Comprehensive Plan.

1. Daniels, T. (1999). When City and County Collide. Washington, D.C.: Island Press: 87.
2. Stokes, S. M., Watson, A. E. and Mastran, S. S. (1997). Saving America’s Countryside: A Guide to Rural Conservation (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: 192.
3. Ryden, K. C. (1993). Mapping the Invisible Landscape. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press: 38.
4. Jackson, J. B. (1984). Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press: 152.
5. Schroeder, P. (1997). GIS in Public Participation Settings. Retrieved 24 April 2001 from the World Wide Web:
Parsons, E. (1994). Visualization Techniques for Qualitative Spatial Information. Fifth European Conference and Exhibition on Geographical Information Systems. Retrieved 20 April 2001 from the World Wide Web:
6. Stokes, S. M., Watson, A. E. and Mastran, S. S. (1997). Saving America’s Countryside: A Guide to Rural Conservation (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
O Say Can You See: A Visual Awareness Tool Kit for Communities (1999). Washington, D.C.: Scenic America.
Harker, D. F. and Natter, E. U. (1995). Where We Live: A Citizen’s Guide to Conducting a Community Environmental Inventory. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Copps, D. (1995). Views from the Road. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
7. Kerr, M. (2000). Assessing the Character of Your Community.
8. Harker, D. F. and Natter, E. U. (1995). Where We Live: A Citizen’s Guide to Conducting a Community Environmental Inventory.
9. Comprehensive Community Plan (1992). South Kingstown, RI: Planning Department.: 37.
10. Personal communication with Steve Olsen, 9 March 2001.

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