Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Role of History in Place-based Identity

Identity that is place-based is strong, stable and shared because every individual within a community is in some way connected to the place due to their geographic location and their personal narrative linking them there through time. It is this history which irrevocably links the individual and the place that he or she exists. Place-based community initiatives work off this concept by highlighting specific shared spaces as the core for a community’s identity through acknowledging and celebrating the history of the past, being historically significant in the present, and facilitating the opportunity for histories to be made in the future.

Identities are linked to place because they are formed only through some sort of narrative which is based in a location. Everyone in Meadville has a personal story that ties them to the area and this identification with location may involve other members of the community. Physical markers act as symbolic references to residents’ unique personal histories. The fact that these markers are shared promotes an idea of collective memory and therefore collective identity with the place. Programs in historic preservation in the area such as that with the main street program acknowledge this fact. The geographical location and material form act as a solid and stable core with which to identify with, something that has been around and endured despite such things as frequent social and ideological changes. It provides a sense of definition, security and stability against the passage of time but also inspires a certain optimism concerning the possibility of change when harnessed and directed for the better. By showing that one can simultaneously preserve those elements of a place with which we draw our identity (historical significance etc) while moving forward with contemporary method makes people less ideologically conservative and hesitant to social change initiatives as an identity defense mechanism.

Besides highlighting past history, a place can increase the value given to it by area residents and therefore strengthen identity by being made memorable. To give a place value and to strengthen those valued places already established, one must encourage the creation of memories. Something becomes memorable, therefore part of our personal history, therefore part of our identity, when it is distinguishable. Place-based initiatives allow people to distinguish a place from its overlookable backdrop. The current place-based initiatives work off of the idea of “making” identity through “making” a place that was previously insignificant or overlooked. For example, in the mill run project, no one currently notices the mill run, but they will when it is shown care and a certain amount of construction. Places are made noteworthy in our minds when they are enclosed by obvious physical edges and are made prominent easily defined. The built-in quality of the places suggests to community residents that if effort is put into them, they must mean something. Also, by focusing on specific landmarks in the area, the place is made memorable by being a destination with a purpose versus something one mindlessly passes. Amara Geffen mentioned that she hoped to turn Mill Run into a place where people want to go. This idea of making certain places a destination suggests that it is desirable and a place of choice and that it can be perceived as “favorably distinctive from its broader environmental context.”

Places can be made to encourage the making of memories by their very quality as open, public spaces, and shared in a way that is conducive to memory-making social interaction. Natural features and open spaces foster pedestrianism and the likelihood of social interactions. These chance interactions that may occur in shared spaces encourages collaboration and increases the social capital of a community as connections among individuals are made, creating social networks and the reciprocated accountability and that arise from them. Such shared, open spaces would allow people to build communities with a commitment to each other, and “knit the social fabric.”

This understanding of the role of history and the value that personal and collective memories, when recognized and acknowledged, gives to a community, is directly related to the community’s ability to enact change and devote itself to social needs because of the intertwined nature of a community’s social and physical meaning. Place-based initiatives encourage community development by being historically significant in the present. The very act of working together creates memories connected to a place and in the future, would serve as a symbolic product of community success and capacity, a concrete reminder of ties to the community. The process itself is momentous and shows the interconnectedness of community issues while encouraging more holistic approach to future change based in synergistic efforts which draw on the assets of all those involved.

There exists a fundamental relationship between people and place that shape a community’s identity. By strengthening the identity of a place by focusing on core features of its geography in its historical significance as something that everyone in a community shares, the identity of the community, as a whole will in turn be strengthened. “A true understanding of a place must encompass both its physical form and its social construction. A place has physicality [and]… is worked by people [and therefore] social processes happen through the material forms that we design, build, and use.”(Nowell) A place, by being historically significant to us, shapes meaning at the same time that meaning shapes the physical place. This meaning-making works both separately and in a reciprocally dependant way. They cannot be separated from each other. “Places are made through human practices and institutions even as they help to make those practices and institutions.”(Gieryn)

So with this relationship as fact, what is necessary to allow a given identity-place relationship to evolve and move forward so as to benefit a community? The idea is to facilitate and encourage movement, “momentum.” When one thing happens, it effects something else. When that thing is a productive something, the movement is begun forward and continues to morph and evolve in a progressive direction once begun. This something would mark a particular time in the collective memory of a community.

Something as small as livening up a welcome sign would instill a sense of pride linked to the historical distinctiveness of a place and would establish that the place is worth being part of and therefore, worth the effort to improve. It simultaneously acknowledges the value of a community by recognizing its physical identity and makes the community more valuable by inspiring and promoting a shared identity, which is linked to a place that now seems worth identifying with. Establishing the shared worth and value of a place by highlighting the elements of the physical landscape that are given meaning by the personal and collective memories of community members creates a spirit of shared identity, which is the psychological catalyst needed in initiating that movement necessary to make any sort of progress, social or economic.

[spring 2007]

1 comment:

Craig said...

I found this piece to be very insightful. I just began looking into place-based identity for some research I am about to begin. What sources did you use for this. Is there are good way to contact you about this.