The word nostalgia, from Greek, was translated in the 18th century as “acute homesickness” or “homecoming.” In 1979, landscape architect Randy Hester described spatial nostalgia as “the charged scene, personally symbolic and perhaps sacred, [that] can bring tears of joy or sadness to our eyes for an entire lifetime.” For those cultural landscapes that no longer possess physical and tangible evidence of the past, however, how are memories visualized? Where is longing to be placed? Extant evidence of living and non-living landscape features can take many forms: a gravestone or burial marker, a century-old tree or remnant tree stump, the historic alignment or shape of a creek or pond, the remnants of a fence or hedgerow, a standing structure or even a remnant building foundation. All of these elements provide physical memory prompts or “portals” to past cultural lifeways, and when taken together -- and situated in their greater physical and historical contexts – they can provide a connection to place that transcends what is seen only in a glance.
Erasure as a tool for establishing and advancing the dominance of one culture over another has been a tactic of war, colonization, and oppression for most of human history, and it has supported an American narrative for centuries. Consequently, our shared contemporary cultural awareness of Native peoples and enslaved African Americans, among other groups, remains largely shaped by a redacted history that obscures the violent destruction of lives, cultural traditions, and communities. Collective American interpretation of history often fails to adequately address how enslavement and forced assimilation caused traditions, histories, and other markers of identity to be lost.
Cultural landscapes have the unique ability to help us resurface eradicated, hidden, and lesser-known stories; however, we face new threats of erasure as climate change causes increasingly severe conditions. In many cases, years of inequitable land distribution and management, unjust environmental practices, and lack of resources and support put the same communities that were most affected by violence and erasure in the past at greatest risk for climate-related threats in the future.
Amplifying Community Voices
The present cultural moment mirrors that of the 1960s and 1970s in many ways, especially in the renewed call for greater public participation in the systems that shape our society. It is imperative for community voices to form an essential foundation of design, community planning, and related initiatives. While people of color historically have been deprived of agency in governance, there is a long tradition of community-based organizations, including the National Urban League and the Poor People’s Campaign, providing coordinated advocacy against unjust policies, especially those affecting the built environment. In the 1960s, bottom-up, rather than top-down, community engagement processes and strategies began to transform the landscape architecture discipline, led by landscape and community planning pioneers including Lawrence Halprin, Randy Hester, and Paul Friedberg; design methodologies were also influenced during this period by the spatial and behavioral observations and analyses pioneered by the urban theorist William “Holly” Whyte. By understanding and leveraging the expertise of residents and community-based groups, and inviting broader participation in design workshops, landscape architects engaged community members to influence community-based, site-specific solutions. Hands-on planning, which amplified community voices, produced results that were responsive to community assets, needs, and desires. Contemporary local groups, including the Nikwasi Initiative in Franklin, North Carolina; Walnut Way Conservation Corps in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Partners for Environmental Justice in Raleigh, North Carolina, continue the tradition of mobilizing community members to exercise control over their shared spaces and experiences.
As evidenced throughout our history, time is not the only test facing a historic site, and human achievements are not all gained, perceived, or acknowledged equally. Recognizing that the creativity, craftsmanship, and environmental literacy of oppressed groups has historically been devalued, we now have the opportunity -- and obligation -- to expand our understanding of the historic significance and integrity of individual sites and their treatment, and of cultural landscapes in general.
As bottom-up planning was taking hold in the landscape architecture discipline in the 1960s and 1970s, the historic preservation community was predominantly focused on protecting and nominating to the National Register of Historic Places great buildings and collections of structures that contributed to Historic Districts. During this period, and continuing today, when evaluating the lasting integrity and value of extant structures, the Secretary of the Interior defined integrity as “the ability of a property to convey its significance.” Sites retaining integrity were recognized as comprising seven key factors: materials, location, setting, design, workmanship, feeling, and association. In all cases, a heavy value was placed on extant physical fabric, thus giving an advantage to those historic properties that possessed material integrity while also representing human achievements in design that have withstood the test of time. This emphasis on legible materiality creates a condition in which intangible, or otherwise neglected or erased historically significant cultural landscapes and places are overlooked during the designation and preservation processes. A broadening of our lens in the design and historic preservation communities to increase the value placed on “feeling” and “association” to those “invisible” properties that witnessed significant people, events, and cultural lifeways is critical in addressing the issues identified in this report.