Spirit of place 

A practical tool for preserving natural and cultural heritage -- and shaping the future

By Ted Trzyna

This project began in 2018 as an outgrowth of Natural Neighbors and is still in an early stage. Progress will be reported here.

Here's the idea: If people understand the place where they live, they are more likely to want to protect its identity, heritage, and quality of life. One effective way of promoting such understanding is to depict the spirit of a place by drawing on the positive values represented in its history and environment.

Spirit of place: The concept

"Spirit of place” and “sense of place” are slippery terms. They usually refer to aesthetics and other physical attributes of places, rather than the people who live and have lived there, or the images about those places that people hold in their minds.

I like the definition used by ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which links the tangible and the intangible:

“Spirit of place is defined as the tangible (buildings, sites, landscapes, routes, objects) and the intangible elements (memories, narratives, written documents, rituals, festivals, traditional knowledge, values, textures, colors, odors, etc.), that is to say the physical and the spiritual elements that give meaning, value, emotion and mystery to place. Rather than separate spirit from place, the intangible from the tangible, and consider them as opposed to each other, we have investigated the many ways in which the two interact and mutually construct one another.”[1]

A similar concept: Public myth

The historian William McNeill wrote, "A people without a full quiver of relevant agreed-upon statements, accepted in advance through education or less formalized acculturation, soon finds itself in deep trouble, for, in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain." He called for historians to overcome their professional reluctance to make generalizations and engage in "serious myth making." His term for this was "mythistory." [2]

The trouble with the word myth is that it has two different meanings and is easily misunderstood. A myth can be a popular belief that embodies the ideals of a society, or it can be a falsehood.

Spirit of place: A practical tool

I think depicting the spirit of a place by drawing on the positive values represented in its history and environment can be a practical, even a powerful, tool for guiding discussions about the future of a place or region. 

What are the positive values of a place?  ("Virtues" is the word I use in my Claremont essay.) How can those who live there -- or are otherwise responsible for the place, as for a national park, for example -- live up to these values and strive to be even better? Can extraordinary places become moral beacons? 

The example I use is the California university town where I’ve lived on and off for over 50 years, but I touch on other cases and will be looking for more. This is part of a larger project being conducted by InterEnvironment Institute in cooperation with the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group that aims to contribute to national and international efforts to bring together protection and interpretation of nature, history, and culture. That effort has been centered in the World Heritage system and the U.S. National Park Service.






An example from California

Click for an essay, The Spirit of Claremont: Seven virtues that keep our town a good and special place.  

As I see it, the Spirit of Claremont consists of seven basic values, or virtues, drawn from the town’s tangible and intangible heritage:

  •  An American town, a California town
  • A cooperative culture
  • A strong connection to nature, both urban and wild
  • A striving for excellence in education
  • A supportive home for artists and the arts
  • An inclusive and tolerant community
  • A commitment to preserve and build on this heritage

 There is nothing new about the individual elements of these seven virtues;  most are well known and mentioned frequently in conversations and public meetings. What is different is arranging them in a structure called the Spirit of Claremont. The parts of this structure support each other and make up an indivisible whole.

An example from Hawai'i

Working on a project in Hawai’i recently, I became aware of three important themes needing recognition:

  • Harmony, which refers to diverse people living together peacefully and respectfully.
  • Discovery, which refers to exploration of the ocean by Native Hawaiians, to discoveries in the Universe through the telescopes on Hawai’i’s mountains, and to the pursuit of knowledge generally.
  • Culture and nature, referring to the inseparability of cultural and natural heritage, a powerful concept that is central to Native Hawaiian beliefs and underlies most heritage education and interpretation in the Islands.  

Examples from National Heritage Areas in the Northeastern U.S.

A partnership program of the U.S. National Park Service, National Heritage Areas offer good examples of how positive values can be associated with local areas:

Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area in northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, which includes Lexington and Concord. Themes:

  • “The New England community, shaped by concepts of the common good.”
  • The Transcendental Movement, “which provided a conceptual framework for the appreciation of both the natural and cultural worlds and the rights of humans to live freely within it, a concept that continues to resonate throughout the world.”

Hudson River National Heritage Area in New York State. Themes:

  • “Freedom and Dignity,” which relates to sites of the Revolutionary War, the homes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, and associations with Theodore Roosevelt.
  • “Nature and Culture,” which relates to art and literature: Paintings by artists such as Albert Bierstadt and writings by authors such as Washington Irving “shaped American attitudes toward nature. Their portrayals of people living in harmony with nature, a view also reflected in the valley’s legends and folklore, helped mold a national identity and American aesthetic.”

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Notes

Ted Trzyna, www.Trzyna.info

I appreciate support for earlier stages of this project from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

1. ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites). Québec Declaration on the Preservation of the Spirit of Place, 2008. Posted at www.icomos.org.

2. "The Care and Repair of Public Myth," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1982, 1-13.