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The cultural landscape – A framework for conservation

"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"

2008 UNESCO Declaration on the Protection of the Spirit of Place

By

Beth Hanna

Cultural landscapes

Published Date: 09 Sep 2016

Photo: The Farmer Property (c. 3000 BCE) on the Niagara Escarpment. This trail was closed to protect the ancient archaeological site.

Heritage conservation is not about the past. It’s about the places that surround us and the diversity of our communities. It’s about ensuring that the present and the future have the benefit of the creativity, imagination, wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors. The work of heritage conservation is not meant to freeze our communities in time, but rather to discover and protect the complex layers of our history as reflected in our communities and the multiplicity of species reflected in the natural habitat.

For more than 10,000 years and over 500 generations, various peoples have shared lands now known as Ontario. Their connections and interactions with the land have left us with a landscape that reflects who we are as a society, the diversity and values of our communities as they have evolved over time. This layering of history, these “cultural landscapes,” are worthy of investigation, study and protection; they should be represented and celebrated in our communities.

UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (2011) asserts that urban heritage is an asset defined by the “historic layering of values that have been produced by successive and existing cultures and an accumulation of traditions and experiences, recognized as such in their diversity.” Our role, then, is to understand, protect and interpret those layers. And to celebrate the strength and resilience that results.

The historical Irish dry stone wal

Photo: The historical Irish dry stone wall that has been partially restored, located on Amherst Island. (Photo: Andrea Cross)

Row of town houses

Photo: Draper Street Heritage Conservation District, Toronto

Waverley Heritage Conservation District, Thunder Bay.

Photo: Waverley Heritage Conservation District, Thunder Bay.

For the Ontario Heritage Trust, conservation is not just about protecting the natural or architectural values of a place, but understanding and protecting the multiple layers of both the values and history of place. The Trust has a mandate to conserve heritage in all its forms – to recognize and support the intersection and interplay of cultural and natural, tangible and intangible heritage.

Landscapes are both cultural and natural. If we protect a place in a holistic way – not just one building at a time, but structures, landscapes, districts, watersheds and systems – we provide for dynamic communities that are resilient and adaptive in the face of change. A cultural landscape serves as a conservation framework that addresses the complexity and inter-relationships of these systems, and protects their diversity, their values. Conservation then becomes a holistic exercise that reflects diversity of place and diversity of peoples over time.

There are tensions inherent in this discussion, however: differing values, objectives and needs. Whose values are protected? Which needs? What is the impact of expansion, housing, transportation systems, industry on the landscape, and vice versa? How are traditional uses aligned with society’s apparent desire to push the boundaries of development?

Protecting a heritage building is difficult enough. How do we safeguard something as vast and complicated as a landscape? It is important to understand the history of a place – to understand the people who created it, in their own context and values – in order to understand its meaning. This complex inter- relationship is described in the 2008 UNESCO Declaration on the Protection of the Spirit of Place:

“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.”

In order to conserve the spirit of place that thrives in a cultural landscape, one must arrive at a comprehensive understanding and often a rethinking of the place. One must also identify threats, safeguard values and transmit meaning to those who will follow and carry on the cultural legacy. Only then can effective long-term stewardship strategies be developed – based on multi-generational, cultural and socioeconomic networks. Landscapes can become educational tools to build a broader understanding of the unique features of our communities, as well as the shared memories of those cultural and geographic touchstones that have been lost.

The United States National Parks Service gives consideration to the stewardship of cultural landscapes and concludes that: “The potential benefits from the preservation of cultural landscapes are enormous. Landscapes provide scenic, economic, ecological, social, recreational and educational opportunities that help us understand ourselves as individuals, communities and as a nation. Their ongoing preservation can yield an improved quality of life for all, and, above all, a sense of place or identity for future generations.”

American geographer Pierce Lewis, in his article “Common Landscapes as Historic Documents,” states that: “the attempt to derive meaning from common human landscapes possesses one overwhelming virtue. It keeps us constantly alert to the world around us, demanding that we pay attention not just to some of the things around us but to all of them –the whole visible world in all of its rich, glorious, messy, confusing, ugly and beautiful complexity.”

The past is always with us. History builds up over time, each layer contributing to the intercultural dialogue, complexity and richness of place. For the Trust, this integrated model for conservation – which considers a place for all of its historical, architectural, archaeological, recreational, esthetic, natural and scenic values – creates dynamic, adaptive communities that are resilient in the face of change.