[Student Perspectives]: Cultural Landscape and Historic Preservation
First Published: May 5, 2015
Student Perspectives: Cultural Landscape and Historic Preservation is meant to be a platform through which LSS 240 students may bridge cultural landscape theory and literature discussed in class with accessible, real-world cultural landscape practice and interpretation examples. The LibGuide is split into four perspectives to understanding cultural landscapes in our local city of Northampton Massachusetts: built-versus natural landscapes, legal approaches to historic preservation, stakeholders involved in site designation/interpretation and the socio-economic questions often raised by site designation. Accompanying this analysis will be a variety of multi-media resources such as book guides, RSS news feeds, YouTube videos, image galleries, and Google Maps. Before continuing onto the other tabs, take a moment to explore the homepage, which provides some helpful information and resources to understanding questions such as "what is a cultural landscape", "by whose definition?" and "how does one work?".
A historic district is a vital part of modern life. It is an ensemble of structures with diverse and dynamic relationships that create a sense of place and tradition over time. And just as an historic district reflects the technology, tastes, and economics of its time, changes within a district need to reflect their own time, but in a way that complements what is special about the district."
Elm Street Historic District Design Standards
In order to gain a better understanding of some of the concepts introduced in the LSS 240 class and, historic preservation in general, we can look to our very own Northampton Historic District. In 1993, a handful of Elm Street residents came together with a shared desire to preserve the area's distinct architectural style and unique character. In conjunction with the City of Northampton, a group called The Elm Street Historic District Study Committee was formed to survey the properties of the proposed district. Designated a year later in 1994, the Elm Street Historic District spans approximately one mile long running from St. Mary's Catholic Church across from the Smith College campus to the end of Round Hill road. It encompasses 139 buildings. It is largely managed by the Historic District Commission, which was also established in 1994. As is the case with all officially designated historic districts, there are a number of design standards that must be met and maintained by Elm Street Historic District landowners.
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Cultural Landscapes encompass many different kinds of sites both nationally and internationally. The term “cultural landscape” itself is a multifaceted entity. As you will discover, studying cultural landscapes is complex and truly an interdisciplinary process—involving many stakeholders and opinions.
It is helpful to approach preliminary research of cultural landscapes by looking at several different definitions of the term by relevant organizations:
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization focuses on defining cultural landscapes as places that are indicative of different regions of the world; they exemplify the specific heritage or culture of a region and are significant enough to be the representative of a region of people. UNESCO particularly focuses on these sites as places where humans and nature as their environment come together, having formed a long, prosperous and spiritual relationship. Often, these landscapes represent a tradition, culture or people that has disappeared.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation
This Foundation specifically sites the varying size, form, location and significance of cultural landscapes. It defines cultural landscapes as places that are important in terms of identity and the human relationship with nature. According to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, there are four different types of cultural landscapes:
National Park Service
The NPS defines cultural landscapes as places that are either important because of a historic event or person associated with them, or because they are tied to other cultural identities. It focuses on the area as a whole, which includes both human evidence as well as the natural environment itself: animals, plants, etc. Cultural Landscapes tie the tangible: buildings, structures, objects, with the intangible: culture, practices, and heritage, in one site.
*The differing definitions that each of these organizations use alludes to the complexity of preservation work surrounding sites deemed to be cultural landscapes.
When navigating the field of historic preservation throughout this course, it will be important that you are familiar with different organizations that are involved with preservation work on an international, national, regional, and local level. The following profiles provide an introduction to several important and relevant organizations and their processes.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization curates the UNESCO World Heritage List, a global register of “cultural and natural heritage [sites] around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”. This mission was born out of an international treaty signed in 1972 called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the text to which can be accessed here. To be eligible for the list, sites must meet only one of ten selection criteria, though often they meet more than one. The complete criteria can be viewed here. It is interesting to note the addendum at the bottom of the page which recognizes the cultural landscape as a site which demonstrates “significant interactions between people and the natural environment”. Sites such as these have been recognized as cultural landscapes only since 1992. For a more comprehensive guide on listing and criteria, a useful but at times dense resource are the 2013 Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, visible here.
The National Register of HIstoric Places is a national preservation organization under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service. Created after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the NRHP works in conjunction with individual state-run preservation organizations to list properties generally exceeding 50 years of age whose “events, activities, or developments [were] important to the past”. The persistent integrity of buildings applying for designation is also an important criteria for NRHP listing. The organization defines integrity as maintaining the physical appearance that is “much the same” as it was in the past. The designation process for listing on the Register involves the solicitation of public feedback, review by a state board, review by the NPS branch in Washington, DC, and final review by the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. This organization works exclusively with properties within the United States.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation was established in 1949 under Truman’s presidency in order to “provide support and encouragement for grassroots preservation efforts”. The Trust is involved in a number of satellite projects throughout the nation, working to acquire and administer historic sites while also providing funding for local preservation projects and working to increase public education on preservation work. The Trust has published its own magazine, Preservation, and conducts the Preservation Honor Awards yearly to honor outstanding contributions to the field.
The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, while not a direct branch of the federal or state government, works in the public sector to connect the local governments of the 43 cities within the Pioneer Valley and facilitate “communication, cooperation, and coordination… in order to benefit the Pioneer Valley region and to improve its residents’ quality of life”. With specific regard to historic preservation work, the PVPC has been involved in administering surveys, conducting historical research, and providing assistance in registering properties in Western Massachusetts with the National Register of Historic Places. Established in Springfield in 1962, the PVPC has been addressing planning concerns, both historic and contemporary, for over 50 years. Their website can be found here. To learn more about historic preservation work, select “historic preservation” under the “doing” dropdown menu.
On a more local level, the Northampton Historical Commission is comprised of a seven-member board that concerns itself with the “preservation, promotion, and and development of the city’s historical assets”. The Commission merged with the Historic District Commission in 2013 and oversees the Elm Street Historic District. In addition, it also issues certificates for work and reviews demolition proposals within Northampton. The summary page that profiles the Commission can be found here on the City of Northampton’s governmental website.
Seeing examples of how concepts from readings play out in the real world can be really helpful!
1) Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow, 1836. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908.
2) Plan of the Town of Northampton by John G. Hales, Boston, 1831. Courtesy of Historic Northampton, Northampton, Massachusetts.
3) "Welcome to an Engaged Community." Elm Street/Round Hill Historic District. Web. 4 May 2015. <http://www.northamptonma.gov/1324/Historic-District>.