Local Distinctiveness

mayday-800x1216Often it is the commonplace things, the locally abundant, the places and the wildlife on our very doorstep that we take for granted, that slip through our fingers.

Local Distinctiveness was an idea that emerged from Common Ground in 1985 and came to the fore in projects like New Milesones and Parish Maps. Local implies neighbourhood or parish; Distinctiveness is about particularity in the buildings and land shapes, the brooks and birds, trees and cheeses, places of worship and pieces of literature. It is about history and nature jostling with each other, layers and fragments, old and new. The ephemeral and invisible are important too: customs, dialects, celebrations, names, recipes, spoken history, myths, legends and symbols.

We want to inspire people and communities to protect and promote whatever is distinctive about a place. But this is no fusty attempt to freeze the present and resist change; the identity of a place needs change, reinvigoration by the new, stimulated as much by looking back into the past as it is thinking and plotting its future. Localities are always open to outside influences, new people, ideas, activities, and just as nature keeps experimenting, they must face the paradox of persistence and change. But change may enrich or it may homogenize and diminish. We all know too many high streets which look the same, housing estates which could be anywhere, fields which have lost both history and birdsong or festivals which have no authenticity. Local Distinctiveness is concerned with celebrating the unique characteristics of a place and with demanding the best of the new, so that quality and authenticity adds richness to our surroundings making them convivial to us and to nature.

Although Local Distinctiveness informs so much of Common Ground’s work, there are certain events and publications that are part of its evolution. Between 1990 and 1993 we began work on ‘An Exploratory Alphabet of Local Distinctiveness’ which grew, with the help of designers and illustrators, into a poster of ‘Rules for Local Distinctiveness’. On 1st May 1992 these rules were published in a full page advert inThe Independent with the call of ‘May Day May Day-Light Robbery’.

The campaign gathered speed and grew in scale throughout the 1990s with a conference and a booklet publication in 1993 and soon the charity were archiving material from far and wide. By 2005 Common Ground had collected a vast archive of research on local distinctiveness from across the country (even from across the world in some cases) and work was begun by Sue Clifford and Angela King on the groundbreaking England in Particular, which has not been out of print since it was first published in 2006.