Places and People

Somewhere between the rainbow and the Internet a place that is important to you is struggling to maintain its integrity.

Hundreds of small acts of clairvoyance may precede decisions to pull the hedge out, to build on the allotment, to shut down the factory, to culvert the stream, to cease running the festival, but they are achieved in separate pigeonholes, and their effect each upon the other is hardly ever considered. Rarely is their cumulative impact upon us discussed either.

As for the big decisions, arguments which tend to sway politicians and professionals rely on quantifying (how many, how much, how big?), questions about quality and equity which cannot be counted are too difficult, they get marginalised.

How common is it to hear someone say they love a place more because of recent changes, or feel more a part of it? But these should be our aspirations – not to stop change, or to seek to protect only the special things, but – to argue for good surroundings everywhere for all of us. And to work together to achieve more nature, as much history, rich landscape, fit and fitting buildings, as many peoples, the best that our age can offer, in any part of the city and country.

Places are of our manufacture. We and nature conspire, actively or unconsciously, to shift and balance, to accelerate or slow down, to experiment or reiterate. Whatever happens on the World Wide Web, shards of histories, ecologies, economies and cultures are heaped and sifted on bits and pieces of land. Many of us understand ourselves in the world as much through a relationship with a small patch of ground (or more than one) as with people, indeed it is hard to separate them.

The uniqueness of the grid reference is reinforced by the intersection of culture and nature, the sympathy and intensity of their interplay make a place, and endow it with a greater or lesser degree of local distinctiveness.

Local, really local, significance is rehearsed in a subtle dance of detail and patina: we understand a place in close up, through stories retold, meanings shared, accumulations of fragments and identities. Our appreciation of it is often only tested when unsympathetic change threatens, or has already materialised.

But how responsible do we feel for the place and for the changes? All manner of forces bear down upon every inch of soil, every city stone, and despite the intimacy of their impact, many seem beyond our understanding, never mind control. How much courage do we have to summon to stand out against actions we sense will diminish the feel of the place, render it less significant to us in all its intricacies? We are heavily implicated for better or worse. The moment of moving from passive acceptance (“it’s such a shame, but what can you do….?”) to active engagement (“it could be so much better, what can we do?”) can come suddenly in reaction, or slowly as proaction.

Parish Maps

Making a Parish Map is about creating a community expression of values, and about beginning to assert ideas for involvement, it is about taking the place in your own hands.

It begins with, and is sustained by, inclusive gestures and encouraging questions. What is important to you about this place, what does it mean to you? What makes it different from other places? What do you value here? What do we know, what do we want to know? How can we share our understandings? What could we change for the better? Turning each other into experts in this way helps to liberate all kinds of quiet knowledge, as well as passion, about the place. Making a Parish Map can inform, inspire, embolden.

So much surveying, measuring, fact gathering, analysis and policy-making leaves out the very things which make a place significant to the people who know it well. The great thing about making the map yourselves is that you can choose what to put in and what to leave out. You need not be corsetted by convention or conscious of fashion. You can decide on how to gather and discuss, the mix of natural history with buildings, or legends with livelihoods, the scale at which you wish to work, what boundaries to use, the materials, the symbols, the pictures, the words, the place where the map is to hang. You can move at your own pace, be diverted into appearing at a public inquiry, working to clear the footpaths, acting in the community play…. because these are actually the point.

It is the feel of the place which ultimately makes us happy to be there, makes us want to stay, work and play, to engage with it and each other. Social intervention in continually creating and recreating the particu-larity of a place is not easy, it reminds us that communities are driven by tension as much as compassion, that the fluidity of insiders and outsiders needs constant bridge building, that it is hard work sustain-ing enthusiasm and effort. The biggest step is the first one – Parish Maps are a way of getting started.


Why Map?

Every day people negotiate their way through known and unfamiliar territory using road, bus and tube maps or the city A-Z. From sketch-ing a meeting place on the back of an envelope to finding a site on the World Wide Web, maps are used as a second language. And few of us can resist sinking into an old chart, with portraits of mountains in soft watercolour, or hachured hills and railways everywhere. The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island and many more childhood books and films have lured us into pinning down our own dreams or draughting real places in our own hand.

And there is a greater attraction. Seeing the map of Australia printed from their point of view (with north at the bottom, and south at the top), or looking at our familiar atlas made by adventurers from this small archipelago off the coast of Europe, reminds one forcibly that whoever makes the map can choose, and enjoy, central position. A map is an expression of power. It can offer basic information for control: the Ordnance Survey has its origins in visualising the place by – or was it for – the armed forces, hence the name.

Western cartography purports to be factual, conveying a true two dimensional picture of our four/five dimensional world. But, any lover of maps will tell you of the peculiarities and richnesses of charts of different Western cultures, different conventions, endearing or infuriating mistakes, the challenges of updating, and of necessary inaccuracies of representation (if motorways were really as wide as the map portrays…). And increasingly maps are made from satellite recording, ground knowledge is regarded as less precise, less useful, more costly. While we gather ever more facts about the planet, and share incredible amounts of research around the globe, at each exten-sion of scale, detailed place-based knowledge gained over generations is lost, and wisdom mislaid. With each level of abstraction, we feel less able to argue what we know, and less sure in our valuing of the unquantifiable smallnesses which can make everyday life a delight and help nature and culture to interact benignly.

Why Parish?

We are trying to focus on locality, the smallest arena in which life is played out. The territory to which you feel loyalty, which has meaning to you, about which you share some knowledge, for which indignance and protectiveness is easily roused, the neighbourhood of which you have the measure, which in some way helps to shape you.

This is the local, the actual place, where the reference is reality, indifference is unusual, detachment is difficult. Here we are somehow entangled, although we may behave thoughtlessly, responsibility tries to surface. It is here that values and facts act upon each other and are passed on by us to create wisdom about nature, about living, dying and remembering. And more prosaically, it is where ‘strategy’ and ‘policy’ are tested to breaking point.

Y filltir sgwar, bro and cynefin : the Welsh have clung on to ideas which embody more than physical locality – they describe deeply felt ties of familiarity, identification and belonging. ‘Heimat’ in German also carries these meanings. Why have the English never absorbed a word for this, and yet have such strong attachments to places?

It is in this sense of a self defined small territory, that Common Ground has offered the word parish, implying people and place together, to keep us grounded. But the origins and other uses of the word are relevant and have proved redolent starting points too.

The ecclesiastical parish has been the measure of the English land-scape since Anglo-Saxon times. Boundaries, some dating back more than a thousand years, are often still traceable; here, history marches with nature and each is the richer for the discourse. This tracery may be tangible in the city as the curving line of a street, or in the country as the double bank and ditch dancing with butterflies. For although dynamism is an identifying feature of nature, broad continuity creates the conditions for the changes to build each on the other, species to diversify, ecosystems to mature.

The civil parish emerged in the 1890s as the smallest theatre of democracy. Much has changed since then: boundaries have been reworked, and in the city the ward does not have the same ring, community councils in Wales and Scotland encompass but do not imply territory. More of us have the right to vote, yet less of us are voting. Desperation for better decisions parallels cynicism for politicians. Weaving a 21st century environment and society has to be about constructing a more participative and pliable democracy too.

Parish Maps again

Our book, ‘from place to PLACE’ offers just a few fragmented insights into the potential powers of working with maps. Parish Maps have been promoted by Common Ground as a lively way of socially exploring and demonstrating what people value in their own place, and as a means to generating and liberating enthusiasms for doing something.

Knowing your place, taking some active part in its upkeep, passing on wisdom, being open to ideas, people, development, change but in sympathy with nature and culture which have brought it this far, will open the doors of dissent. But conversation, tolerance and the passing on of memories, are civil sing forces. Whatever the forms of knowledge we shall need for the next millennium, humanity and imagination must take a high priority in organising them.

In making a Parish Map you can come together to hold the frame where you want it to be, you can throw light on the things which are important to you, and you may find courage to speak with passion about why all this matters.

The rainbow is as ‘virtual’ as anything yet imagined by the software wizards, and yet in touching the ground it briefly holds both the intangible and the physical together, it frames, focusses and reminds us of the enchantment and reality of our small world.