Cultural Landscapes: Where human and natural systems intersect

Posted in: Cultural Resources

group of men stand outside talkingThe National Park Service defines cultural landscapes as “historically significant places that show evidence of human interaction with the physical environment.” Robert Melnick, nationally and internationally recognized expert in historic landscape planning and cultural landscape evaluation, described cultural landscapes as “the intersection of human and natural systems.” Essentially, these are spaces where human culture both affected and was affected by the surrounding natural environment.

I recently attended the Texas Cultural Landscapes Symposium in Waco, Texas, where national and regional experts and practitioners discussed how to identify, document, and evaluate cultural landscapes. This is vital: cultural landscapes represent important pieces of history from which we can learn much about the human cultures that shaped them.

Don’t overlook the small things

For example, Dr. Perky Beisel, with Stephen F. Austin State University, talked about the “Voices from Small Places” project, which strives to record the history of places with fewer than 100 residents. The project focuses on allowing residents of these small communities to tell their own stories—to place themselves within their own historical narrative. The sentiment behind this project is that while these small places are often overlooked within the wider historical context, history happens here too. These narratives are needed to give a more complete picture of our own collective past.

Similarly, Dr. Andrea Roberts, with Texas A&M University, discussed the Texas Freedom Colonies Project. This project works to preserve the history of African American settlements owned by former slaves. These were communities that were intentionally created by choice. They had their own histories, cultures, and traditions. Now often overlooked, these communities are disappearing from our collective memory. Through the process of “thick mapping”, their essence can be preserved. Using an ArcGIS-based atlas, the project crowdsources layers of place-specific data, and then geotags important areas. The strength of the combined narratives embody the historic moment they represent.

Far from easy

However, though this work is important to understanding our combined history, it is not without challenges. For one thing, documenting and preserving history of small places, especially cultural landscapes, is outside the typical historic preservation framework. These places often don’t fit within the typical definitions of “success” for historic preservation or cultural resource management; they don’t come with economic benefits: they don’t attract tourists or come with tax credits. They can be physically vulnerable—the communities associated with the Texas Freedom Colony Project are often in bottomlands or other marginal areas. This also comes with a lack of visibility. They’re not always easy to visually discern. Cultural landscaping projects also often have little access to preservation resources or professionals.

So what can be done?

The cultural landscapes approach is an important—though challenging and often overlooked—way to identify and understand cultural resources. How can we as preservation professionals help? Our Cultural Resource team at Mead & Hunt has a deep understanding of the significance of this approach. One of our Market Leaders, Chad Moffett, often leads a cultural landscapes seminar at the NTHP conference. In addition, I attended a day-long field workshop at Bassett Farms – a 2,400-acre rural property owned by Preservation Texas –  which highlighted techniques to read, record, and interpret a cultural landscape. I’d highly encourage any professionals interested to attend this or a similar workshop. Increasing awareness and knowledge is the vital first step.

Rick Mitchell

About the Author

Rick Mitchell, AICP, Mead & Hunt Practice Leader for our Cultural Resources team, conducts architectural surveys and preservation planning with a focus on transportation projects. He led Mead & Hunt’s work on the Harbor Bridge project. A sixth-generation Texan, Rick enjoys discovering and documenting the state’s rich cultural and architectural history.

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