by Randy D. Bosch
To fulfill needs and desires, mankind works to create a “Place” out of a portion of the natural landscape, or by altering what is perceived to be inferior or underperforming landscapes – whether natural, man-influenced or man-made.
Place at its most basic was well-defined by Donlyn Lyndon in Places journal as “A space that can be remembered”. The nature of that “remembrance” varies wildly depending upon the perception, experience, preconceptions and motives of the people describing, using, or modifying the space – their “viewpoint”.
The Viewpoint of Colonizers:
“The colonizers distaste for a scene as first encountered…” led to imposition of the newcomers’ remembrance of things from their past, incorporating landmark and sometimes wholesale changes…
“Change so complete that it erases memory”.
Michael Schwartzer, in Places journal.
The viewpoint of modern man:
“People believe that what they see and perceive of a place when they first encounter it, their first impression, is truly what has always been and should remain –unless it is in their personal interest to change it.” Randy Bosch, RenaissanceRules
The “viewpoint” of nature:
“Nature, oblivious to the duration of time passing and spared perceptions of good and bad, seems to accept entropy non-judgmentally. But for many observers of a sequence of differing built environments, messy transitional periods seem directionless, uncomfortable, and generally unappealing.”
Barton Phelps, in Places journal.
What “Natural Landscape” Remains?
Most of the landscape we see has been, at the least, influenced by man if not altered to a more or less great degree. Much of the land area of Europe has been altered by man over centuries, and in some areas for several millennia.
In America, vast rural tracts of land are virtually industrial landscape, organized and managed for “sustained yield” or to mitigate perceived “natural hazards”. The horizon-to-horizon grain fields of the American Great Plains are an industrial landscape, subdivided by railroads, interstate highways, river channels often realigned for flood control or water harvesting, and punctuated by urban areas from village to megalopolis scale.
In much of the world, forests are managed “tree farms” for sustained yield wood production. Huge areas under agricultural cultivation were forest, grasslands or shrub lands, cleared by settlers and investors to create sustenance or commercial farmland. Many “lakes” are reservoirs, dammed streams, to modulate water flow for agricultural, industrial and urban use through the seasons with similar disruption of natural lands and watershed functions. Others are flood control impoundments – empty or with seasonal uses during dry seasons rapidly transitioning to waterbodies with controlled releases, often into “channelized” streams (industrial streams!) during the rainy seasons.
Smokey the Bear, Nature and – Surprisingly – Your City
The “Smokey the Bear” multi-decade campaign employed by the U.S. Forest Service was intended to help prevent forest fires, prior to the development of fuel-suppression and urban-wildland interface policies. One effect of maximum fire prevention and suppression was a reduction in the number and extent of fires that caused loss of life, personal property, public infrastructure, grazing, watershed and recreational values, as well a gradual loss of the appearance of the pre-existing natural landscape.
Another effect of attempted wholesale fire suppression is usurption of fire as a natural “winnowing” process, leading to massive build-ups of biomass that fuel hellfire-like conflagrations. As a result, a policy of “controlled burns” was instituted to reduce fuel loads, rather than awaiting natural combustion.
Natural succession of plant materials was also impacted. Many plant species require intense heat to trigger release of seeds from pods or cones, to germinate seeds, or to clear “deadwood” and open space for new growth to occur at periodic intervals. Without that process, large areas of forest became more susceptible to pests and diseases, grew old and died en masse without a viable successor generation growing to replace them and sustain the microsystem, including wildlife and watershed health. Coupled with natural climate fluctuations and more pronounced climate changes over time, man’s “managed” ecosystems often fail.
Many aspects of a “Smokey the Bear” metaphor can be seen in the life and modification of 21st Century cities and suburbs, as agents of change look once again toward neo-redevelopment of older dense cores and re-purposing of newer suburban development.
The New Colonialists Viewpoint
Many communities, whether suburbs, “planned” interventions in existing cities, redevelopment, or the now-urged “repopulation” movement from suburbs back to older core cities, are being planned, perceived and altered by those with “the colonizers” viewpoint.
Cultural History or Manufactured Culture in Cities?
Man has had a similar influence in the design, construction and “revitalization” of cities as he has had on “nature” – whether in dense urban nodes or across broad suburban/megalopolitan development. Within urban areas of long duration, a true culture has developed, with antecedents, roots, history and contemporary presence. Degradation of the urban environment may have also degraded its culture. Within newer “planned communities” and many suburbs, a similar culture does exist in many cases, albeit necessarily younger, often embedded from a historical “town” once removed from a nearby “city” but now enmeshed in the sphere of influence or totally buried in a megalopolis. That suburban growth may have also degraded those pre-existing cultures, burying them or making them seem inconsequential as they are overwhelmed by the larger influence of “The City”.
Vision vs. Reality Questions:
- Has the modification and wholesale historical change of the natural landscape been correctly mapped and understood for your “Place”, by whom, and how do you know that it is correct?
- What impacts of those changes have led to or are leading to chronic and systemic malfunctioning of the resultant man-altered landscape and remaining natural landscape of your “Place”, including the livability of your city or suburb?
- What impacts of the rapid growth of suburban “sprawl” enveloping historic small towns have degraded that culture or buried it in the overwhelming “culture” of “The City”?
- How can man best influence that existing “altered landscape” for the benefit of the ecosystem of your “Place”, including the presence, activities, health and cultural profitability of the human population?
- What agencies and community groups are best equipped to resolve issues in your “Place”?
- What “Smokey the Bear” planning and management lessons are applicable to the healthy life of your “Place”, be it “natural”, “urban” or “suburban”?
- What are YOU and your community doing to be involved in your community’s “planning process” instead of leaving it to “the electeds”, “the professionals” and “the neo-colonialists”– to the “usual suspects”?