PLACEengage.com: What Happened Here?
The Importance of Cultural Mapping & Capturing the Lived Memories of a Community
What is ‘place’?
What makes a place?
For the PLACEengage team, we believe that a place is more than the physical dimensions of geography and architecture; a place is shaped by its people, and their interplay with the environment around them. It is a tapestry woven from the threads of human interaction, community memories, and shared experiences; a living entity that pulsates with the stories and dreams of those within. A ‘place’ in this sense is not a passive backdrop to human activity, but an active participant in the creation of community identity and social dynamics. It is both a canvas and a collaborator, shaped by the hands and hearts of its inhabitants, reflecting their values, and in turn, influencing their behaviours, relationships, and well-being.
At its core, ‘place’ is the enabler of community life. It is where the individual and the collective converse, where personal and shared narratives intertwine, and where the sense of belonging is cultivated. A ‘place’ in this context is not merely a location but a confluence of the physical and the intangible, the historical and the emerging, the individualistic and the communal.
This understanding of ‘place’ puts people at the very heart of placemaking. It prioritises human experiences, needs, and aspirations, advocating for designs and uses of space that promote engagement, inclusivity, and connection. A ‘place’ reflects the soul of the community.
What does it mean to ‘engage’ at a community level?
Planning is a public function. Participating in shaping the world around us is a fundamental part of good citizenship. It is a right, a privilege, and in many ways, a responsibility.
Research studies point to engagement, at a community level, leading to stronger, more resilient communities where members feel connected, supported, and empowered to contribute to the common good, which is a key tenet of spatial planning. It also fosters a sense of belonging and can help to address community-specific issues through collaboration and shared effort.
But… people will only engage if they feel they belong. How can we ensure that everyone feels a sense of belonging? At PLACEengage, we strongly believe in the power of technology to amplify the voices of the silent majority – right now, the loud minority are heard the most and this is a problem. Simply put, it is not reflective of society. As placemakers, we must do better and meet/speak to the community where they are. Rarely are they in a traditional town hall. Learn more about Ireland’s virtual town hall at: https://placeengage.com/
It is worth noting that the latest draft of Ireland’s new Planning and Development Bill 2023 was published this month – at 700 pages, it is the third largest piece of legislation in the history of the State. Key reforms of this legislation, which has been hailed as a “cornerstone for Irish planning for the coming decades” include the reform of planning judicial reviews, including the introduction of a Scale of Fees and Environmental Legal Cost Financial Assistance Mechanism, aiming to improve access to justice and regulate legal costs. [We will discuss the impact of this legislative change in a separate post.]
Language is important; in the context of placemaking, ‘culture’ refers to the shared practices, values, traditions, and beliefs that characterise a community or group of people. This takes data-gathering beyond – though often overlaps with – heritage, which is currently being mapped by the State through https://heritagemaps.ie/. The culture of a place takes in the arts and collective memory, as well as the everyday lifestyles, rituals, and customs that give a place its unique character and sense of identity.
Culture is not just about tangible assets such as historical buildings, monuments, or artworks, but also about intangible elements like stories, music, festivals, languages, and social practices. It includes the way people interact with their environment, how they use public spaces, and how they celebrate or mourn. These cultural expressions have helped to shape the physical and social character of a place over many generations – our job is simply to capture, or help the community capture, these in a meaningful way.
When applied to placemaking, the culture of a place serves as the foundation upon which community spaces are developed and revitalised. It influences design, functionality, and the programming of spaces, ensuring that they reflect and cater to the needs, aspirations, and identities of the people who use them. Placemaking initiatives that are culturally informed aim to create public spaces that not only serve practical purposes but also strengthen the social fabric and enhance the sense of community belonging.
While we talk a lot about heritage and legacy, culture in placemaking is dynamic, reflecting the ongoing evolution of the community’s identity as it responds to changes over time. It is a critical aspect of creating places that are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also resonate with the people who inhabit and visit them, fostering a deeper connection between the community and its environment.
Cultural mapping as a concept is quite broad in scope; it is an investigative tool and process used to identify and document local cultural resources, and when applied to placemaking, it becomes a pivotal strategy in surfacing and enhancing the uniqueness of spaces, particularly within rural and coastal communities around Ireland. The landscape of Ireland, with its rich history, folklore, mythology, and natural beauty, provides a textured canvas for cultural mapping. Rural and coastal regions, often characterised by their strong sense of community and tradition, are the custodians of much of the country’s intangible heritage. Cultural mapping in these areas can include the recording of local lore, traditional practices, festivals, language dialects, and even the patterns of natural resource use that have shaped the communities’ lifestyles over generations. As placemakers, we use the insights gained from cultural mapping to inform community development in a way that strengthens local identity and fosters a sense of belonging.
Significantly, the use of cultural mapping for placemaking in Ireland also aligns with sustainable development goals. By valuing and promoting local cultures, these initiatives encourage tourism models that are respectful of and beneficial to the local communities, particularly in regions that may be at risk of losing their cultural heritage due to globalisation or demographic changes. Protecting the Irish language across Gaeltacht regions is just one example of this.
In the academic realm, this topic warrants in-depth analysis and research. It presents an opportunity to explore interdisciplinary approaches combining cultural studies, geography, sociology, and urban planning. As practitioners, the PLACEengage team is interested in developing case studies of successful cultural mapping initiatives in Ireland (even if they do not use the language of cultural mapping!), assessing their impact on local communities, and providing frameworks for how such strategies can be implemented in other communities with similar cultural landscapes. Contact us for more information: https://placeengage.com/
CAPTURING THE MEMORIES OF A COMMUNITY
‘Cultural mapping’ as a term is quite new, however, the practice has existed for as long as people have existed. Memory is a basic human survival tool and sharing that knowledge is how humanity evolved. Capturing the memories of a community is an inclusive activity that can engage all community members – from elders with knowledge of historical narratives to the youth with their contemporary expressions of culture. Through participatory cultural mapping and a semi-structured approach to capturing the lived memories of a community, a more comprehensive understanding of the local cultural assets is developed, ensuring that placemaking efforts are representative and sustainable.
Within Irish rural and coastal communities, cultural mapping not only serves as a means to document and preserve the unique cultural assets but also as a critical tool in placemaking, capturing voices, memories, local folklore, historical land use patterns, maritime traditions, Irish language terms and colloquialisms of a place and its people. Emphasis could also be placed on the cultural significance of the natural landscape, such as holy wells, fairy forts, and other sites imbued with mythological importance, creating a rich, multidimensional map of Ireland’s heritage and community identity. Through collecting place-specific oral histories, we can capture tales of the sea and land, mapping stories across physical locations. In the words of Nancy Duxbury, author of ‘Cultural Mapping as Cultural Inquiry’, a map doesn’t always look like a map; sometimes it’s a piece of art or an interpretive dance or the recording of the practices of indigenous crafts and agricultural methods.
In his 1996 book ‘Wisdom Sits in Places’, Keith H. Basso considers modern placemaking to be a type of “retrospective world building” that does not require “special sensibilities or cultivated skills”. He describes the practice loosely as a “common response to common curiosities”, predicated on a few key questions:
What happened here?
Who was involved?
What was it like?
Why should it matter?
He goes on to say that “a modest body of evidence suggests that placemaking involves multiple acts of remembering and imagining, which inform each other in complex ways. It is clear, however, that remembering often provides a basis for imagining“. This TEK or traditional ecological knowledge approach to gathering data about a place recognises generations-deep knowledge of the local land and sea. In the Irish context, Manchan Magan explores this theme through several of his books, most recently ‘Sea Tamagotchi/Fóclóor Farraige‘, extending the notion that wisdom sits in places and recognising that it also sits in language. This is as true, and as important, to communities along the west coast of Ireland, as Basso acknowledged it to be for the Apache people.
At PLACEengage, we are increasingly exploring the impacts of shared trauma on a place and the people, and this is often expressed through creative expressions. Reconising the trauma of a place can be a difficult, but cathartic, shared journey for a community when navigated sensitively. It ensures that as these communities heal and evolve, they retain their distinctive character and continue to offer residents and visitors an authentic cultural experience rooted in the very essence of ‘place’, in the richest and truest sense of the word.
Finally, we will end on the most commonly shared quote across PLACEengage projects as a gentle reminder to placemakers and project owners who might be embarking on public consultation and community engagement activities:
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” ― David W. Augsburger, Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard: How to Hear and How to Be Heard in Equal Communication