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Friday, September 02, 2016

Some Lessons From Appalachian Traditional Cultural Places

I’ve posted a paper on entitled Traditional Cultural Places in Appalachian Virginia and The Mountain-Valley Pipeline. It’s at

I prepared the report at the request of the Greater Newport Rural Historic District Committee – whose National Register-listed district is one of several identified rural historic districts transected by the route of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) across the Appalachians. My charge was specifically to see whether it looked like the districts involved are traditional cultural places” (or properties) – that is “TCPs” – per National Register Bulletin 38.

For those not directly affected by the proposed pipeline, the most interesting things about what I learned may be the following:

1.    I found the National Register nomination documentation to be largely unhelpful in figuring out whether the districts were TCPs;

2.    I also found it to be of little use in ascertaining whether the districts were “rural historic landscapes” per National Register Bulletin 30;

3.    In fact, I found the documentation to be unenlightening even about why the districts were viewed as districts; the documentation was overwhelmingly about the individual buildings, structures and sites within the districts, not about the districts as landscapes, or as the “concentrations” and “linkages” to which the Register’s definition of “district” refers.

4.    Luckily, some very interesting and helpful studies had been done quite outside the context of historic preservation, about the “cultural attachment” that people in the area feel for their landscapes. Applying the results of these studies to the districts, it became clear that they – or perhaps more likely a landscape embracing all or some of them – is indeed eligible for the National Register as a TCP.

Why does this matter, since most of the districts involved have either been listed on the National Register or authoritatively identified as eligible for it, hence entitling them to consideration under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act? I think it matters in at least two ways:

First, when one looks at a “district” nomination and finds a list of specific buildings, structures and sites, with little or no treatment of the spaces around them, it’s pretty easy to design a new project – like a power line or pipeline – right through the district and think you’re having no adverse effect on it, because your project doesn’t knock down or dig up a “contributing” building, structure or site. You may give some consideration to things like visual effects, but only on those “contributing resources.” The whole idea of the “district” as an entity gets lost.

Second, when a district is characterized only with reference to its constituent buildings, structures and sites – with their significance defined, of course, by historians, architectural historians, and archaeologists – one has no basis for appreciating what makes the district important to the people who live there, work there, or otherwise experience the place. The significance of the district to the people who value it is effectively submerged. When a question arises about a planned project’s potential effects on the district, the concerns of those people can easily be denigrated, as long as one can assure the world that one is not going to muck with the architectural qualities of a building/structure, or the archaeological values of a site.

So – the lesson I take away from this experience, and that I suggest to others, is: if you’re interested in preserving a place that’s important to you, and are encouraged to nominate it to the National Register or offer some representation about its eligibility, think carefully about what you call the place. If you call it a “rural historic district,” you may wind up with something that doesn’t help you much in terms of ensuring that the values you ascribe to the place are given due attention. If you call it a rural historic (or cultural) landscape or TCP you’re probably better off, but even then, pay careful attention to how whoever compiles the documentation describes the place. “Preservation professionals” may automatically slip into architectural and archaeological modes of thought when assigned to describe the historic and cultural qualities of a place. If you use such professionals, somebody needs to be looking over their shoulders to remind them to attend to the spaces around the buildings, structures, and sites, and particularly to listen to the people.

And if you’re a preservation professional (or non-professional) responsible for writing up a place with reference to its National Register eligibility, get familiar with the “cultural attachment” literature – which has mostly been produced with little or no (or ill-advised) reference to historic preservation, but is very, very relevant. Several key sources are cited in my paper, which, again, can be found at

1 comment:

Jeremy Wells said...

Nice to see some references in NEPA/EIS to place attachment. And yes, the humanistic geographers and environmental psychologists who have contributed most to this work have never bridged to historic preservation or CRM theory or practice. Conversely, academics who work/research in historic preservation haven't shown much interest in topics that veer into subjective realms and, unless you're a student in some museum studies programs, place attachment is not something you learn about in a typical historic preservation degree or CRM program. (I review this issue in detail in a book I co-edited, Preservation Education [University of New England Press, 2014] and in an article: J.C. Wells & E.D. Baldwin (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(4), 384-400.)

So much of the meaning humans ascribe to place has an emotional basis to it, but understanding this attachment and influencing practice with this perspective is not clear or straightforward. We need to be talking more about how place attachment should be a central part of understanding the "significance" of historic places.