I spent some time today with a group of people working – loosely – on issues relating to heritage, neighbourhood character, and “place making” in a community facing massive demographic change. One of the persons present had been involved in the creation of the ACT Cultural Map, and presented some highlights from that project as grist for discussion. The presentation highlighted a number of features from the Gungahlin town centre design – a greenfield development that, according to the presentation, recruited a local artist to create designs based on stories collected during community consultations. Developers have begun to incorporate these designs into new structures in a variety of ways – from patterns on manhole covers, to distinctive bus shelter designs, to etchings on glass doorways in the town centre – to create a distinctive sense of place while commemorating elements of the area’s history. Much of the presentation centred on visual images of the design elements created through this process.
This kind of commemoration always has a strange, haunted character for me, as it effectively celebrates what has been destroyed by the development process, and tries to build a sense of the distinctiveness of the new community by pointing to what is no longer there – as though the new community is expected to coalesce around what it has displaced. The discussion today centred on images of various design elements – themselves generally quite attractive, and spoken about, initially, just in terms of their visual appeal and distinctiveness. The mood in the room was playful, excited about the possibility of creating similarly unique visual elements in new communities locally, and the discussion revolved around the aesthetic merit of the designs, viewed as communal art.
At one point, however, the content of the artwork suddenly broke through what had, until that point, been essentially a discussion of form, and there was an almost tactile wrenching and reorientation of the mood in the room. The shift took place as the presenter displayed an image of the grates used around the base of new street trees, and the group puzzled over what the grates – which at first glance just looked attractively functional – were meant to represent. The presenter, excited and enthusiatic, explained:
They’re tree roots! Do you see? Because beautiful old trees were cut down – and their roots were everywhere, knotted together – and they’re gone now…
The presenter suddenly paused, thrown out of the presentation by registering – as the rest of us also were – the fundamental strangeness of surrounding these spindly new trees, all planted in their isolated and orderly formation, with artwork representing the mesh of mature root systems from trees that had grown old together, intertwined, and had then been destroyed to make way for the development process. No one voiced or telegraphed any criticism – the mood in the room was poignant, not critical. The presenter paused for some time, not really knowing what to say. Then quietly, almost reverent:
Well… at least we’ve got the memory of them…
I’ve committed to writing a conference paper loosely organised around the issue of how we understand the concept of “community” in a dynamic social context. Tentatively, the paper will discuss the “problem” of post-traditional communities as a foundational issue for classical sociology, make a few gestures at contemporary planning theory discussions on “community”, and then explore the ways in which some of these concepts play out in a couple of case studies from my field research. I may periodically toss up fieldnotes of this sort, as I try to work my way into what, exactly, I plan to write – the draft paper will eventually make its way onto the site. Happy as always to receive feedback on the theoretical or empirical dimensions of the piece.
[Note: image of the Gungahlin town centre clock modified from the one Cfitzart posted to Wikipedia. The original image – and therefore this one – is posted under the terms of a GNU Free Documentation License.]