I have found most people I engage with don’t see the need to pay a lot of attention to their local place as being a particular local place, situated in time and place, with particular histories, people, talents, networks, and inhabitants (human and non human).
Indigenous people (for instance Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand) tend to be an exception. They often have a relationship to local place, the land and its inhabitants, and this is reflected in their narratives and myths and the way the place is seen as interconnected with its human and non-human environments, the present and past, the living worlds and livelihoods as achieved within them.
I wouldn’t have been interested in the particularities of the local place and the importance of paying attention to these particularities for effective local development had it not been for the influence of people I worked with in the St Albans community in the 1990s, people such as Margreet Stronks.
Margreet was the driving force behind many successful St Albans projects which are still appreciated today: the Out of School Care and Recreation programme (OSCAR), the residents’ group, the community facilitator position (now that of a community centre manger), the community choir, Packe Street Park, and some of the activities and amenities in St Albans Park (see photo). She was also pivotal in ensuring St Albans retained its identity as a place in its own right, and was not to be carved up or re-designated simply whenever sought by local and central governments.
In her community-building work, Margreet made the fact we were living in St Albans an explicit, reflexive, ongoing process. We and our families and local friends lived in St Albans. It wasn’t just any place. It was a particular place, with particular inhabitants, history, geography, narratives etc. New inhabitants also brought to it their own particular historical and geographic backgrounds.
How did we know what the place had within it? Not by scanning it with sophisticated Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or even with more basic online mapping processes. We did it though face-to-face communication that was facilitated by people such as Margreet. This was often further augmented and amplified by using communications technologies.
In St Albans, John Wardle was the main driving and coordinating force behind the use of technologies to support such communication: the desktop-published St Albans community paper which led also to an online electronic bulletin board (InfoLink) and his concepts underpinned the community web project (1999-2002).
Without these communications technologies, many of these community interactions would have come and gone as fleeting events. With the technologies, this communication could be put into textual forms that could be shared and commented on by any or all. They became reports, articles, stories or even songs in the community paper or in a community cyberspace. Cyber-texts could be accessed and commented on, cumulatively, by any or all in the locality, at any time of night or day. New levels of participation became possible.
Narratives are constructed about place all the time. A major challenge can be how to include the range of diverse local inhabitants in the creation of their own narratives.
Margreet usefully modeled an inclusive process in her work in St Albans, and she helped design a participatory methodology and pilot for local development which was developed in my doctoral thesis.
She showed that while not easy, inclusion in the creation of the kind of place we want to live in is possible.
Your comments most welcome.