When I graduated from college and returned to my hometown, it was startling how much the place had changed. Familiar landscapes of farm houses and grassy plains had been replaced by car dealerships, superstores, and chain restaurants. Gone were the corn fields and the split-level houses quietly situated on small streets with overgrown trees; now families could shop for designer clothes in undistinguished outlet malls and own freshly built, modern homes in the heart of historic downtowns.
Ever stopped to think what potentially significant landscapes (whether natural or man-made) have been eradicated in your own hometown to make way for new places? I don’t suppose I consciously took note of those long corn fields or old houses back home until one day I came back and they weren’t there anymore. Now it’s all I can think about.
There is a beauty in organic structures, in landscapes that have history, that are specific and unique to a particular region or town. It reinforces our internal sense of Place, our rooted confidence in where we’re from and who we are. Although we may not realize it, it is a serious thing when significant landscapes are drastically altered and replaced. Edward Relph, a renowned geographer, referred to this phenomena as “placelessness.” It is, essentially, the “undermining of place for both individuals and cultures, and the casual replacement of the diverse and significant places of the world with anonymous spaces and exchangeable environments” (Relph 1976, p. 143). Placelessness diminishes our connection to each other and to our Place. It undermines the collective memory of who we are and from whence we came. It threatens our identity.
In an age of increasing Placelessness, projects like the High Line in New York City and, more recently, The 606 project in Chicago have a lot to offer.
In essence, both of the projects have converted old railways that run through their respective cities into long, beautiful, natural parks. However, it goes beyond simply creating park space. The projects have protected the integrity and beauty of historically significant landmarks in the cities, preserving and celebrating the cities’ organic structures and life. They are not trying to impose alien designs or evoke nostalgia for an unknown, unrecognizable landscape. They are telling the stories of the city and enmeshing historical relics with indigenous vegetation (particularly in the case of The 606, which uses native prairie grasses). The projects are creating platforms for human interaction and play. They evoke a sense of Place, rooting the community in memory while also creating space for new memories.
While new construction and development continue to thrive in many regions of the US, creative initiatives like the High Line and the 606 should give us hope. If we can find ways to reappropriate significant places, perhaps we will preserve our memory. Perhaps we will continue to see the beauty in our Place and uphold the integrity of our origins. Perhaps we will no longer see landscapes in terms of utility, but in terms of uniqueness, history, and story.
It’s a huge source of pride for Rule29 to have parntered with initiatives like the 606, because of the way they are preserving and converting beauty in the heart of Chicago. Join us as we partake in telling the story of Chicago’s past, while creating space for the story to continue on.