Cultural Landscapes Blog

In the Center's most recent research roundtable, Professor Brian Balogh spoke about his forthcoming book In the Nation's Backyard: How History Preserved Rural Life in Green Springs, 1970 to the Present. The book tells the story of citizen participation in an unlikely setting - rural Virginia in the 1970s, and the battle to fight a maximum security state prison facility, then vermiculite mining by WR Grace, and now, exurban sprawl, in MY own backyard, Louisa County, VA.  The preservationists won this one, at least for the moment. They created a national historical landmark district, reinforced by an Act of Congress, in the mid-seventies.  Along the way, they pursued path breaking federal litigation and made the most of the growing demand for citizen participation that was sweeping the country.  This is also a story of changing gender roles, as the leader who forged this history was a woman who did not have a college degree.

Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village has been long celebrated for its use of ancient architectural precedents and its reimagined relationship between faculty and students, something we now call a Living-Learning Community. But one dimension of the lived experience of the Academical Village that has received less attention is the relationship between the students and the faculty and their families as the village’s white population and the numerous enslaved African Americans who lived and worked for decades in and around the academical village. 

This semester, the students in Louis Nelson’s “Field Methods in Historic Preservation” class have dedicated their semester to the search for physical evidence of the use of various spaces by this long neglected community. To this end, students have been crawling with flashlights through attics and cellars looking for physical evidence of the workings of basement kitchens, but also the transformation of marginal spaces into spaces of accommodation for the growing population of the enslaved.

Reinterpreting the Pollock’s Branch Watershed is an interdisciplinary mapping project undertaken by the University of Virginia’s Center for Cultural Landscapes and led by faculty in the School of Architecture and the Department of Drama. Funded in part by a UVA Faculty Research Grant for the Arts, this project will engage residents within the Pollock’s Branch watershed as creative agents in the collective process 1) to identify and celebrate the unique features and places valued by the community, 2) to reimagine the area’s future use and character as the City continues to plan for change over time, and 3) to create a place-based experience of the watershed to share with the larger Charlottesville community. Through embodied forms of analysis—including movement and sensorial experiences—the project will investigate the complexities of the landscape as it is lived and felt in order to amplify future analysis and urban design initiatives undertaken by the City of Charlottesville for the Strategic Investment Area.

Winneba Ghana frames a cultural landscape study around the shifting cultural relationship of a historic fishing village to its watery landscape. The mythic legend of the Effutu tribe’s arrival around 1400 A.D. to this coastal site next to the Muni-Pomadze Lagoon is central to Winneba’s identity.  For centuries, citizens abided by taboos and practices that protected these sacred waters. The 20th century, however, witnessed a decline in the lagoon quality due to a growing indifference to sacred traditions, and a lack of management plans, which led to encroachment into the lagoon. In 1992, Muni Lagoon (including the city limits) was incorporated by the inter-governmental Ramsar Convention in its worldwide network of significant wetlands. The call for its preservation and wise management gave the lagoon a new lease on life.   Our team’s projections indicate that sea level rise will transform the currently closed lagoon into a biologically rich estuary and offer new possibilities for industry, education, and tourism. What will be the impact of these new possibilities and rising water levels on Winneba’s mythic landscape?

As Winneba seeks to arise out of a period of decline in the 20th century, the waters are proving central once again to the community’s identity, opportunities, and challenges.

Preserved in the songs, plays, pictures, and movies about shantytowns is a working-poor discourse that resonates with values of hospitality, autonomy, adaptation, and reinvention, but which also reflects bitter inter-ethnic and intra-class conflicts among poor urban laborers. Shantytown residents of all races and ethnicities were keenly aware of economic opportunities, and of their civil and property rights, and they acted in ways designed to protect and enhance them—routinely going to court, for example, and often prevailing in their efforts to resist eviction and preserve their occupation of property. This was true of shantytowns built by free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, and their hyphenated-American descendants. But while they claimed the rights and benefits associated with middle-class status—property, privacy, access to the legal system—they rejected the cultural trappings of bourgeois refinement. In the end, they lost the battle over their rights to the city. The history of shantytowns illuminates a direct relationship between the expulsion of the working poor from center cities and developing ideas about public space. Public policy and public works were used to validate and camouflage middle-class fears about the working poor while engraving those fears on the urban landscape. The urban public and urban public space has long been “classed,” in other words, by the exclusion of certain types of people. Shantytowns unite the material and cultural history of working people. An unstudied cultural landscape, they open a new site for scholarly conversations about labor, race, urban history, and class formation.


Do you need an elective for the Spring of 2016? Be sure to check out LAR5230: Cultural Landscapes Seminar, from 11:00am-1:30pm on Tuesdays and taught by Rob McGinnis. 

Course Description & Method:

Cultural landscapes, landscapes created by human culture and technology, have distinct spatial patterns and settlement practices that are shaped by social routines as well as geographical conditions. Cultural landscape is also a way of seeing, thinking and interpreting urban, suburban, rural and industrial places. It applies rich and productive cross- disciplinary approaches that entangle history, cultural practices, and biophysical systems in the pursuit of uncovering the form, meaning, and processes that differentiate one place from another. Over the past quarter century, cultural landscape has become an increasingly important lens through which geographers, architectural historians, landscape architects, planners, preservationists, and anthropologists interpret and manage the built and shaped environment.