Interpreting Historic Places

John Jackson :: Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Think about the last time you went to a historic place. Maybe you took a trip to Washington DC and explored the monuments; perhaps it was to a Civil War battlefield in the south; or maybe it was to Graceland to see Elvis’ shag carpeting in person.

I’d bet that what you remember about that place wasn’t necessarily the fact that it existed and that you could tell your friends, “Yeah, I’ve been there.” It was how the historic place was interpreted that left an impression.

Think about it. Would you enjoy visiting a civil war battlefield if there were no reenactment? Or take notice of a statue if you didn’t know what event it was meant to commemorate?

It’s not only preserving a place that’s important, but how you tell its story. As urban planners and landscape architects, we talk about placemaking a lot. In short, placemaking is creating an environment where the intangible spirit of that community is embodied in tangible things –whether it is the light fixtures that line the downtown streets, the flowers planted along well-maintained sidewalks, the way the buildings face the street or even the signage and environmental graphics that educate you about why that place is important.

The National Road is a good example of how a group is preserving a place. The National Road was one of the first major improved highways in the United States to be built by the federal government. In many ways, this road moved the country forward because it gave cities across the country access to trade, development and innovation. One section of the National Road runs through Terre Haute, Indiana. There, Indiana State University, in partnership with the City of Terre Haute, has opted to commemorate the importance of the National Road with a plaza, just outside of campus. The environmental signage, along with planters and seating areas, not only educate visitors to Terre Haute, but help establish the city as an important landmark and make it memorable – something not to be forgotten over time.

Placemaking, when done right, is a long-term way to preserve sacred or historic places. Sure, there’s an element of entertainment when it comes to attracting people to these places. But to get visitors to remember – and even take action to help preserve the place is the benefit of good placemaking. In short, we have to do more than entertain visitors, but get them to connect with the place and understand its prominence as a part of our shared cultural history – just like the folks in Terre Haute are doing. The past is more than something that happened years ago – but a building block for the future.

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Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning

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