Rural space

Most people like the countryside and have no problem in defining what they like about a rural environment. Furthermore, there is much support for countryside management to maintain its valued features. Difficulties arise in presenting and managing rurality because there is no single set of features that appeal to everyone. For example, an agricultural value differs from that perceived by tourists, a wind turbine is not acceptable, but a windmill enhances the view.

An understanding of rurality requires information about:
  • the current economic functions designated to the countryside;
  • historical notions about the countryside that encapsulate what it was like at a particular point in time;
  • spatial differences in landscape between different parts, according to geography and scale.

All three approaches require rethinking the nature of space and its relation to modern cultural identities. We live in an age dominated by new experiences of space. Today, processes of globalisation emphasize cultural flows across all our old boundaries . It is now not so much physical boundaries that define a community’s ‘natural limits.’ Increasingly we must think in terms of communications and transport networks and of the symbolic boundaries of language and culture that provide the crucial leaky boundaries of our age" .

In this context, an important goal of cultural historians is to investigate what happens to spatial identity in an age when all boundaries tend to become leaky. There is a widespread assumption that there are no longer any “natural limits” or “essential architectures”. In other words, space is no longer a container of culture and there are no absolute boundaries, no clear “insides” and “outsides” In this sense, separating urban from rural is part of the bigger problems of defining the global and the local, the universal and the particular, modernization and tradition, openness to cultural exchange and the resultant mixture of identities.

A practical problem is how to combine and preserve and present historical differences and diversity as a cultural asset? Rural microcosms are good models to explore these new concepts of space and new geographies of identity. In other words there is a ‘third space’ in which the material, social and cultural analysis of a lived space are combined with stories about who has lived there and had an imput into its character. The stories comprise the notional layer of a landscape in which space is seen as a container of human life. This ‘spatial turn’ may eventually be seen as one of the most important intellectual and political developments in the late twentieth century. The aim is to expand the scope and practical relevance of how we think about space and such related concepts as place, location, landscape, architecture, environment, home, city, region, territory, and geography.
Past thinking about space, sometimes called the geographical or spatial imagination, has either dealt with concrete material forms to be mapped, analysed, and explained; or as mental pictures of space and its social significance. A third space synthesis combines the material and mental dimensions but also extends beyond them to new modes of spatial thinking.

Managing rural space

A rising chorus of modern-day Jeremiahs proclaims the death of place. "It is commonplace in Western societies in the twenty-first century," observes geographer Tim Cresswell, "to bemoan a loss of a sense of place as the forces of globalization have eroded local cultures and produced homogenized global spaces." Mass communication and mass consumerism, the hypermobility of capital and labour, tourism and environmental devastation—all are seen to have homogenized space. Books with titles such as The Geography of Nowhere and The Destruction of Place in American Life lament the ongoing expansion of what J. B. Jackson called "the vast landscape of the temporary," and echo Josiah Royce's complaint, in 1908, that "nobody is at home." New arrivals rush in, speaking languages and practicing religions unknown to "us," transforming neighbourhoods into foreign enclaves, disrupting shared cultural memory, and widening income and wealth gaps, creating "a country of exiles."

Perceptions of the death of place have, during the last forty years, spawned the management of rurality with objectives that define compatible goals and drive integrated plans that reconcile the different conservation and developmental objectives. The designation of 'Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)' brought these management problems to a head. Now the idea is growing that the drawing of statutory boundaries to facilitate top-down management of rurality inevitably encourages the belief that outside the 'fence' anything goes. Also, top down management is giving way to stakeholder involvement at the grass roots. A separative professional culture of planners and planning not only impedes the sharing of lessons, it also locks away knowledge about how people can discover vernacular heritage in private ownership and mount a family or community plan for its year on year management, protection and promotion. It is therefore important to explore ways of making the ideas and practices of professional conservation management more accessible. In this context, a view is gaining ground within the parks and protected areas movement to encourage the uptake of stewardship by communities. The aim is to promote environmental management by stakeholders, and put a relevant planning process at the heart of the community and its local economy. This approach is also relevant to encourage communities within protected areas to take responsibility for their own patch in the conservation mosaic of the wider area. The hope is that local conservation management will become a corner stone to build a sustainable livelihood.

There are several starting points to investigate management of the local spaces and our particular approach, called 'Hundred Lines', takes the view that an intuitive start to make a place special is to define a notional line around it that encompasses its past, and sustains continuity between past and present users of the settlement space. This is how parish boundaries originated, and a sense of place in history was rejuvenated year by year when members of the community walked their bounds. Although parish boundaries are still the basis of community governance and local planning issues, few parishioners would be able to map their limits. Still less would they be aware of this ancient line as a container of rurality and its heritage that could help them focus environmental management of their special place in relation to the wider world.

A 'Hundred Line' is made by connecting up the community boundaries of English parishes at the edges of ancient administrative divisions known as Hundreds. As notional entities they are over a thousand years old and traverse the landscape in remembrance of the socio- economic parcellation of land that followed early tribal settlement. Their modern relevance is that they have often been used since to define boundaries of district, county, and parliamentary constituencies. A Hundred boundary is therefore a long-distance notional pathway of cultural history.

We, the initiators of 'Blything', have been committed for many years to the promotion of research into rurality and its use as a framework for education and local environmental management. We both have deep ancestral roots in Suffolk's Hundred of Blything, an ancient pre-Roman tribal area that cannot be surpassed in its models of environmental issues. These range from the notions about free men and women of the sustainable economy of Domesday to the fears attached to the nuclear power station that marks its southern boundary at Sizewell..

We believe that a Hundred boundary, like Hadrian's Wall, can be developed as a educational scaffold to promote involvement of local communities with their landscape’s character as an essential investment for sustainable development. It is a mapping thread that links nature with the historical design of landscapes and contemporary plans for the integrated management of nature and rurality. It also functions as a link between communities that lie along its length and therefore share in its benefits.

‘Landscape character’ is a distinct and consistent pattern of elements that makes one place different from another, rather than better or worse. The determination of ‘character’ may involve integrating a variety of assessments, such as biodiversity, historical events, water and soil quality, and socio-economic functions such as recreation and agriculture. In essence landscape character assessment is a process concerned primarily with documenting landscape character rather than assigning quality or value. The elements of landscape depend on the combination of factors such as geology, landform, soils, vegetation, and the economic investment in land use through human settlement. Factors may be considered in their past, present and/or future contexts. Ideally, but not exclusively, character definitions highlight the interrelationships of biophysical and cultural factors. So, landscape character can be seen as an expression of the way in which the natural and cultural elements of terrestrial ecosystems combine to create unique places with specific ecological, economic as well as social functions and values. All landscape is after all, historical; the creation first of the slow interplay of titanic natural forces, later modified by the hands of humankind.

The best way of coming to grips with the countryside is to walk through it with a package of maps and information about how it is functioning now in relation to its past. ‘Blything’ has been designed and assembled for people to make a start with the Blything Hundred, where the boundaries are clearly related to its topography and former cultural integrity.

Headmap manifesto