Assessing User Understanding of Heritage in the Environment: Preservation Strategies for the Use of Place

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While places often derive associations with heritage from distinctive land uses or patterns of activity, the historic preservation planning tools commonly available in the U.S. are limited in their ability to sustain those associations. The active and evolving aspects of a location’s character are challenging to reflect in the point-in-time historic property documentation that typically serves as the basis for preservation planning decisions. This study explored methods to illuminate the qualities residents and users associate with a community’s distinctive local character, or sense of place, and how those qualities relate to local history and heritage. Two case studies in Nashville, Tennessee, the urban Music Row neighborhood and rural Bells Bend community, were examined through mixed research methods, including document-based research, field observation, online survey, and interviews, to achieve a more holistic understanding of sense of place and to ascertain which features and qualities meaningful to members of the community align with place characteristics that can be regulated by local planning tools.

Older and historic places were among those associated with the sense of place of both cases. Continuity of locally-distinctive uses emerged as important, as did social interactions and relationships. Uses may be sustained with the help of planning tools beyond those commonly thought of as preservation strategies, such as land use zoning and economic incentives. Social aspects of place are harder to address but can be recognized through expanded definitions of heritage and interpretive efforts. Though a limited response rate constrained interpretation of some results, elements of the methodology show promise for enabling direct input from place users in practice. Defining what heritage-related qualities are most meaningful to community character can yield better informed preservation planning processes.