Take a few minutes out of your day to ponder on this. Think about a place that you like to visit. It might be a park, a street you like to walk along, part of your city.
For me, inevitably it’s going to be the Rivelin River Valley in Sheffield which is just on my doorstep, all the closer as I moved house in the summer. In a paper I read recently by Professor Brian Orland published in 1990, it was the Buddhist site of Sarnath in India, not too far from Varanasi.
If you were a visitor, coming for the first time, how would your place be experienced? Would the visitor get the same experience as you, a regular user? Is there a story being told of the place? Are there signs, interpretation boards? Are there traces of the history of the landscape – suggesting what was there before? Are you aware of the path/ road you walk along and how it came to be there? Does the name of it give you any clues?
Brian’s paper focused on the different users of Sarnath, showing how there is no one interpretation of a place. Tourists to India may dislike being approached by beggars when visiting historical sites on the tourist trail, but Brian shows how it is an essential part of worship for Buddhists and Hindus pilgrims in Sarnath.
You don’t need to go all the way to India to consider the different stories being told about places. For example, UK cities celebrate their urban past and heritage (e.g. the listing and renovation of Manchester Oxford Road train station and preservation of historic parks).
However, at the same time city decision-makers are also destroying ‘lesser’ examples of their urban heritage, when buildings are knocked down and places changed because they don’t quite fit with the modern future of the city (e.g. the demolition of Jessops Hospital which made way for the University of Sheffield’s new Diamond building, or the clearance of slum housing in Sheffield to create green spaces such as the Ponderosa and Ruskin Parks).
How visible and present in today’s landscape should the history and the heritage of a place be? Are we always be aware of the layers of history that exist in our places and on our doorstep? Look out for clues when you’re next out and about!