Thursday, 27 December 2007

Distinctive locality

I've written before about local distinctiveness - what makes a region or a city special, what gives it that certain almost indefinable flavour that distinguishes it from anywhere else.

Such distinctiveness is of course under threat. Chain stores, the spread of 'one size fits all' architecture, a certain feeling that local traditions are uncool or plebeian, all tend to impose homogeneity on our townscapes and landscapes. Agricultural colleges teach a single 'best practice' for all countryside - no respect for the distinctive feel of terroir there.

So it's nice to celebrate a couple of organisations which are fighting to preserve this specialness.

First, Maisons Paysannes de France, an organisation which promotes authenticity in the way older French houses are restored. It's a truism in the UK property press that 'only Brits buy old French houses, the French like them new'; but fortunately there are many French owners of old houses who do care about their local vernacular building traditions.

Maisons Paysannes offers links to conservation orientated building professionals, as well as publicising good restorations of period houses. In France, where you'll often see a period house that would be grade II* listed in the UK with modern double glazing and a PVC conservatory stuck on the end, they're fighting a tough fight.   Good luck to them.

Common Ground is a UK based charity that focuses on the ways people can celebrate their local distinctiveness.

One of the threats they identify is abstraction. In a recent Guardian interview Common Ground founder Sue Clifford picked out some particularly nasty ones; 'sites' for streets or fields, 'the public' for people, 'natural resources' for woods and streams. Even the word 'environment' makes her suspicious. Abstract words blind us to real distinctiveness.

(What she didn't go on to elaborate is that local words are another component of 'real place'. What would Norfolk be without bishybarnabees - ladybirds - or dodmen - snails? And we have lokes, where northerners have ginnels and York has snickelways - though the latter is a fairly recent coinage.)

Common Ground's web site suggests ways that people can celebrate the distinctiveness of their own place - ABCs of differences, photographs, parish maps. These maps are not 'objective' (regular readers know I have difficulty with the idea of any map being really objective; the very assertion of 'objectivity' displays a biased idea of what mapping is about). Instead, wilful subjectivity rules - the maps are written, painted, knitted, embroidered; they include dialect words, pictures of wildlife, old stories and legends.

It's back to the 1960s in a way for Common Ground. 'Think globally, act locally' has been replaced by 'think locally! act locally! buy locally!'

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