Identifying cultural heritage landscapes through community participation

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Picturesque bridge over the Grand River in Waterloo RegionMost of us hold a strong sense of intrinsic cultural value for rural landscapes, and these spaces often form a significant part of our personal or collective identity. But not so many of us remain closely tied to the management of that landscape. These spaces can often be taken for granted until a major change is proposed; a new gravel pit, housing subdivision or wind farm, for example.

Currently these types of large-scale rural projects are expert-led in Ontario. Municipalities may consider a location for potential identification and protection, and then follow a set of guidelines in which residents are included at some level, but generally only at a later step in the process.

A research team from the University of Waterloo, Faculty of Environment, have developed an approach that sees community engagement moved to the beginning of the process. Three years ago, Professor Mark Scott of the University College Dublin visited Waterloo to meet with Dr. Robert Shipley, having read some of his work on cultural heritage landscapes published with colleague Professor Rob Feick. When Scott was asked to edit the 2019 Routledge Companion to Rural Planning, he invited the Waterloo team to contribute a chapter exploring the concept of cultural heritage landscapes, and to discuss their importance to a rural planning process.

“Cultural landscapes have come to signify the way unique landscapes are identified, and this is important for land-use policy decisions”, says Michael Drescher, a professor at Waterloo’s School of Planning. Candidate landscapes must be identified, and while legislation and policies have evolved to become a top-down system that is driven by experts, it is important to consider a bottom-up approach that involves broader community involvement.

Using a local case study from the Region of Waterloo, several approaches to public participation in cultural landscape identification were explored, including individual interviews, focus groups, online surveys, and a photo-voice opportunity to identify areas of local value through photo submissions. Their study aimed to broadly include the local population but also reached out to distinct groups like First Nations, on whose traditional territory the research took place. Other unique groups that were actively included were religious communities, such as Old Order Mennonites, and outdoor enthusiasts, such as cycling clubs.

“We found that it was necessary to actively seek community participation, says PhD student Christopher DeGeer. “Despite extensive promotion, including flyer, newspaper and radio announcements, it was face-to-face engagements that elicited a strong response from community members.”

As a result of this work, the Township of Woolwich has begun the process for designating Maryhill (Township of Woolwich) as a cultural heritage landscape.

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