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Local History in the ‘Burbs.

Place Attachment and Community Agency

in Suburban Communities.

Brian A. Salmons

Paper #4 for

CD505X “Community Development II”

Dr. Timothy Borich

Spring 2007

Iowa State University
These streets have too many names for me.

I'm used to Glenfield Road and spending my time down in Orchy.

I'll get used to this eventually,

I know, I know…

Paolo Nutini, "These Streets" (2006)


About ten miles east of Tampa, Florida, within the boundaries of the unincorporated towns

of Brandon and Seffner, lies an area of suburban neighborhoods of varying ages and styles. On the

northern end of this area is Brandon Country Estates, a non-descript subdivision platted in the early

1970's. Old Sawmill Road runs through this subdivision for a distance of about 1,000 feet before

merging with Williams Road. Further south in this suburban area is a small lake encircled by a few

small houses and other residential structures. Some of the houses have boat docks allowing them

access to the lake for fishing. A little bit west of the lake is a street of ranch-style houses built mostly

in the 1960's and framed by rows of dilapidated orange trees. A 94-year-old woman lives in one of

the houses with her second husband. She can be seen on Saturdays racing around on her riding

lawnmower cutting the grass in her backyard, being careful to avoid a wood and metal post that

stands by itself looking vaguely out-of-place.

Undoubtedly, these descriptions of features of a Tampa Bay suburban landscape bear

resemblance to countless other suburban neighborhoods in other metropolitan regions, most of

which were built starting in the post-World War II period for white, middle-class urban residents

seeking an escape from cities' rising crime rates, racial tensions and deteriorating school systems.

From the beginnings of this mass migration, commentators on suburban life were struck by the

'sameness' and 'conformity' that seemed to characterize the physical design and social atmosphere of
suburban-style development. Riesman (1958) commented on what he saw as "an aimlessness, a

pervasive low-keyed unpleasure which cannot be described in terms of traditional sorrows" that

existed in suburbia (p. 377). Riesman saw the suburban style of life as one marked by loss of

"diversity, complexity and texture" (p. 375). In countless commentaries since then, the 'suburb' has

been stereotyped as 'suburbia' (Tuan 1974: 225), a place of "bland, materialistic, ticky-tacky boxes on

a hillside where people are conformist on the outside and hollow within" (Brooks 2004: ¶ 9) and

which stifles the "social interaction, sense of membership, and democratic engagement" that

characterized communities of the past (Oliver 2001: 2). Of course, not all suburban communities fit

this stereotype. Riesman acknowledged this, explaining that his criticisms are aimed more at the

"ideal-typical suburb, more nearly approximated by the newer post-War developments and tract

housing than by older suburbs" and that his ire towards the suburbs arises from his own impressions

of it, rather than from hard facts (1958: 375-376).

However diverse and subjective the experiences of suburban residents may actually be, a

great deal of material published in the United States in the 20th and early 21st centuries suggests that a

significant portion of the suburban population is in fact dissatisfied with their environment, or else

feels no sense of place or attachment to the suburban landscapes in which they live and work (e.g.

Goodman & Goodman 1947; Riesman 1958; Jacobs 1961; Mumford 1961; Tuan 1974; Richards

1990; Kunstler 1994; Duany et al. 2000; Putnam 2000; Oliver 2001; Salamon 2003). As a result, even

though these places may be called "communities" by developers and residents, the sense of

belonging that characterizes a true “community” seems to be in shortage, meaningful social

interaction is at a minimum (compared to many rural and urban places) and the potential for

community development and betterment, based in active participation and social interaction, is low.

Even the thought of making suburban communities "better" seems absurd, given the prevalent yet

out-dated stereotype of suburbs as the refuge of middle-class, white-collar workers possessing ample
financial capital and an American pioneer spirit of rugged individualism, assets often assumed to be

the panacea for the problems of American society at large.

The Brandon/Seffner area described earlier is one such "community" without community. I

know because I lived there, across the street from the lawnmower-riding 94-year-old woman. I knew

some of my neighbors, though not well enough to call them friends, nor even acquaintances. They

were just my neighbors. Undoubtedly many of the area's residents had long-standing relationships

with their neighbors and participated in recreational or even quasi-governmental activities together

(e.g. homeowners’ association meetings). But the neighborhood as a whole had no unifying sense of

community that encompassed a majority of the residents, nor did this sense likely even graze the

consciousness of a fraction of them.

In spite of this, and in contrast to Riesman's stereotypical suburbanite, I personally managed

to develop an emotional bond with the neighborhood in which I resided for 3 short years. I came to

understand my neighborhood as a place distinct from all the other neighborhoods in the region and

from the suburban neighborhoods where I had spent my childhood. This "place attachment" that I

developed towards my neighborhood, rather than arising from a sense of community or social

belonging, was rooted in and fostered by an intense familiarity with the area's history acquired

through archival research. I came to think of my neighborhood as "Limona", the historic name for

an area now officially identified by the postal codes for Brandon and Seffner. I looked at the rows of

orange trees and thought of how the vast citrus groves that once covered the region were bulldozed

to construct my house (and the rest of them). In an old newspaper article I read the story of the

large bell that was rung when dinnertime arrived, an artifact long since stripped from the post

standing in my neighbor's backyard. I discovered that the little lake down the road was created when

a sinkhole opened up in the ground back in 1879, an event barely marked in the news of the day.

Further research told the tale of E.I. Burdick of Albion, Wisconsin who settled on the pine-covered
northern fringe of Limona and constructed a sawmill, a structure now commemorated solely by a

couple of regulation street signs above an asphalt-paved road fronted by two dozen houses

containing two dozen families, most of whom probably do not know one another.


The purpose of this anecdote about the local history and present community of a suburban

neighborhood is to demonstrate how fostering place attachment through an appreciation of local

history can create the potential for greater involvement in a community on the part of its residents.

While this potential was not realized in my personal experience in “Limona” (introverts like myself

might need significantly more incentive to get involved in community activities), I nonetheless

believe that the general idea has merit and that this form of place attachment may be useful from a

community development perspective when aggregated to the level of the community. In this paper I

will attempt to sketch the outline of such a theoretical strategy of community development, where

positive community change is effected through the agency of residents possessing an appreciation of

the history of the ‘place’ and the ‘space’ that their community occupies (Brandenburg & Carroll

1995). While a ‘local history’-based approach to community development has potential applications

for any number of different community types, the variant developed here is intended for use in ‘new

places’, particularly the American suburban community.

In the following subsections contains some background discussion about the concepts and

terms used in this paper, as well as an overview of existing community development approaches that

have been used in suburban environments. First, the literature that informs the theory of a local

history-based approach to community development will be surveyed and summarized, after which

the type of community that is targeted by this strategy, the suburb, is examined in more detail. In the

Strategy section, a sampling of previous community development strategies, intended to correct the
perceived threat to or cause of a low quality of life in suburban neighborhoods, will be assessed for

effectiveness and relevance to the suburban context. After that, a discussion about the ‘community

building’ role of local history within the historical and archival professions will be summarized.

Lastly, particular suggestions for implementing and carrying out a local history-based approach to

community development will be presented, these drawn largely from Timothy Beatley’s Native to

Nowhere (2004).

‘Place’ and ‘space’

Synthesizing the work of others, Brandenburg & Carroll (1995) describe ‘place’ as being

“composed of actual physical environments or settings and all that occurs in that setting” (p. 384).

In this definition, ‘place’ draws on both the human experience of a physical environment (“the

meanings, values, traditions, and experiences of [those] who describe and define a space as a place”)

as well as the “nature of a given space”, the environmental characteristics of a space that exist

independently of its experiential meaning as a ‘place’ (p. 385). A similar relationship between the

concepts 'place' and 'space' was used by Lucy & Phillips (2000b), wherein "places are created from

spaces" through long-term social interaction with neighbors, friends and local organizations, in turn

fostering attachment to place (p. 277). The conception of ‘place’ as being constituted by the human

meaning and values that are attached to it implies that a location without these attachments is “just

an empty space” (Brandenburg & Carroll 1995: 385). ‘Space’, then, is like a theatrical stage on which

social actors live and work in the drama of life, continuously creating meaning and value, and

thereby transforming the stage into a scene depicted in the drama. Human agency (including stories

about human agency in the past) transforms a ‘space’ into a ‘place’.
Place attachment & communities of memory

If ‘place’-creation were a process that produced only fleeting instances of ‘community’

forgotten by succeeding generations, it would not be relevant to the local history-based strategy for

community development presented in this paper. But the creation of ‘place’ does matter because, as

a result of the social interaction that contributes to producing ‘place’, place attachment is also

fostered providing the opportunity for greater individual and collective concern for a community.

Discussions of “place attachment”, “sense of place” and “community attachment” are abundant in

the literature. Tuan (1974) coined the term “topophilia” (literally, “love of place”) to describe the

totality of human affective attachment to ‘place’ (p. 93). Others have striven to dissect the concept

of place attachment and examine it in terms of its relation to specific landscapes or theoretical

concerns (e.g. Brandenburg & Carroll 1995; Brehm et al. 2006; Cuba & Hummon 1993; Hummon

1992). These studies arrived at widely varying conclusions regarding the causes of place attachment

and what characteristics are necessary for a community, ‘place’ or landscape to become the object of

attachment. The studies are of primary use to a local history-based strategy in their discussion of

either the role of past experience in a particular ‘place’ and its cumulative effect in the creation of

place attachment, or of how a ‘sense of place’ contributes to the formation of personal and

community identity and attachment. Cuba & Hummon (1993), for example, define the “place

identity” variant of place attachment as an answer derived from the interrelation of the questions

“Who am I?” and “Where am I?” (p. 112). Here, having a ‘sense of place’ in relation to the physical

and social environment is instrumental in the formation of identity. Hummon previously (1992)

surveyed the literature on attachment and formulated a unifying concept of “community sentiment”

that encompasses “community identification” (place identity) and “community attachment” (place

attachment), as well “community satisfaction”. This last facet of community sentiment is determined

largely by ecological factors and perception of quality of the built environment. The interrelation of
these three facets of community sentiment has great explanatory power in the examination of

suburban communities, as residents of these communities “may be quite satisfied with their

community without developing deeper emotional ties to the locale”, while residents of “blighted” or

“declining” urban and rural communities “may express feelings of attachment to places they find

less than satisfactory” (p. 260-261).

The combinations of factors that Hummon identifies as making essential contributions to

the generation of community sentiment provide other clues on how an awareness of local history

can play a role in community development. As in the creation of ‘place’, social interaction is the

most significant factor in the creation of community attachment. Social activities involving friends,

family, local organizations and even local shopping venues were found to be the most important

sources of emotional attachment to ‘place’ in the studies he cites (p. 257). By contrast, community

identity arises out of “personal meanings of life experiences and the public images of local culture”

(p. 262). While the personal element of identity formation (or modulation) plays a significant role in

the development of community identity, Hummon’s discussion of the “public meanings” of

communities as “symbolic locales with distinct cultural identities” (p. 259) is particularly relevant to

our topic.

However, the discussion on place attachment most pertinent to a local history-based strategy

of community development concerns the concept of “communities of memory”. A community of

memory, according to Bellah et al. (1985) is a community “that does not forget its past”, and is in

fact “constituted by (its) past” (p. 153). They continue:

In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in retelling its story, its

constitutive narrative, and in doing so, it offers examples of the men and women

who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community. These stories
of collective history and exemplary individuals are an important part of the tradition

that is so central to a community of memory (p. 153).

Communities of memory, as the objects of place attachment created through social

interaction, provide a “context of meaning” within which perceptions of community

performance and ‘quality of life’ can be evaluated. The evaluative aspect of this context

enables the residents of a community to come together collectively, connecting their

“aspirations for [them]selves…with the aspirations of a larger whole”. Communities of

memory simultaneously “tie us to the past [and] turn us toward the future as communities of

hope” (p. 153). As such, communities of memory provide us with a conceptual link with

which to harness the creation of place attachment to the potential for community

development, all through the collective agency of a community’s residents.

Community agency

In their discussion of “disaffection” and “community agency”, Luloff and Swanson (1995)

highlight some of the difficulties that are frequently encountered in the endeavor to mobilize

community resources for purposes of community betterment. In contrast to other highly positive

accounts of communities’ capacities for effecting change, Luloff and Swanson chose to tackle the

question of “to what extent does a generalized disaffection reduce the opportunities for the

emergence of pluralistic and democratic participation by residents in the affairs of their immediate

locality” (p. 369). Disaffection, defined as “the degree of fragmentation, anomie, and alienation felt

by members of a local society” (p. 351), is a condition recognizable in the descriptions of ‘suburbia’

presented earlier in the paper, particularly that of Riesman (1958). Disaffection has the direct effect

of draining individual volition, thereby “limiting community agency and…local social and economic
development” (Luloff & Swanson 1995: 353). Unencumbered community agency, on the other

hand, exists in the “capacity of people to manage, utilize, and enhance those resources available to

them” (p. 352). Furthermore,

…community agency as a concept assumes a capacity for individual and community

volition – that is, it assumes that people make choices, even though the range of

choices may be greatly…shaped by structural factors. These choices are mediated by

individuals’ and communities’ understanding and interpretation of their social

conditions…Consequently, such perceptions are intricately bound up in the culture

and legacies they receive and articulate (p. 357).

Here again we encounter the idea that communities are constituted by their past (culture and

legacies), shaped by stories that relate examples of community successes and lessons learned.

While the historical legacies inherited by a community may not always seem particularly

relevant to contemporary residents, and may even be feared as disruptive to patterns of

social interaction as they have evolved in the community over time, it is the intent of this

paper to demonstrate how a simple awareness of the local history of a ‘place’ may contribute

to increased place attachment among a suburban community’s residents, in turn increasing

its “capacity for individual and community volition” to effect positive change and

community development.

‘Suburbia’, suburbs & new places

As alluded to in the introduction to this paper, ‘suburbia’ is a stereotype of the suburban

environment, constructed out of astute observations of the social, cultural and psychological effects

(actual or philosophical) of the suburban built environment (Riesman 1958; Kunstler 1994; Duany et
al. 2000), as well as from examples of suburban neighborhoods portrayed (both positively and

negatively) in popular TV shows like Leave It To Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriett and in

movies like The Truman Show and The ‘Burbs. Tuan (1974) suggests that the “suburban image” can

even be traced back to Jeffersonian ideals, noting the parallels between the suburban obsession with

lawn maintenance and the image of the agrarian pioneer carving out a personal paradise in the

frontier (p. 237). In contrast to 'suburbia' , a definition of the 'suburban community', or 'suburb', is

much more difficult to arrive at. Criteria for classification as a suburb vary widely depending on the

author. Salamon (2003), in her focus on suburban youth, characterizes suburbs as places with “high

mobility, age segregation, a weak sense of community, and few work opportunities for adolescents”

(p. 18). However, these demographic characteristics by no means describe all suburban places, and

they seem to describe an older image of the suburbs as depicted in the idealistic portrayals

mentioned earlier (cf. Riesman’s concern over “the concentration of people of a single age-grade

and a single class in a suburb, without the presence of old people, servants, and teen-age children”

[1958: 376]). Oliver presents other images of the suburb defined by distinct architectural styles, such

as the prevalence of single-family homes with garages, or lifestyle choices, like long-distance

commuting, but these summarizations of suburban community are also not entirely accurate, nor

exclusive to the suburbs (2001: 3). Other attempts at defining the suburb focus on its physical

location in reference to a central city, namely that it is “an outlying district of a city, especially

residential” (Girling 1994: 171). However, this locational definition of the suburb encompasses a

wide variety of settlement types, from post-War inner-ring suburbs to “technoburbs”, and edge

cities to exurban, master-planned communities (Girling 1994; Oliver 2001). As Oliver matter-of-

factly states, “The range of places that now fall under the suburban moniker creates a big dilemma

for anyone trying to determine what a suburb exactly is” (p. 8).
Fortunately, an exact definition of the suburb is not necessary for the purposes of this paper,

It will be sufficient to simply outline some of the basic aspects of the suburban community to which

a local history-based approach to community development might be applicable. Firstly, in line with

Salamon’s description of suburban residents being highly mobile (i.e. not living in a neighborhood

for very long), a suburban community is one where the majority of residents have lived there for a

relatively short period of time. This is not to say that “oldtimers” are not found in the suburbs, nor

that the populations of urban and rural communities are mostly without transient residents who pick

up and leave after a couple of years. Undoubtedly, high mobility is not a distinguishing feature of the

suburbs. However, the tendency for high turnover in suburban population is significant when it is

considered concurrently with other characteristics. The second of these characteristics, discussed in

detail earlier in the paper, is a low level of informal social interaction among residents. Richards

(1990) notes that the suburbs are a place where social interaction with neighbors is experienced as a

tense balance between privacy and community (p. 183). The role of the built environment in

deterring social interaction in the suburbs will be discussed in the following section. But it is

sufficient now to note that if a community already has a relatively high capacity for community

agency, the search for another strategy for community development is probably not a major concern

for that community.

The third characteristic, and the most important for our particular community development

strategy, is that suburbs are, historically speaking, ‘new places’. This term is intended here to refer to

places where the present physical infrastructure or landscape has been drastically altered from its

past appearance, or where there is otherwise little continuity between past and present cultural

practices and patterns of social interaction. The 'new' part of the term implies that there is disrupt

between a pre-suburban past and the suburban present, while 'place' refers to our discussion earlier
about the distinction between 'place' and 'space'. Hence, 'new places' occupy space formerly

occupied by other, now historic, 'places'.

In thinking about suburbs as 'new places', there is a tendency to see suburban-style

development as a "stage in the process of urbanization" (Tuan 1974: 234). The history of the Bronx

lends itself to this theory, as what was initially wilderness and farmland in this area of New York

became groups of suburban villages, with these in turn eventually coalescing into the dense urban

neighborhood that is the Bronx today (Miele 2007). An evolutionary theory of urbanization,

generalized from a single case to the phenomenon of development as a whole, does not inform the

concept of ‘new places’ delineated here. However, the rapid conversion of rural towns, farmland and

natural areas into suburban developments oriented either towards other suburbs or to a central

urban area for their consumer needs, cultural diversions and means of livelihood is a consistent

theme of development in the United States. Salamon refers to the effect of these changes on rural

towns swallowed up by the massive increase in population and built environment as a process of

turning “old towns into a nontown, indistinguishable from countless other suburbs” (Salamon 2003:

11). Elsewhere she describes the “nontown” as “a postagrarian community, embedded in an agrarian

landscape, but without any connection to it” (p. 12).

The postagrarian community, or the “nontown” is, essentially, a pessimistic version of the

‘new place’ concept, wherein the link with the agrarian past has been suddenly terminated and lost

irretrievably. The fabric of small-town and rural social activity, not to mention the agrarian

landscape, has been paved and sodded over by the suburban landscape with its comparatively low

level of social “interconnectedness” (p. 13). This process is certainly lamentable, and much has been

written about the need to stop the suburban “sprawl” that seems only to intensify with each passing

decade. But what is not often looked at is the issue of making the suburban communities, of the

type Salamon characterizes as “nontowns”, better places to live. Going back to Hummon’s (1992)
tri-part synthesis of community sentiment, “nontowns”, as ‘new places’, may be high in community

satisfaction (because, for example, the housing quality is high or the neighborhood is perceived as

safe), but low in community attachment and community identity. A local history-based approach to

community development is intended to address these latter two facets of community sentiment.

Before delving into the specifics of how a local history-based strategy would work, it will be

necessary to look briefly at community development strategies that have already been used in

suburban communities, as well as trends in development policy and practice that are posited to

affect the suburban environment.


A brief survey of the community development literature does not turn up any coherent

strategy of community development for suburban communities. In fact, the idea that the suburbs

should be the object of a community development strategy seems absurd within the context of 20th

and 21st century American culture. To many Americans, the suburbs (or more appropriately

‘suburbia’) are the epitome of the ‘American Dream’. The suburbs are where single-family homes,

with a two-car garages set apart from neighboring houses by large, green lawns and tasteful fences,

are the norm and the ideal. Perhaps the most oft-heard reason for moving to the suburbs is that it is

“good for bringing up children” (Tuan 1974: 230). The privacy and safety that this kind of

environment affords its residents and their families represents to them the upholding of the

American right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Incidental community development in the suburbs

Duncan and Duncan explained the peculiar nature of suburban residential zoning and land

preservation policies as intended to create exclusive residential communities along the lines of class
and race (2001). They criticize the discourse surrounding suburban preference as hiding behind an

“aesthetic attitude towards place” that allows suburban residents to “isolate themselves visually from

unattractive reminders of the economic basis of their privilege” (p. 406). Setting aside the fact that a

great deal of suburbs, especially the early post-War developments, are not the refuge of the wealthy

and have considerable proportions of minority homeowners and renters, the idea has yet some merit

when examined in light of community development activities that have taken place in suburban

neighborhoods. Two of these will be examined here: namely, the phenomenon of NIMBY (Not In

My Back Yard) and that of the New Urbanism.


Whether referred to as NIMBY, CAVE People (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) or

BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), the phenomenon of citizen

opposition to development projects that might affect the community in which the citizen lives or

works is one of the most persistent obstacles encountered by community development practitioners

and planners. The occurrence of NIMBYism is particularly visible in suburban communities. The

class interests of Duncan and Duncan’s (2001) “aestheticization of the politics of exclusion” theory

may be a contributing factor to NIMBYism’s frequent occurrence in the suburbs. The fact that

zoning regulations in some suburban areas are designed to limit the development of almost anything

but single-family homes may be an indication that suburban residents have considerable political

capital that they leverage to maintain the exclusive character of their neighborhoods. The possession

of ample financial capital is certainly also a factor in the success of suburban communities to protect

the individual interests of their residents as these affect the built environment.

The issues that draw out the NIMBY phenomenon in suburban communities usually

concern the siting of landfills and incinerators in proximity to the community (Flora, Flora & Fey
2004: 209), the proposed opening of a “big box” retail store (WalMart Alliance for Reform Now

2005), or the construction of additions to a subdivision (Keller 2003) or other houses types near the

suburban development, particularly rental properties. Lucy & Phillips (2000b) point out how

NIMBYism promotes suburban sprawl by forcing development further out from existing

infrastructure, also noting the paradox in this opposition to development in that may actually benefit

suburban communities (p. 278). Despite the prevalence of NIMBYism in suburban community

development activity, its effectiveness is limited to the purpose of mobilizing residents temporarily

around a specific issue facing the community. Hence, betterment of the community is limited to the

enhancement of the “community satisfaction” element of community sentiment. Furthermore, this

betterment is often sought at the expense of other communities in the region, such as business-

oriented urban centers and rural communities located adjacent to natural amenities recreationally

consumed by suburban residents (for discussion of environmentalism as an effect of consumer

society see Summers 2006). Such an approach to community development is therefore unsuitable,

and ultimately ineffective, for the goal of achieving the “long-term sustainability and well-being of

the community” (Community Development Society n.d.).

The New Urbanism

Since the 1980’s, much of the effort going into making communities better places to live has

taken the form of 'development by design'. The foremost example of this approach is what is

referred to as the New Urbanism, primarily a design-oriented approach towards improving the

quality of life in urban places through construction of ‘livable’ built environments that foster

informal social interaction. Fainstein (2000) describes New Urbanism as:

Developed primarily by architects and journalists, [thus] it is perhaps more ideology

than theory, and its message is carried not just by academics but by planning
practitioners and a popular movement…their aim [is] using spatial relations to create

a close-knit social community that allows diverse elements to interact. The new

urbanists call for an urban design that includes a variety of building types, mixed

uses, intermingling of housing for different income groups, and a strong privileging

of the “public realm” (p. 461).

From this description, the differences between the “ideology” of New Urbanism and the ideal

features of the suburban built environment are clearly visible. New Urbanism favors a mix of

housing types to suit different income-levels while the typical suburb is designed to exclude those

whose income or social networks are insufficient to purchase a single-family home of a standard

quality. New Urbanist developments take the social basis for community as the primary concern of

design while the suburbs are designed with personal and familial privacy as the main concern.

To the extent that these features of the New Urbanism and suburban-style development

represent two differing cultural preferences for the design of the built environment, they may be

seen as complementary because they provide for a degree of choice in housing and community,

something much valued in American consumer society. New Urbanism, particularly, is lauded as the

solution to the problems created when the suburbs began drawing human and financial capital away

from urban centers. But contrary to its stated aims of increasing social diversity, bridging the divide

between residents of lower and higher income-levels, and fostering inclusive community interaction

in public places, much New Urbanist development has occurred outside of the urban centers that

inspired it. New Urbanist developments like Celebration, Florida and Seaside, Florida were built on

the fringes of existing metropolitan areas, suburban-style, calling into question for many people

whether they can actually meet the goals of New Urbanism. In his study of Celebration, Bartling

(2002) determined that a sense of “community” had not developed in the town until the residents’

ideas about what constitutes “community” were threatened by outside actors. Celebration’s sense of
community was “based on unifying and defining a series of characteristics and requirements that

serve[d] to set up boundaries for admission” (p. 64), and Bartling adds that “the price to buy into

Celebration automatically discriminates against the majority of working-class people” (p. 66).

New Urbanism, especially in its suburban incarnation of Celebration, appears to be as

unsuited to the task of improving the quality of life in the suburban context as is NIMBYism. Its

design-focused approach to incubating community largely fails to live up to its stated aims. The

cause of this failure may be in no small part due to New Urbanist developments being relegated,

through political opposition and zoning ordinances (Fainstein 2000: 463), to vacant land outside the

pale of existing urban and suburban settlement. By virtue of being constructed on formerly rural and

natural landscapes, New Urbanist developments are essentially ‘new places’, even despite the fact

that they are designed to resemble urban neighborhoods and have the idealized “small town feel”

that is popularly thought to characterize communities of the past. From this perspective, both

suburban and New Urbanist communities are prone to the same problem of low community

attachment and identification, even though the design of the communities may generate a high level

of community satisfaction.

The ‘local history’ approach

Unlike the sectional, class-interest approach of NIMBYism and the design-oriented

approach espoused in the New Urbanism, a local history-based approach to community

development seeks to improve the quality of life in ‘new places’, places with otherwise little

opportunity for informal social interaction, by fostering an awareness and appreciation of the local

history of other ‘places’ which have successively occupied the same ‘space’. Awareness of local

history is thus not an end in itself in this strategy. Rather, the local history-based approach is

intended to work by harnessing this new awareness to the potential for community agency in
effecting positive community change. The specific changes sought by a particular community will

vary depending on the specific characteristics and dynamics of that community. But it is hoped that

the inspiration of stories about the local past, and the perspective provided by an awareness of past

events and landscapes that existed in the very same ‘space’ inhabited by the contemporary

community of suburbanites’ familiarity, will encourage residents to envision a future for their

community that is sustainable in relation to the surrounding region and recognizes and promotes the

need for social inclusiveness, while still seeking to increase the level of community satisfaction which

drew people to the suburbs in the first place.

In outlining the strategy for a local history-based approach, attention must be paid not only

to the studies surveyed earlier in this paper that inform us about what makes a community successful

in developing community agency for the long-term; of equal importance are the lessons to be

learned from stories about ‘community building’ as it has been experienced by members of the local

history and archival professions. As curators of public collections of local historical material and as

organizers of local historical projects (such as community oral history projects), historians and

librarians have a significant degree of valuable insight that should inform any attempt at effecting

community development through local history. While this paper will be dedicated to outlining

methods of organizing a community development project and encouraging public participation in

the process, knowledge of general methods of historical data collection are also of particular

relevance to a local history-based approach to community development. Space constraints prevent

the discussion of these methods here, however their relevance should not be brushed aside by the

community development practitioner, especially given that the process of historical discovery is as

important to community development as the outcome of that process (Baum 1970: 273).
Local history and ‘community building’

On the topic of oral history and ‘community building’, Willa Baum (1970) commented that

“The town which has a known and proud tradition and whose citizens, be they old-family or

newcomers, feel a part of that on-going tradition, can be expected to aspire to more in the way of

civic betterment… than those of a town which has no identity” (p. 273). The suburban community

as a ‘new place’ does not have an “on-going tradition”. Nonetheless, a local history-based approach

to community development can still be expected to contribute to ‘community building’ in the

manner described by Baum. The importance of “feel[ing] a part” of something is tied up with the

concept of community identification; that being so, fostering awareness of the local history of a

community can play a significant role in the creation of community agency by way of place


Baum is one of a few writers who have drawn a connection between local historical

awareness and community agency. Drawing upon the disciplines of anthropology and sociology, she

writes that “members of [an ethnic] group without a known past and without an awareness of and

pride in their history are less likely to aspire and work toward a better future” (p. 272). Tria (1999),

in a brief article in the Nation’s Cities Weekly, mentions that “public history projects provide the

essential information that residents need to become informed participants in the never-ending public

dialogue about the future of their community”. Beatley (2004) provides us with perhaps the most

extensive discussion yet of the role of local history in community development (a whole chapter in

fact). He begins with the assertion that local history is an asset to communities because it provides

“intertemporal connections”…
…essential connections between the current inhabitants and the people who came

before and those who will come along in the future. Historical connections, and

having a sense of the people and events that have shaped the communities in which

we live, are critical in making places meaningful to us, in casting the collections of

buildings as home rather than just empty vessels for sleep and work. The more we

understand about the beginnings and evolution of a place, the greater importance

that place will assume in our lives (p. 53).

The relationship between suburban residents and “the people who came before” need not be one of

direct descent as implied in Baum’s evaluation of the importance of “on-going tradition”. In fact,

Beatley seems to see the process of place creation, a process that in the suburban context includes

the almost complete replacement of one population by another, as an important part of the history

of a ‘place’. Significantly, Beatley also sees a role for historical awareness in the promotion of more

sustainable forms of development, as when historic buildings are preserved and rehabilitated for

modern use. Although suburbs are usually noticeably lacking in historic structures, the same

awareness of the process of place creation may induce suburban residents to rethink their

opportunities to live in a bigger house further away from the city, and encourage them to stick

around and make the community they live in a better place.


It is no accident that the section of this paper concerning exactly how to implement a local

history-based strategy of community development comes at the very end and constitutes only a

fraction of the total discussion. There is not much to say because this type of approach has never

been tried specifically as a community development strategy (to my knowledge). Most of the literature

on the topic indicates that what community development has occurred was more of a happy
byproduct of a local history project. In saying this, I should point out again that the approach being

developed here is intended for ‘new places’. As we have seen, a ‘new place’ has relatively few if any

traces of the previous landscape visible to its residents. Thus, community development projects

conducted through means of “historic preservation” activities, where buildings are preserved and

reused, though intentional in their outcome, are nonetheless not what the local history-based

approach presented here is intended to do. What local history-based community development is

intended to do is create awareness of the discontinuity between previous forms of the social and

built environments and of cultural practice. In doing so, we create attachment to and concern for

the present and future condition of a community. The lack of physical remnants of previous ‘places’

should not discourage this endeavor as “even bulldozed places can be marked to restore a shared

sense of public history” (Tria 1999)

Beatley emphasizes that the key to “place strengthening” is “making the history of a

community real and transparent to its citizens and looking for creative design and planning solutions

that acknowledge and express this history” (p. 80). He provides a number of useful guidelines and

examples of how to accomplish this. The one he emphasizes the most is incorporating local

historical content into the curriculum of the community’s schools. While this may require some

wrangling with a school board, the results would be among the most valuable such a project could

produce, as communities are very focused on the activities of their youth and participation in local

history awareness would likely escalate as a result. Some particular activities Beatley mentions are the

relatively common activity of conducting oral history projects with a community’s seniors or

otherwise long-time residents, and the more innovative and modern idea of creating virtual models

of the community, or features of it, as it existed in the past, including the landscape as it looked

prior to the occurrence of suburban development. Syncopating these models according to

geographic space would be an important part of this activity as the contrast between a continuous
‘space’ hosting discontinuous ‘places’ is key to understanding the process of place creation and the

community’s role in it.

While much of the research may be conducted by students or other members of the

community individually, the research project as a whole will likely need a central person or group of

people organizing it. Unpaid volunteers would be the most likely solution for this task in most

communities. Many suburban communities have access to a local or regional library and this may

serve as a starting point in locating volunteers with a mind for historical research. Similarly, most

counties and towns have active historical and/or genealogical societies composed entirely of history

and genealogy hobbyists, and even some professionals. While their activities in the field may already

be time-consuming, when presented with the opportunity to head up a project of which the goal is

involving the entire community in a discovery of its past, they may be persuaded to participate.

Green (1940) provides some insight on selecting the right person for the job, namely that “He [or

she] must be sufficiently part of the community he [or she] is scrutinizing to be able to understand

what has importance and meaning for its citizens and why” (p. 284-285). Baum (1970) echoes this

advice: “[he or she] should be someone who has been in the community a while, has social contacts

there, is interested in local history, and has some social organizing skills” (p. 274). Whoever is

selected to organize the project must be from the community as well as somewhat knowledgeable

about it, not only to ensure their interest in the project over the long-term, but also to ensure the

trust of other residents who may question the utility of the project and jeopardize its chances at

greater community involvement.

Beatley (2004) has several other suggestions for making a community’s history “as

transparent and visible as possible” (p. 55). The role of the local media can play a part in creating

awareness by printing stories with a local historical focus (p. 55). Internet-based forms of media can

also be used to spread the word about the project. A person with little experience in this technology
can, with relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous equipment, run a publicity campaign from their

home by maintaining a “blog” or general website, administering an email distribution list with which

to announce important events or communicate information about the local community’s history, or

even create a digital video series about the project that can be made freely viewable on any number

of video hosting websites, the most prominent being YouTube.

Another way of promoting resident participation includes hosting neighborhood social

events, preferably at locations in an outdoor suburban environment, celebrating what are discovered

to be important historical events that occurred locally (p. 55). Beatley also discusses the possibility of

more creative methods, like creating public murals, sculptures and outdoor art (p. 68). While the

suburban environment, being composed largely of private residences, may pose challenges for the

accepted siting of community murals and sculptures, it has been done and the projected community-

wide basis for a local history project should help secure the residents’ approval.

Other ideas include the operation of historical driving tours of suburban areas, with roadside

stations along the way indicating the location of historical events. A variation of this, one that is

particularly well suited for suburban communities, is using existing networks of pedestrian trails (i.e.

urban and suburban trail systems intended for recreational walkers and bicyclists) to provide a pre-

determined route for an historical tour of a suburban area. Beatley provides the example of the

Asheville Urban Trail which has “thirty ‘stations’ or stopping points along the way where one can

learn about the history of the city”, and quotes that project’s website as saying that the Trail “is a

museum without walls” (p. 69). Some elements of an historical trail tour which might be found in

most suburban communities include pieces of land owned by important historical figures (from the

local, regional, national or international scene), cemeteries of considerable age or containing the

remains of historically important people or groups of people (e.g. a Native American or African-

American burial place), intersections with roads that have historical significance (e.g. “this road used
to be the only road going into the city”), and natural features which are indicative of previous

landscapes and ‘places’, such as old or uniquely native trees, plants, ecosystems and land features or

scenic views.

One final suggestion for fostering community interest in and appreciation of its local history

is to organize a local community archaeology project (see Gadsby & Chidester 2007, for an

example). This may be the most difficult type of local history project to undertake in a suburban

community given the issues of obtaining permits, locating experienced and qualified personnel to

oversee the project, and of course gaining the consent of property owners and homeowners’

associations. However, if a community archaeology project is proven feasible, it would have the

greatest effect on exposing the previous histories of a ‘space’ to the suburban residents of the

current community.


While much remains to be explored in the potential of a local history-based approach to

community development for ‘new places’ like suburban communities, I hope the outline of the

approach’s informing theories and potential strategies will provide some guidance in the

implementation of the approach in the real world. Additionally, I hope that the need for a

community development strategy for suburban places was explained thoroughly and that this paper

may contribute in some small way in the struggle to create more sustainable forms of development.

Perhaps the need for this strategy can be demonstrated once more by referring back to my

experience as a suburbanite in “Limona”. In fact, being a suburbanite is something I am intimately

familiar with, having lived in suburban places for most of my life, including the entirety of my

childhood. It may be a testament to the lack of appeal, the absence of community identity and the

low levels of community attachment this engenders that I find myself most at home in urban
environments. I don’t really even think of myself as a suburbanite; and if a nearly lifelong resident of

the suburbs can disassociate with that environment so easily, what does that say about its quality of

life? In writing this paper and thinking in more intimate detail about the problems presented here,

my hope has only increased in the potential for suburban places to become more sustainable

communities, places where people want to live long term, instead of just places that they will, in the

words of Scottish songwriter Paolo Nutini, "get used to…eventually", or else move on.


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