Moderator Blog Post by: Andrew Watson
The participants on this panel read two very different papers from Polly Knowlton Cockett of the University of Calgary and Erin Neufeld of the University of Canterbury that nonetheless shared a common focus on the importance of ‘place’ and the process through which place is conceived and constructed. The first thirty minutes was devoted to a discussion of Knowlton Cockett’s paper, followed by thirty minutes on Neufeld’s paper, with the last thirty minutes intended as a broader discussion of the themes common to each paper. Joining us on the panel were Cristina Silaghi of the University of Canterbury, Jeffery Doherty of Calgary, and Elsa Devienne of L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales. Due to technical problems, Linnea Rowlatt of the University of Kent was unable to attend the panel.
Knowlton Cockett is a community activist in a residential neighbourhood of northwest Calgary called Brentwood, and a PhD candidate in Environmental Education. Knowlton Cockett’s paper focused primarily on the reciprocal relationship between strong social bonds within the community and an engagement with and understanding of local ecological diversity. While not primarily interested in the history of this relationship, Knowlton Cockett does take a longer view of the community, its inhabitants, and the changes that have occurred within Brentwood over the past sixty years. Knowlton Cockett used Brentwood’s community website to take participants of 4B on a virtual tour of Whispering Woods in order to get a better sense of the place she discussed in her paper. This evolved into a broader discussion on the use of technology such as GPS and interactive websites as a means of introducing non-residents to places, and whether a sense of place can be achieved without actually occupying the physical space.
The idea of knowing a place without having visited it provided the perfect segue into Erin Neufeld’s paper. Neufeld is a PhD candidate in Antarctic Studies, and native of Yukon, whose work explores the ways people develop and establish a sense of place in the extreme environment of Antarctica. Like Knowlton Cockett, Neufeld includes a historical context in her work, but is more interested in contemporary understandings of place. Neufeld’s paper reveals the way an alien environment, such as Antarctica, is imagined by people who have never been there, and how the challenge of knowing a place that has almost no human history. The discussion quickly turned to concepts of ‘scale’ and ‘change’ and their influence on how people have constructed a sense of place. As an extreme environment, the landscape, day length and climate in Antarctica are at odds with the scale of peoples’ lived experiences, which in turn creates a sense that there is no change in such a place.
While the papers dealt with entirely different places, the focus on ‘place’ allowed for some interesting intersections. The panel picked up on the importance of technology and different types of media in helping to create a sense of place. Knowlton Cockett’s website reveals that people can share in community and local ecology without actually having to meet their neighbours or get their hands dirty in the process, while Neufeld’s work makes clear the role of stories and images have in formulating conceptions of places most people will never visit. The panel also encouraged both authors to consider the cultural assumptions at work in creating a sense of place in both suburban parks and extreme environments. Whose voices speak for the popular conception of these places? What kinds of language is being used to construct that meaning? And, who is excluded from these places, and what does this do to creating a sense of place?
Like any good workshop, the panel ended before we could figure out all the answers…