Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On

Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D.

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Wells, J. C., & Baldwin, E. D. (2012). Historic preservation, significance, and age value: A comparative phenomenology of historic Charleston and the nearby new-urbanist community of I’On. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32, 384–400. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.06.002

Age Value , Emotional Attachment , Heritage , Historic Preservation , Lifeworld , New Urbanism , Place Attachment

While the age of physical environments is the central tenet of historic preservation, there is a lack of empirical evidence about how everyday people actually value, perceive, and experience age as an intrinsic part of an urban environment. In order to ameliorate this knowledge deficit, this study employs phenomenology to understand the lived experience of being in a “new” versus an “old” or “historic” urban residential environment. The new environment is the I’On new urbanist development in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and the old environment is the location of the United States’ first historic district in Charleston, South Carolina. These locations are approximately within five miles of each other. In both places, the physical characteristics of the built environment are remarkably similar in density, form, layout, and design, but the age is dramatically different. Through photo elicitation techniques and interviews, the results of this study reveal that residents of historic Charleston and I’On value their built environments in remarkably similar ways. Surprisingly, elements that evoke a strong sense of attachment tend to be landscape features, such as gates, fountains, trees, and gardens rather than buildings. The informants valued the “mystery” that they felt was part of the landscape and which consisted of layered elements such as fences, gates, and paths, such that these features (including buildings) had to be “discovered.” Lastly, the informants strongly valued landscapes that showed “people care” through regular maintenance. The essential difference in people’s experience and valuation of the new environment (I’On) and the old environment (historic Charleston) is in the older environment’s ability to instill creative fantasies in the minds of the informants based on a hypothetical past of their own creation. The informants in I’On did not share these kinds of meanings.

Main finding
How does the physical age of buildings relate to the way people value, perceive, and experience their neighborhoods? In this study, residents of two neighborhoods (a historic neighborhood and a contemporary neighborhood with historic design characteristics) expressed attachment more to landscape features than to buildings. However, an important component of attachment to physical aspects, however, might relate to a "layering" quality of materials and views as well as patina (a form of wear that shows age but not neglect). As such, historical preservation efforts could be oriented not only toward material preservation but also the values and interests of residents and users.

Description of method used in the article
An existential phenomenology method whereby residents of two neighborhoods (N = 12, ages 25-75) indicated which aspects of their respective neighborhoods were important to them. The two neighborhoods in question in South Carolina are (a) historic Charleston and (b) I’On (a newly constructed new urbanist development modeled after historic Charleston). Primary means of data collection were “photo-elicitation,” wherein participants were given cameras and asked to photograph objects and landscapes that were meaningful to them. Interviews followed.

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