The Aestheticization of the Politics of Landscape Preservation

James S. Duncan & Nancy G. Duncan

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Duncan, J. S. & Duncan, N. G. (1). The Aestheticization of the Politics of Landscape Preservation. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91(2), 387–409.

Aesthetic environmentalism , aestheticization of politics , Bedford , elite landscapes , nature preserves , New York , social exclusion , social identity , suburbia

This article examines the aestheticization of the politics of exclusion in a suburban American community. The research for this study focuses on the relationships among landscapes, social identity, exclusion, and the aesthetic attitudes of residents of Bedford, New York. By being thoroughly aestheticized, class relations are mystified and reduced to questions of lifestyle, consumption patterns, taste, and visual pleasure. Landscapes become possessions that play an active role in the performance of elite social identities. As such, social distinction is achieved and maintained by preserving and enhancing the beauty of places such as Bedford. This aestheticizing of place is managed through highly restrictive zoning policies for residential land and by "protecting" hundreds of acres of undeveloped land as nature preserves. This article explores the role of romantic ideology, localism, antiurbanism, antimodemism, and a class-based aesthetic in the construction of "wild" nature in these preserves. We argue that, in places such as Bedford, the celebration of localism, environmental beauty, and preservation mask the interrelatedness of issues of aesthetics and class identity on the one hand and residential land shortages in the New York metropolitan region on the other. The seemingly innocent pleasure in the aesthetic appreciation of landscapes and the desire to protect nature can act as a subtle but highly effective mechanism of social exclusion and the reaffirmation of elite class identities.

Main finding
The preservation of nature in Bedford, New York, is valued significantly for its aesthetics, and plays a political role in opposing development and maintaining neighborhood character. Zoning codes and environmental legislation restrict and discourage development and encourage preservation. The value placed on nature by Bedford residents is informed by a romanticized view of nature and wilderness. The romanticization of nature in Bedford depoliticized class relations by basing identity on individual taste and lifestyle choices. Residents' reliance on urban industrial and financial markets is therefore obscured, subsequently excusing any obligation of the community to accommodate regional growth and housing development that is a product of the economy on which they depend.

Description of method used in the article
The authors conducted over two hundred in-depth interviews with residents of Bedford and surrounding communities, city officials, organizations, and real estate agents. They also analyzed town histories, planning texts, real estate advertisements, newspaper articles, and the landscape itself.

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