How to measure your place in the world

For 10 years a parish map project has been challenging communities to chart what they feel is important. Now the results, from rugs to videos, can be seen in an exhibition.

Robert Webb
Friday 17 May 1996 23:02

In the global village, it is sometimes easy to overlook the truly local. From the mundane - a new bus shelter or mini roundabout - to the special, like that giant broadleaf standing sentinal-like on the green. These are the things we really measure our place in the world by. Yet we barely notice them until they disappear.

It's this combination of commonplace histories and nature that makes places what they are and there can be few better celebrations of the local than Common Ground's parish map project. In the spectrum of environmental organisations, Common Ground occupies a unique position as a pioneer of imaginative work on nature, culture and place. For 10 years its parish map project has been bringing together parishioners up and down the land and challenging them with the questions: What do you value in your place? No matter what the experts might tell you, what actually is important to you?

The cartographic riposte has been remarkable, issued with tapestry, needle- point, pen and wash, embroidery, plastic, paint and, not least, the sadly under-represented craft of hooky and proggy (rag rugs). The maps have taken shape as wall mountings, church kneelers, videos, even songs, and some of the most imaginative examples have now been gathered together for the first time in the exhibition From Place to PLACE.

Many of them feature regional iconography: Francis Drake pops up frequently in West Country examples, coal mining in County Durham. But this is not simply self-referential, introspective activity. "Common Ground is driven very much by an ecological imperative," says Sue Clifford, the organisation's co-founder. "But we've always recognised that arguing for nature alone is not going to get us out of some of the holes we're in, and anyway, that's only a partial truth. Our interest is in where nature and culture intersect, in places."

Of course, places can be a mix of legends and lifetimes, social mores and economic centres. The idea that a map can represent any or all of these, as well as the more traditionally mappable features of buildings and landscape, is what propels parish mapping. "What we've been trying to do is to heighten people's excitement about their everyday surroundings," explains Sue Clifford. "The ordinary things that they take so much for granted - when they notice they are missing it hits them right where it really hurts, in the soul. It gets people talking to each other before the precipice appears in front of them."

In a variation on the DIY culture which found voice in protests against by-passes and motorway extensions, many who would never have dreamt of waving petitions or billboards have taken the opportunity of drawing attention, not only to what they hold dear, but to what the local planners or developers are bent on removing forever from their landscape. This, after all, is where "strategy" and "policy" are tested to breaking point. Sue Clifford is sanguine about the potential of parish mapping as a vehicle of democracy: "The process has a strong undertow recognising that if people stand together at the local level, they can actually be quite powerful, and what's more they will understand each other better." Indeed, for many communities collaboration over a parish map has been a self-revelation, often exposing as much about the people involved as it has about the place itself.

Yet discovering each others' preferences not only brings people together, it sometimes splits them apart. "There are agreements to differ in all this, but that's part of understanding each other," Sue Clifford agrees.

It's the ability for a parish map to stretch across this framework of nature, politics, art, history and psychology that makes it unique among community activities. And it's one that's growing. But not everywhere. "The area where parish mapping is not really happening", Sue Clifford confides, "is in suburbia". But wherever you live, surburbia or otherwise, look around and consider what you value in your place. Your neighbour probably won't agree, but then it would be a dull map if we all saw the same things.

From Place to PLACE is in the Concourse Gallery, Barbican Centre, London EC2, until 30 June and thereafter tours the country. For more information on Parish Mapping send a large SAE to Common Ground, Seven Dials, Warehouse, 44 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LA

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