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Volume 14, Number 4 • July-August 1996
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Living in Bay Country

Are There Better Ways to Grow?

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Ecological Restoration and Sense of Place


Living in Bay Country:
The Places We Call Home

By Jack Greer and Merrill Leffler


Chesapeake Bay means different things to different people -- it is a region of farmers and motel operators, commuters and vacationers. It is a playground for recreational boaters, a dumping ground for sewage wastes, a rich habitat for waterfowl and wildlife, a highway for tankers. It includes cosmopolitan cities such as Baltimore and Washington as well as towns that are distinctively oriented towards the Bay.

"The Chesapeake," says Mark Sagoff, "really takes its shape in our minds." Not necessarily from ecological forces but from interactions with human beings and from personal memories. Those memories may be connected in varying ways to different places -- our homes, our communities, natural landscapes and the ones we build.

"Our aim is to provide a framework for understanding the Bay not simply in biological and economic terms, but in cultural and psychological terms."

Sagoff, senior research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that with the decline in the economic importance of farming and fishing, the Bay has lost much of its significance as a natural resource from which people wrest their living. "Even though recreational uses of the Bay flourish," he observes, "the regional economy is no longer founded on commercial farming or fishing. As a result, a far smaller proportion of the population feels any economic connection with the Bay's ecological features and systems."

This is not to say that you need to make a living from the Bay to derive a strong sense of place and connection to it. But it may be harder to acquire, says David Wasserman, "for the rapidly growing proportion of Chesapeake residents who are commuters, spending most of their waking hours in places that have nothing to do with the Bay." Wasserman is a research scholar also at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.

Since so many newcomers are moving into Bay country, just what the Chesapeake means to them becomes an important question for those concerned with its ecological restoration. The population of newcomers will eventually outnumber those whose families remember the days of farming and fishing. These more recent arrivals, Sagoff believes, often "do not have direct ties to the land or the water and, as a result, may not necessarily have strong concerns about what development does to the natural environment."

The Bay region is always in flux as new people with new interests arrive. Over the nearly four centuries since Europeans came to its shores, says Sagoff, "you could say there have been many different Chesapeake Bays." However, pristine areas and more sparsely populated coastal communities throughout the Bay watershed are perhaps experiencing more change in the last decades of the 20th century than during the entire time since Colonial settlement began. Forested and agricultural lands are rapidly giving way to new housing, new highways, new schools, new businesses, new shopping centers and strip malls. Towns and villages and once-isolated rural communities are expanding rapidly to include people who commute to distant jobs and spend most of their day away from the place where they live.

Sagoff argues that in order to restore the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, we have to understand the values we wish a restoration to serve, which means reexamining why we and our predecessors have valued the Chesapeake. For example, what do those who live in the Chesapeake region really want? More shopping centers or more woodlands? More roads or less stormwater runoff? More rockfish on their plates or more swimming wild in the Bay?

"What's an oyster got to do with where
you live?"

[Calvert Co. map]

What do people feel is most important in the place they call home -- responding to human needs or the needs of the natural system, or to some combination of both? To probe these questions, Sagoff, Wasserman, graduate student Sara Gottlieb, and journalism professor Larissa Grunig have been bringing Marylanders from varying walks of life together in focus groups, trying to gain a sense of what matters to them about where they live and how that relates to their feelings about the Chesapeake region. "Our aim," Sagoff says, "is to provide a framework for understanding the Bay not simply in biological and economic terms but in cultural and psychological terms."

Looking to the Future

The research team chose focus groups because, says Sara Gottlieb, "they enable us to explore a single topic in depth with people who have similar interests and backgrounds." The aim is to gather enough diverse groups to give a representative cross section of society in the Bay region. The team has focused on Calvert County because it is one of the state's fastest growing counties, where new development is burgeoning, from cluster housing to large single-family dwellings to strip malls and shopping centers.

To date, the research team has met with three groups. The first comprised people who moved to Calvert County in the past eight years, with income in the middle or upper middle range. "This is the fastest growing group in the county," says Wasserman, "the vanguard of suburbanization." The second group included people born in the county or who had lived there most of their lives. A third focus group, the most recently convened, consisted of African Americans, most of whom had a long history of living in the county.

Many of the residents who recently moved to the county were attracted in part by the rural landscape and the presence of nature. As Wasserman notes, "they displayed a keen appreciation of the natural and rural character of Calvert County. But they expressed less interest in, and knowledge of, the details of the county's ecosystem or history, and relatively little involvement in activities related to the Bay."

When asked about the loss of oysters in the ecosystem, one recent arrival said, "What's an oyster got to do with where you live?" A long-term resident said that in his discussions with new county residents such attitudes were probably the most prevalent. "They weren't raised with the culture of oysters and mussels and crabs. When I was a kid," he said, "we walked out and picked up oysters and mussels, and these people aren't used to doing that. They don't even think about it." On the other hand, a newer resident said that his concern wasn't the oyster itself but the resources. "Oysters are an indicator of the health of the Bay, [which] is very important because we chose to live down here for the ecology. I think we watch those indicators. We don't go out and harvest the shellfish per se, but the presence or absence of shellfish has broader implications for us."

For families with children, there is the appeal of good schools, low crime rates and the ease, or friendliness. "The greatest thing about coming down here," said one participant, "is going down the street and seeing people by the side of the road not fighting, but talking. You wave at them as you go by. It's fantastic. You know, you can't buy that."

And yet, there is also among some of the newer residents a sense of isolation. A number of the participants in the first focus group live in large single family homes, says Wasserman. The combination of limited time at home and physical separation from others appeared to contribute to the feeling of isolation and disconnectedness that several experienced. "One of the things I've found in Calvert County," said one, "is you sort of tend to be isolated in your little pockets of development...I get a feeling I'm not meeting a wide range of people." Another said, "There's been discussion about the damage done by five-acre zoning because it puts people so far away from each other, they don't connect." And a third, "I found down here you really have to make an effort to get out and meet people by going to the churches or getting involved in your community association. All these things take time, and people who work and have children don't really have time."

As might be expected, native residents -- they make up some four percent of the population -- identify with their memories of the area. For them, the Bay and Patuxent River are central. An 82-year old remembered, "We had a school boat rather than a school bus. You'd go down these peninsulas and pick the kids up to take them to school. The roads were muddy and almost unpassable, so we were told we were the only school east of the Mississippi that had a school boat."

One man recalled, "Years ago, every community had a store, and that was the focal point of the community. Some communities had more than one store, but they were all little grocery stores with a gas pump out front and a front porch where people came in the evening to sit and talk and find out what went on in the world. But [the community stores are] just about extinct. And those little communities are not there...except in what you see going up and down Route 4. They've become subdivisions."

Are there any common threads to these groups? A major one, says Mark Sagoff, is that a place, whether for the native or the newcomer, is defined by human relationships. "Everyone seemed to relate to some experience with others in the community. Over and over again it is the personal experience."

"A place is a location that has been claimed by shared feelings and memories," he says. "And what a place does is draw people together."

What Makes a Place Home?

To understand some of the issues that influence how people feel about place, one can look to architectural community designers like Andres Duany and Randall Arendt who have made their reputations by designing and promoting attractive cluster development and "neotraditional" towns. Both have recently published books: Duany, together with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Designing Open Space Subdivisions, and Arendt, Towns and Town-Making Principles and Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character.

One of the biggest problems with new housing developments in the Chesapeake region and other places is sprawl development. Often, Arendt says, there is nothing but the dead space of an asphalt road between two houses that confront each other across the vast expanse of their bare lawns. "There is nothing friendly about these spaces," he says.

[geese] [houses]

Duany points to the evolution of sprawl. First, he says, especially after World War II, we built housing developments -- places where people live but do not work or shop. He contrasts the U.S. policy for helping GIs build new homes with the Canadian policy where veterans could also use government funds to renovate and restore older homes. Second, he argues, we built shopping centers -- places where people shop but do not live or work (except in the stores). And finally, he says, we created office parks -- places where people work, but do not live or shop. During the process, we lost the traditional pattern of the town, the traditional glue of the community.

"In a real town the wealthy can walk out into the street and confront -- imagine -- the teacher of their children, right there on the sidewalk," Duany told a recent audience at a University of Maryland conference on environmental finance. The result, he says, is that both teacher and parent have the chance to discover that they are each human, and not members of some unsympathetic "other" class.

Even the cluster development espoused by Arendt and Duany cannot solve all of these problems, however. It makes no sense, says land use consultant Michael Siegal, to design a clustered town in an area where there are no services and no infrastructure. Such towns, he says, have been built in the far outlying areas of the Washington megalopolis, and people find that they must drive long distances just to take care of daily errands. Such "towns" will draw additional development their way, ultimately creating more sprawl, perhaps even the "strip development" they were intended to replace. After all, traditional towns took root in a particular area because something logically drew people there: a crossroads, a certain industry or business, a certain geographic feature. If the main criterion for a new "town" is simply to be away from unpleasant sprawl, it may not have the subtle critical mass required to make a town a relatively self-sufficient place to live.

Mark Sagoff distinguishes between "bottom up" and "top down" development, the first arising from the land (or the water) organically, as a harbor or fishing village might, and the second resulting from an external force, as when a corporation decides to locate in a rural setting, for example. In the first instance, the landscape and the living conditions will reflect the evolution of the people who have lived there and their livelihood, their way of life. In the second case, grocery store chains and discount stores may move in to serve the new clientele, but there will be little in this development to reflect the long history of the land or the people who have gone before.

Sagoff and his team are still completing their project in an attempt to understand what people think and feel about their lives near the Chesapeake Bay. So far, in the focus groups, there appears to be a conundrum: our search for a place to call home -- by the Bay, say, or near the woods -- has taken with it our contradictory desires, for solitude and community, for beauty and convenience, for privacy and companionship. One thing seems clear, says Sagoff. How people come to terms with one another and with their surroundings will profoundly affect the natural environment of the Chesapeake Bay and plans for its ecological restoration.

To learn more about this project on the concept of place in Chesapeake Bay, visit Ecological Restoration and Sense of Place.

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