Many small coastal towns, such as Cedar Key, Yankeetown, and Inglis, are confronted with the challenge of attracting visitors and residents for economic development while maintaining their unique, vernacular character. Moreover, the concerns for quality, compatible design of new development are potentially compounded by the incorporation of sea level rise adaptation strategies, such as elevating buildings.
Recent development in Cedar Key. Elevating buildings reduces flooding exposure to storm surges and rising sea level, but it also results in distinctive building character that requires additional design measures to maintain cohesion with community vernacular.
Maintaining sense of place in the face of development pressures is the central theme of Raymond James Green’s book, Coastal Towns in Transition (2010). In this book, Green studied seaside communities to understand what place-character is, why it is important, and how it can be fostered through planning and design. The study was prompted by the ‘sea change phenomenon’ caused by the migration of inner-continental suburban dwellers to smaller, scenic coastal towns in an effort to seek out a more relaxed lifestyle. As population in small coastal towns increases, developers may capitalize on rising property values and tourism via the production of generic retail centers and large scale condominiums. The unique sense of place which drew visitors and new residents may be subsequently lost. Additionally, while environmental impacts in these delicate coastal ecosystems are not necessarily central to Green’s focus, ecological damage is contributing factor to the erosion of place-character.
Green notes that planning and design concerns around place-character are gaining ground with professionals and communities, but a lack of understanding and methodology in establishing its importance is still a hindrance. Community organizations fighting development deemed inappropriate often cite ‘unique sense of place’ as a reason why homogenizing commercial interests should not be allowed to prevail in their towns. This is an argument that usually fails in court due to its subjectivity. Definitions of place-character are typically vague, and pinning down exactly what it means to an individual, let alone an entire community, can be difficult. Nevertheless, Green asserts that there are significant financial, personal, and environmental reasons to conserve place-character, and that good policy and planning for it will only come out of good research.
Coastal Towns in Transition presents theoretical models which would be of interest to researchers, offers a case study with accompanying methodology for review, and concludes with a pertinent chapter of the particular challenge that climate change poses for maintaining coastal community character. This knowledge is especially applicable when considering adaptive strategies to address sea level rise impacts.
Sense of place is a difficult, collective concept to define. The width of a main street, the textures of old buildings, the shade over a sidewalk, the smell of a local restaurant – many things contribute to establish place character.