The term vernacular is a word most often heard in academic circles. It is the type of word typically reserved for theoretical discussions and peer-reviewed papers. In fact, a person could be forgiven if they reacted with surprise at hearing it discussed at a local county or city council meeting. Yet, the term’s meaning contains a feeling many know and experience everyday within the places they call home. Within Levy County, vernacular meaning has been an important concept for project researchers to be attuned with so that adaptive strategies to sea level change are developed in a manner which are respectful to the county’s existing culture and history.
Vernacular can be considered the place character of everyday life. The definition’s origin lies within distinctions made by architectural historians of designed buildings as opposed to homemade, locally crafted dwellings. Descriptions such as timeless, traditional, and regional are often associated with vernacular architecture. The vernacular is often characterized by a more generational growth, an evolution of sorts. Additionally, it is usually dependent on local materials and has a more pronounced relationship with nearby ecosystems. It is the realm of the rural standing in contrast to the master-plans of urban efficiency and importation.
Discussion of the vernacular took on additional importance to social geographers and landscape planners during the 1960’s and 1970’s when the “geography of nowhere,” as James Kuntsler would say, began to be seriously challenged. Led by the reflections of theorists such as J.B. Jackson, Pierce Lewis, and Yi Fu Tuan, explorations into what vernacular meant and how planners should react to it are still informing landscape planning and design today. The most significant change was that the term vernacular came to be utilized to describe not just architecture but types of entire cultural landscapes. So, whether viewing an entire town’s layout, a main street’s architecture, a neighbor’s yard, a grid of streets, or the favorite local spots to grab a bite or take a stroll, vernacular summarizes the local, organic interaction over time of people and the spaces they inhabit.
One of the most famous examples of how design decisions can be impacted by analyzing the vernacular landscape was summarized in an essay by Randy Hester titled, “Subconscious Landscapes of the Heart.” His study in the coastal town of Manteo, North Carolina was one of the first examples of how resident feedback and a critical study of the vernacular landscape, especially in smaller rural areas, provided important data to planners and designers. Hester termed social patterns and places of local residents “Sacred Structures” because of their importance to community identity and sense of well-being. His definition is worth quoting in full as it contains the range of vernacular meaning:
… sacred structure would be those places – buildings, outdoor spaces, and landscapes – that exemplify, reinforce, and perhaps even extol the everyday patterns and special rituals of community life, places that have become so essential to the lives of residents through use or symbolism that the community collectively identifies with the places.
So what does the mean exactly for Levy County? First, as can be casually observed, the character of Cedar Key, for instance, is not defined by the architecture of a particular theory of design, but by the accumulations of those that have made their lives there and the natural systems surrounding them. Over the two year research period that the Coastal Change team has been active within the area particular attention has been paid to the special character of the “Hidden Coast” and its communities. Public workshops and local feedback are key to this kind of analysis. Losing what makes communities like Cedar Key and Yankeetown special to out-of-place construction and obtrusive design can potentially be just as emotionally and economically disastrous as the consequences which rising waters present. The answers must strike a balance between addressing the critical need to prepare for sea-level change while allowing residents and visitors to still identify with what is most dear to them within the landscape they love. The intended result is stronger economic viability and community resiliency while addressing change in a way that is sensitive to Levy County’s unique, vernacular character.