To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.
— Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Braiding Sweetgrass”
After promoting the 2023 editorial calendar this past September, we received an overwhelming amount of interest in this issue, themed “Placekeeping.” The sheer volume of responses may be indicative not only of the work already being performed by the architectural profession (and that may be overlooked when industry publications prioritize new construction projects) but also of a deeper current within our era. It’s a sign of the times, baby. As new urban development and digital technologies hurdle us toward an unknown future at breakneck speed, a myriad of questions arise: What are we losing? What are we willing to leave behind, and what do we hope to carry with us into the future?
Several people have asked me if “placekeeping” is a term of our editorial team’s making; it is not. The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture defines the term as “the active care and maintenance of a place and its social fabric by the people who live and work there. It is not just preserving buildings but keeping the cultural memories associated with a locale alive, while supporting the ability of local people to maintain their way of life as they choose.”
It is an idea that carries us beyond the ethos of “placemaking,” defined as a participatory process for shaping public space. While the aspirations of placemaking are virtuous in their intent to promote greater inclusivity, embedded within the term is a problematic perspective that the world is a blank slate just waiting to be formed into an image of our own making. (It’s also worth noting that placekeeping is distinct from “preservation,” which focuses on conserving physical structures.)
Conversations around this issue have raised complicated and sensitive questions: If change is inevitable, which slice of time do we privilege in our placekeeping efforts? Whose stories are told and preserved? Or is the idea of placekeeping more like a living document that outlines broad principles we seek to maintain, but whose execution may be fluid and dynamic? To whom does place belong? Does it belong to anyone at all? How do we keep, or even resurrect, places and cultures that have been destroyed or erased?
Placekeeping asks something greater of us. It requires a reframing of our world into a place in which those who came before are not merely respected but regarded as teachers. These instructors offer lessons not just in human history, cultures, and traditions but insights borne from the non-human domain as well. In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” professor of environmental biology and Macarthur Fellow Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, shows how other living beings — asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass — offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.
In the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” she notes the shortcomings of the language used by Western science, as it creates distance and reduces being to its working parts. “It’s a language of objects,” says Kimmerer. She describes how language both reflects and shapes our worldviews. For example, the word puhpowee translates from the Anishinaabemowin language as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” — no word in Western vernacular so concisely and eloquently captures this natural dynamic. As she learns her ancestral language Potawatomi for the first time, Kimmerer describes how many words that are defined as nouns (objects) in English are actually understood as verbs in in the tongue of her native people. She tells not only her own initial resistance to conceptualizing them as such but of the profound insight she experiences once her perspective shifts.
And then my finger rested on wiikwegamaa: “to be a bay.” “Ridiculous!” I ranted in my head. “There is no reason to make it so complicated….”
And then I swear I heard the zap of synapses firing. An electric current sizzled down my arm and through my finger, and practically scorched the page where that one word lay. In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto sand. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the word wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live.
And so, dear readers, I hope that this issue offers lessons in how we might become better keepers of our places and that we can emancipate them — and ourselves — in the process.