Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age

Image of Meiji-Jingu forest on the outskirts of Tokyo

 Ninety years ago, citizens of Tokyo, Japan, asked their government for permission to honor the passing of their imperial leaders by cultivating a sustainable, forest shrine on the outskirts of town. The result was Meiji-jingu, an “eternal forest” of 120,000 trees, planted on 700,000 square meters of previous “marshland, farms, and grassland.” Based upon the Shinto religious belief that natural deities, called Kami, reside within the wood of sacred forests, the shrine was designed to be a paragon of sustainability. But, while the model of Meiji-jingu proves to be sustainable, it is also anything but natural. An examination of literature in the sub-fields of environmental and urban history reinforces this relationship, suggesting that sustainable environments have indeed existed in the past, but that they have suffered as a consequence of failed stewardship during the industrial era.

It is no coincidence that the forest shrine of Meiji-jingu was planned on the outskirts of the most populated city in the world. While the historian David Owen lamented the analogous Central Park because he believed that it constituted an inaccessible border zone where human activity was generally absent, Patricia Garside has argued that sustainable, urban parks serve necessary functions in relation to their respective cities. In examining the Green Belt on the outskirts of London, Garside has claimed that the parks were “above all a strategic planning instrument to limit, or where necessary shape, the expansion of London at a regional scale.” In this sense, urban parks recreated the natural restraints that geography once placed upon island and coastal cities like Venice, Boston, Manhattan, or Miami. As the American historian Michael Rawson contends, scholars cannot understand the development of Boston without first understanding these initial, geographic limitations.

In their own ways, scholars like Owen, Garside, and Rawson have proven that modern, sustainable environments are possible, but only when humans recognize that they are no less manufactured than cities themselves. Perhaps no scholar has examined this relationship more than William Cronon, who has made a career of contesting the dichotomy between nature and civilization. As he argues in Nature’s Metropolis, most notably by referencing a diagram of the “isolated state” model, the city of Chicago was designed in mutual relation to its hinterland. Of course, Cronon is not alone in articulating these connections. Rawson, Alan Taylor, Andrew Hurley, Ronald Lewis and Matthew Klingle have all claimed that exurban environments and hinterlands cannot be properly understood without positioning them in relation to their respective cities, either as commoditized retreats for middle-class, urban elites or as designated areas of resource extraction.

As Cronon argues “there is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness,” so too is there nothing natural about Meiji-jingu, the sacred forest on the outskirts of Tokyo. Moreover, a longer historical view suggests that sustaining manufactured environments—whether exurban parks or hinterland areas—is anything but new. By studying peat bogs in the Bidasoa estuary of northern Spain, and recording the “same succession of vegetation” throughout the Holocene era, Maria Fernand Sánchez Goñí has produced evidence to support the claim that ancient Romans managed their forest resources on the Iberian frontier. Likewise, Mark Maltby has studied bone fragments in Dorchester and Winchester, coming to the conclusion that Romano-British towns used swine, cattle, sheep, and goats in varying degrees to manage their internal food supplies, rather than leeching strictly off rural communities.

In regards to the medieval era, the historian Karl Appuhn has examined how Venetians managed their deciduous forests by engaging in coppicing—the act of “cutting trees low to the ground and allowing many shoots to grow out of the stump.” Taken together, these sources suggest that ancient and medieval cultures were invested in sustainably managing their resources. As fuel was derived primarily from wood sources in both ancient and medieval Europe, these sustainable practices were likely motivated by economic interests rather than passions for biodiversity. Perhaps this logic explains the failures of stewardship that occurred during the industrial era, when new technologies succeeded in unshackling economic interests from geographic restraints.

The American industrial age represents the nadir of sustainable practice. The white pine forests of northern Michigan and the hardwood forests of the Alleghenies were completely denuded; the Buffalo prairies on the western frontier were conquered by cattle ranching and cereal crops; the Everglades were partially drained by canalization projects; and, although European fishermen originally crossed the Atlantic as a result of gradual depredations in European waters, the northwest Atlantic was exponentially depleted of marine life. In short, this period was defined by excessive, capitalist-driven exploitation of hinterland areas, facilitated by inventions like the train car, the steam locomotive and dredge, the otter trawl, and the meat-freezer.

To conclude, the scholarship suggests that ancient and medieval societies manufactured sustainable environments because their livelihoods depended upon the continued presence of local resources. Industrial technologies shattered this dependence; as Cronon states, they “annihilated time and space.” Since the industrial age, however, ancient and medieval models of sustainability have begun to resurface with a new logic. This is how historians should interpret the advent of modern, sustainable areas like the Green Belt, Central Park, and Meiji-jingu. They are not sustainable because they are natural—either integrated fluidly with the city as Owen would have them, or existing semi-wildly as the areas that were cannibalized during the industrial era. Rather, these regions are sustainable because they are unnatural. Like the coppiced forests of medieval Venice, they are designed in relation to the city for longstanding, human consumption. They are, as the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted has said, “displays of novelty, of fashion, of scientific or virtuoso inclinations and of decoration.” After all, we live in a world where “the wilds” are disappearing; what remains of nature will be something carefully manufactured by us; and, without our stewardship, it too will not survive.

What do you think?

Upcoming Speaker: Liam Ford on his book Soldier Field: A Stadium and Its City

Friend of the Loyola Public History Lab, Liam Ford will be giving a talk on his book Soldier Field: A Stadium and It’s City at the Roger Park Public Library (6907 N. Clark Street) on Saturday April 19, 2014 at 1 PM. The event is sponsored by both the Chicago Public Library: Rogers Park Branch and the Rogers Park / West Ridge Historical Society – the Public History Lab’s partner organization. Following the talk, there will be a reception at the Rogers Park / West Ridge Historical Society two blocks away at 1447 West Morse.


Sport fans nationwide know Soldier Field as the home of the Chicago Bear, but few realize that the stadium has been much more than that. Liam T.A. Ford will explore how this amphitheater  evolved from a public war memorial into a majestic arena that helped define Chicago.

Published in 2009 by the University of Chicago Press as part of its Chicago Visions and Revisions Series, Soldier Field came from Ford’s experience reporting on the stadium’s controversial 2003 renovation for the Chicago Tribune. As he tells it, the tale of Soldier Field truly is the story of Chicago, filled with political intrigue and civic pride. Designed by Holabird and Roche, Soldier Field arose through a serendipitous combination of local tax dollars, City Beautiful boosterism, and the machinations of Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson. The result was a stadium that stood at the center of Chicago’s political, cultural, and sporting life for nearly sixty years before the arrival of Walter Payton and William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

We hope to see you there on Saturday afternoon!


Public History as It Happens: Grant Writing for a Historical Society (Part 1)

Graduate students in public history at Loyola University recently launched “The Public History Lab,” an initiative to increase community interaction and service. The PHL offered to the nearby Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society volunteer student labor and advice ranging from collections management to membership development and programming. One area of focus is grant writing. This series of posts follows the process of beginning a grant application from scratch. And hopefully concludes with news of success!

Targeting a Grant

As Grant Project Coordinator, my first task was to identify some feasible grants for RPWRHS. Factors for this feasibility include: relevance to the institution, realistic expectations for submitting a competitive application, and the extensiveness of an application in relation to our available labor. I knew, generally, of collection assessment grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately the deadline had not only passed, but it also appeared that RPWRHS may not qualify as primarily a “museum.” But only a bit more searching led to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institution.”

The grant title alone held promise. The program is incredibly flexible, allowing up to $6,000 for conservation/preservation projects ranging from general assessments to plans for specific collections to staff preservation training. Since RPWRHS collections are in the—-well…—-rather ‘early’ stages of arrangement, preservation-worthy housing, and storage, I opted for the use of funds for an assessment and preservation plan from a professional consultant.

Our hope is to create a professional assessment and preservation plan that can serve as a foundation of ongoing fundraising and planning efforts for the sustainable care of the archival and artifact collections.

Upon this general search for grants, I created a Google Doc informational sheet that chronologically lists other potential grants for RPWRHS. These targets include innovative initiatives (a Kickstarter campaign for a specific exhibit or program) to the grandiose (a major NEH grant for a permanent exhibit or outdoor interpretive installations throughout the community).

Oh, I forgot to add that the DEADLINE IS MAY 1!

Assembling the Team

The Public History Lab has at its disposal almost 20 graduate students who have indicated a desire to work with RPWRHS. I asked Dan Ott, charter Public History Lab member and recent inductee to the RPWRHS Board of Directors, to disseminate a call for volunteers to work on portions of the NEH grant. Dan included a link to the grant application guidelines, so that everyone knew what they would be signing up for. My hope is to have a team of four or five folks collaboratively tackle the application, with each person responsible for composing a particular section of the application .

Dan and I reminded the potential volunteers that grant writing is a much sought-after skill in the public history world, and one that grad students rarely have a chance to practice.

Two valiant grad students immediately stepped forward, and I expect one or two others to be of at least partial assistance. We will also rely upon occasional advice from Katie Macica, Loyola PhD student, Public History Lab/RPWRHS collections expert, and RPWRHS Board member.

Assigning Duties

I created a dedicated Google Doc for the grant application, and pasted into it the headings and general instructions for each section. Some of these sections are basic and will require only a minimal amount of work from one person. Others, most notably the project description (5 single-spaced pages), will need two or three volunteers hammering away. I put my name next to a few of the sections, and shared the document with my teammates.

And reminded them of the deadline.

Challenges Thus Far

So far the biggest challenge was finding a feasible and relevant grant. I had just enough familiarity with the RPWRHS collections to be pulled towards a conservation grant. Luckily, a Loyola alum at another small historical society had recently used grant money for a collections assessment, and she has been very helpful with general advice. Needless to say, the pressure from a short deadline is an ongoing challenge. All those involved in the application have academic duties, and April is the cruelest month for students, graduate assistants, and those trying to complete dissertation proposals or chapters before the end of the academic year.

Next: Addressing the RPWRHS Collections Committee, recruiting a consultant,  and drafting the basics

 Cross-posted at 

Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery

Between 1936 and 1938, approximately 2,194 ex-slaves living in the American south were interviewed by writers and journalists under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), one of five “artistic” branches of the greater Works Project Administration (WPA). As historians well know, both of these initiatives were part of the New Deal, a series of domestic programs first enacted in 1933 by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. Specifically, these five “artistic” programs were called Federal Project Number One, and they were initiated in 1936, during the second phase of the New Deal.

This blog post will situate the WPA ex-slave narratives within the historiography of American slavery, showing how they have been both used and challenged in the past, and suggesting what roles they might play in the future.

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NCPH 2014: A Newbie’s Reflections

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

I do not know if it was the sea, the sun, or that California feeling, but I drank the Kool-aid. Throughout my graduate school experience, I have been told how NCPH is not like other conferences and how the people working in this field are supportive and encouraging of the work their colleagues are doing. From my experience at NCPH 2014 in Monterey Bay, California, I can testify to those statements. As I said to a professor on my return to Chicago, I had an odd, but exciting realization meeting others in the field, outside of my immediate circle.

Three instances stand out in my mind as indicative of the supportive and encouraging nature of the NCPH community. The first is my own experience. I participated in the poster session and a roundtable discussion, and both, produced some very insightful and productive discussions. My colleague, Laura Pearce, and I presented an exhibit proposal we developed for a required class, “Addressing Absences: Exhibiting African-American Suffragist”. At the beginning of the class, partnerships were being developed through our professor and community organizations.

Unfortunately, as things happen, the partnerships dissolved (scheduling conflicts and other distractions) and the exhibits never materialized. When we presented our work at NCPH, Laura and I were continually asked, “Where is this up?” “Is this still up?” “Is this online?” and when we informed visitors it had never actually come to fruition their response was simply, “Why?” Our colleagues wanted to see our exhibit realized, we received several recommendations of organizations we could and should approach with the proposal, and there was talk of going digital with it. So, after graduation, Laura and I have decided to pursue our exhibit proposal, using many of the connections and suggestions we received at NCPH.


Additionally, the roundtable I sat on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement”, only reaffirmed the notion that our historical work must be centered in the contemporary community. My colleague on this panel, Rachel Boyle, makes several excellent points on this on this issue in her reflection on NCPH.


The third instance was in the panel “Pubic Historians interpret the Far West: A Field Report”. Danica Willis has been the Cultural Resource Manager at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in northern California for the last three years. As a National Recreation Area, Whiskeytown attracts people, as Danica put it “for the beautiful lake, and the beautiful waterfalls, and the beautiful hiking”, but these visitors don’t necessarily understand the historical development of the area they are playing in. Over Danica’s time at Whiskeytown, she has pushed and prodded more interpretation and community involvement to Whiskeytown. Some of these ideas have worked great, as it did with the “Whiskeytown Harvest Festival” in which Danica promoted apple picking from the recreational area’s substantial orchard. In addition, the visitors were encouraged to think about why the orchards were there, who put them there, and how the planters would have used them. And like all experiments, some failed. But, Danica is excited about continuing to create a fuller and richer understanding (she apparently has a large white board full of ideas) of Whiskeytown as a place.

The conversations and discussions I observed and partook in at NCPH’s annual conference made me excited for the field.


Preservation and Ephemerality in Public History: Reflecting on NCPH 2014 from a Mile High

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

I am currently sitting in the Denver airport on my layover to Chicago after a fantastic annual meeting of the National Council on Public History.  I was reluctant to leave sunny Monterey for the snowy Midwest, but as always I feel invigorated the conversations with other historians committed to engaging and serving the public.  Two panels in particular remain fresh in my mind as dynamic counterpoints that framed the conference’s theme of sustainability: one on preservation, the other on ephemerality.

People > Things

It occurs to me that the title of the panel on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement” should’ve be swapped around to read, “Sustaining Community Engagement through Historic Preservation,” as it became clear through the course of the panel that preservation should be used in the interest of community engagement and not vice versa.  In other words, people are more important than buildings.  This theme was echoed by Sheila Brennan in the “Ephemerality in Public History” panel, who suggested that public historians should resist hoarding objects for prosperity and instead focus on digitizing objects for greater access or allowing the public to touch and use objects for a full transformative tactile experience. (Check out the notes and slides from her presentation here.)

Rethinking Sustainability

Another recurring question in the panels: how should—or shouldn’t—a project be sustained after the public historian has concluded their involvement? Approaching the end of her dissertation work, Abby Gateau is currently mentoring a successor, while also having successfully aroused a strong and energetic community base who can carry forward the public history work she instigated.  Mark Tebeau reinforced the value of thinking about the end from the beginning, suggesting that recognizing ephemerality of products and projects can lead to better best practices. Finally, Thomas Cauvin, from the audience, reminded us that archives are not the only repositories for saving the past and documenting public history projects—people preserve memory.

The panels on preservation and ephemerality, and the NCPH Annual Meeting as a whole, served as a refreshing reminder to base our public history work in the contemporary community.

Public History Has Revisionist Roots, and the NYT Is ON IT

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

The public historians assembled here in sunny Monterey spent their first day and a half covering what has become familiar yet still challenging ground for those of us in the profession. In round-tables, poster sessions, panel sessions, and working groups, they swapped insights on the cultural work that goes into interpreting an increasingly inclusive past to a likewise increasingly diverse public. The sessions I have attended include those about museum exhibits “co-created” with community members, the latest in attempts to interpret slavery at historic sites, my own working group about innovative reuse of “less-than-charismatic” structures, and sustaining public history though community engagement. Implicit in all these topics is the internalized impact of social history and the commitment to embracing marginalized voices—-both historical and contemporary. I actually feel that this laudable aspect of public history has become a little too familiar for practitioners, maybe even sometimes taken for granted. I’m certain that the social and even activist history ethic undergirds the projects highlighted thus far in Monterey. But I still crave even more forceful, direct, and critical expressions of public history work as ‘on a mission,’ for lack of better phrase.

So imagine how surprised I was to read that, according to the New York Times, museums have generally gone too far in exploring diverse, contested, and contradictory themes. Edward Rothstein’s “New Insights into History May Skew the Big Picture” deserves a much fuller take-down than I care to provide at this time (and I hope that many of us currently here in Monterey will get home, unpack, and take up that very task). But suffice to say Rothstein’s synthesis of gripes about major exhibits is vague, myopic, and intellectually sloppy. The closest he comes to coherently expressing his critique is a passage that could have been ripped from a disgruntled letter to the editor circa 1995 circa Smithsonian circa Enola Gay exhibit.

This mixture of new insight accompanied by new simplifications has become familiar elsewhere as well. The transformation of history that began in the 1960s (inspired by the American political left), took decades to have full impact on museums, but its perspectives have now become commonplace. Museums, in their traditional roles, were almost mythological institutions claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understandings with a coherent interpretation of the past. That model has now been remade with the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey's Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in need of revision.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey’s Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in ironic need of revision.

There’s a lot to unpack from that paragraph and from Rothstein’s subsequent expressions of dismay about the scourge of “identity museums” (he seems to have a particular disdain for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). For example, Rothstein should be reminded that those hoary “almost mythological institutions” of yesteryear were as much “identity museums” as the NMAI or any other such place. It’s just that the identity promoted then was elite and white. And then there’s his alarm at the way that the National Archives dares to call to attention to the fact that the nation’s past (and, gasp, present) has failed to live up to its lofty ideals. 

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