This is the first of hopefully many articles I am able to write for this exciting new outlet. I call the column “Shortening the Distance” because it will often concern the distance between people, between people and the land around them, between people and the places where the products they consume are made, and efforts to shorten the distance in different ways.
As a professor of sociology and environmental studies at UW Oshkosh, I see this as a chance to practice what in my field is called public sociology and will typically use this forum to attempt to make what might otherwise seem to be theoretical, abstract concepts come to life as they are applied to local issues with the goal of bringing additional insights and deeper understanding to them.
Here, the issue is shoreline restoration efforts in Menominee Park. Brief side note: After already having drafted part of this, I learned that Bridgette Weber wrote her initial article about the same issue. Is shoreline restoration worthy of two articles in the first week of this publication? I guess the answer depends upon your interests, but in any case, it reveals the grassrootsiness of this independent media endeavor, which I love. I hope this builds upon her excellent article by adding to it a sociological analysis of at least a portion of what is going on, through application of the concept viewscape fetishism.
I coined the term viewscape fetishism (that’s part of what we academics try to do, after all) during the course of my dissertation research some years back. The project was a comparative study of community change in Bayfield County, Wisconsin and a couple neighboring island municipalities in Norway. Among other things they had in common, these were places where amenities—features that increase “attractiveness or value, especially of a piece of real estate or a geographic location”—had become increasingly important to development processes, property values, and local social dynamics. One of the results was an article entitled, “Seeing, Not Participating: Viewscape Fetishism in American and Norwegian Rural Amenity Areas” that was published in the journal Human Ecology in 2010.
Here is part of my explanation of viewscape fetishism from the article:
People may be thoroughly enchanted with particular sights, such as a lake view. With repeated interaction, such enchantment can potentially lead to engagement in local conservation and community building efforts, based on the notion “that our love of nature must be grounded in a specific place” (Barnhill [my colleague at UWO, by the way], 1999, p. 7)…When beautiful sights are disembodied from their contexts, enchantment can lead to fetishism, as views become objects that are instrumentally used as stimuli for attaining gratification or financial gain.
…(Through commodity fetishism) a ‘veil of ignorance’ causes the consumer to see only the commodity, rendering the (potentially exploitative and destructive) relations of production invisible to those outside of them… (With) viewscape fetishism, (the veil) obscures the deeper relations embedded in the landscape. Views become simplified for their consumers, who see individual amenities rather than components of whole, integrated landscapes. Rather than being viewed as elements of ecosystems or the results of historical practices…amenities such as bodies of water…may be perceived as detached objects meant to be viewed and not necessarily understood on a deeper level.
For realtors and acquisitive homeowners, the importance of particular viewscapes hinges on exchange value—the economic premium they will fetch upon the sale of property—or individualized, possessive use value—parcels are purchased in large part due to particular views of amenities to which the owner will have private access. In either case, when the aesthetics of the landscape are more important than the experiences to be had therein, this indicates that the sign value (Baudrillard, 1981)—the value in terms of prestige, identity, and status that is derived from displaying the commodity (the great view from one’s residential property)—has ascended as central to the development process of which such individual transactions are components.
Okay, professor—enough with all the academic language. The key point is that views, and entire viewscapes (the elements of the landscape that can be seen from a particular vantage point), have begun to be regarded as precious private property. They are even fetishized to the point that concern over views trumps many other concerns, as what lies outside the frame of that view is secondary or even irrelevant, and anything that interferes with that private view (and the economic exchange value connected to it) is seen as problematic by the possessor. Further, the possessor of the view may take actions to preserve it that cause problems for the surrounding landscape and common good.
In my dissertation study these problems included clear-cutting of trees for the establishment of ridge top home sites; huge new homes dwarfing older, more modest ones; and neighbors avoiding discussion of issues of local concern as they seemed to focus inward instead. As one person I interviewed noted, “we got the feeling…that we were very egoistic here at home. Things around us weren’t important as long as we enjoyed our closest surroundings”—and as long as no one messed with their view.
Another issue was the “thinning” out of trees within the viewscapes of property owners, leading to erosion and, according to some, pollution of Lake Superior, the very amenity that makes the area and its views so attractive. According to multiple respondents, including a regional conservationist, residential development is a “major threat to the water quality and land quality of the region” and non-point pollution (from new roads and other development, clear cutting, and the resulting run-off from fields and lawns) causes Chequamegon Bay to become a discolored orange at certain times of the year.
According to Google Scholar, my article has been cited 15 times. It’s nice that at least someone read it and even cited it, but the article has likely had little impact. And as with much academic activity, I worked hard to get it published, moved on, and haven’t thought or done too much about it since. Part of the reason I wrote what you are currently reading is to take advantage of another chance to use the concept in an attempt to illuminate another case, and one in our backyard (or really, which serves as part of many local people’s front yards) at that.
Shoreline Restoration and its Discontents
As discussed by Ms. Weber, after a 2010 study of Miller’s Bay suggested that its shoreline (which had been largely converted to lawn ending in rocky rip-rap long ago) be restored to native plants, a grassroots group known as Friends of Menominee Park Shoreland created a demonstration plot in the park, and has subsequently held periodic workdays to attempt to maintain it. The project has experienced vocal opposition from some neighbors but has been highly successful in terms of plant growth, so successful that one of the primary complaints has been that plants have grown too tall.
According to proponents, the benefits to shoreline restoration are numerous. The positives are summarized in this excerpt from a letter written by the natural landscapes group Wild Ones to the City of Oshkosh Parks Board last fall, when the board was considering whether to approve a new five-year plan for the project: “The plan for the Menominee Park Shoreland Restoration project generates and protects clean water, supports aquatic life, sustains the fragile water’s edge, deters unwanted animals, buffers extreme weather, supports pollinators and songbird life, is less costly to maintain, and provides beauty, interest and biodiversity.”
Having been involved in some of the efforts to create and maintain the restoration plot, I am clearly not a disinterested observer of this situation. I spoke at the Parks Board meeting in favor of the plan, noting my whole family’s involvement in some of the work days, and students in my new Quest III Environment & Society class at UWO will help to establish the new plot behind the pump house and near Webster Stanley school this spring. Regardless, the concept of viewscape fetishism seems to apply quite well here. Read on and see whether you agree.
In the Human Ecology article I discussed instances of interpersonal conflict relating to differing ideas about how public space should be used in the Bayfield County and Norway study areas. Similarly, at one of the most recent work days on the Miller’s Bay plot, an opponent of the effort jogged past multiple times and made sarcastic comments about how the plot should just be mowed down and the like. Such interactions tend not to help build community nor produce constructive outcomes.
At the Parks Board meeting, a number of people spoke against shoreline restoration and nearly all of them lived in close proximity to the plot. Supporters came from near and far alike and cited the benefits to the local community and ecology laid out by the Wild Ones letter, also noting how the effort had brought a variety of people together. Some lamented that they had not succeeded in recruiting many nearby residents to join their effort, resulting in a lack of healthy dialogue that prevented the establishment of common ground.
The five-year plan included numerous concessions to opponents, such as frequent thinning of the existing plot to remove tall plants and new planting only in areas that would not impact any residential views. But a vocal group of nearby residents seemed to be against the idea in any form. As discussed by Weber in her article, several opponents argued that the native plants were unattractive and even ugly. Some asserted that lawn is the only appropriate groundcover for that area and that the plot was destroying the “crown jewel of Oshkosh.” Multiple speakers claimed that it was negatively impacting their property (exchange) value.
The most common complaint by opponents at the meeting, however, was that the native plants were blocking or altering their views of the lake. Some noted that they couldn’t see the water from the adjacent walking/biking path when they were right next to the plot, and others referred to the plants as weeds or questioned who would want to see native plants like that.
Most tellingly, one woman noted that she had lived nearby her whole life, and now the first thing she saw each morning when she awoke was that unattractive plot “blocking my view.” She laughed when she realized what she had said and then continued, “Well, I guess I really do look at it as my view.”
It is, of course, very understandable that people would feel strongly about the features, such as beautiful views, of the places they love. But these individual, subjective attachments aren’t necessarily the logical basis for decisions about land use on public property, for the common good.
Indeed, strong counterarguments could be made to all of the claims against the project. Though there appeared to be a small minority in favor of the project, however, the Parks Board generally sided with shoreline restoration opponents, noting that plants should only be a foot or two tall, that some small plots would not impact the quality of the lake much so it wasn’t worth the friction, and some members simply didn’t like the project. In the end, the Parks Board soundly rejected the five-year plan for continued shoreline restoration. It did not vote to remove the plot—as some neighbors had explicitly requested—however, and in fact approved a small, new shoreline restoration plot.
Shortly after the Parks Board meeting I joined a small group of volunteers that gathered to harvest seeds that could be planted at the new site, since the existing one would soon be mowed down (but allowed to grow back in the spring), based upon discussion at the meeting. At one point, I happened to notice a couple—who had spoken against the project at the meeting because of concerns about their property value and view—drive slowly by to check out the action, and then park their car nearby and begin working in their own yard.
As I headed home on my bike a bit later, I stopped in front of their house to take a look at the plot from their vantage point. From across the street and about half a football field away, sure, the plot was visible, in the bottom left corner of the frame as I surveyed the viewscape. I couldn’t fathom how this small patch of native plants being in the corner of the frame could be so consequential. If anything, I would see them as adding interest and beauty to the scene, but of course, there’s that whole eye of the beholder thing.
Further, though most opponents emphasized their views and property value when speaking against the project, I suspect that for many of them the project also symbolizes other things that clash with their values and interests, such as change itself, public vs. private property, and environmentalism, even if the health of the lake should be a core interest for both groups.
In the Human Ecology article I argued that people must become members of communities, “not viewers of nature but participants in a system of relationships” (Barnhill, 1999, p. 6) and that this would require moving beyond the individualistic nature of fetishism. We’re clearly not there yet with this case, which is no surprise given the individualistic nature of our society and the collective importance that is given to private property.
The opposing parties in this case will likely continue to pursue their own interests, but what is needed for positive change to occur is for participation in meaningful discussion to cause at least some of these interests to be viewed as overlapping in a quest for common good. The good news in this case is that the Parks Board decision represented a bit of a compromise, which allows the initial shoreline restoration plot to remain and a small additional plot to be created (albeit only directly behind the pump house where it should not spoil the view from any house). I believe this happened in spite of the influence of viewscape fetishism and represents an important, but small step forward when a big splash is really needed.
As I predicted in the previous article, “If the landscape continues to be treated as something to be viewed and commodified, rather than understood as part of a system of relationships that should be respected, it will suffer, diminishing the amenities that made these areas attractive in the first place.” Perhaps like sand in the oyster helps to produce the pearl, the project can persist through opposition, inspire and teach others, and spread, making a bigger impact on the landscapes and water quality of the Winnebago System. In the meantime, I think the ecosystem will continue to suffer, while some local people try to be like those grains of sand until it turns around.
Barnhill, David L. 1999. “Introduction.” In Barnhill, D. L. (ed.), At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to our Place. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 1–10.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1998. The Consumer Society. Paris: Gallimard.
Typical Menominee Park shoreline – Justin Mitchell 2014
Shoreline Restoration in bloom – Mandy Mitchell 2014