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Making Places: The Phenomenological Importance of the Invent{ing}ory

Douglas D. Paterson

Paterson is a landscape architect at the University of British Columbia. This paper was originally presented in a special session, "Recovering Sense of Place," organized by philosopher Ingrid Leman Stefanovic for the 1995 meetings of the Environmental Design Research Association held in Boston.  

INVENTORY: 1. an itemized list or cata­logue of goods, property, etc.; especially, such a list of the stock of a business, taken annually. 2. the store of goods, etc., which are to be so listed; stock."

   Very few cities know much about their place. The inventories they do are either pragmatic (e.g., man­hole invert elevations) or legal (e.g., tax assess­ments). Often as not, these inventories are more a perception of what the city is thought to be rather than what it really is. Indeed, most cities are pro­foundly ignorant of their place.

    This lack of "good" inventories is one reason for placeless environments and for the designs, plans, and policies that "en­courage" such placelessness. If place is to come alive, its elements and qualities must be seen in all their possibilities. The "phenomena" of place must be sought out, described, and inventoried. Each and every item "in place" must be seen as possessing "phenomenal" possibilities.

 n INVENT: (in-vent'). v.t. [ME. inventen; OFr. inventir < L. inventus, pp. of inventire, to come upon, to meet with, discover; in-, in, on + venire, to come].

     Inventory shares its etymology with invent. In this sense, the inventory is an identi­fication and listing of possibilities‑-much more than a simple tabulation of items. In the inventory of a city, every street, tree, back yard, small stream, old building, and all the rest are sources for new inven­tions.

     To "see" such possibilities, however, re­quires a phenomenological awareness of inventory­ing. In this sense, the inventory can be seen as information, where the word shares its roots with the word inform and is ultimately about describing form.

 n INFORM: v.t. [ME. informen; OFr. enfor­mer; L. informare; see IN- (in) & FORM]: to give form or character to; be the forma­tive principle of; to give, imbue, inspire with some specific quality or charac­ter; animate; to form or shape the mind; teach; to give knowledge of something to; tell; acquaint with the fact.

     In each act of inventorying we attempt what Heide­gger calls "the splendor of the simple," seeking to look upon things as if we saw them for the first time. We try to make "the strange, familiar and the famil­iar, strange."

    We require an almost child-like pursuit of places and their objects, and the almost infinite number of possibilities those places and objects can awaken in our imagination if we are open to their presence.

    While we are, as adults, regularly severed from our former child-like, wide-eyed view of the world, we can nonetheless teach ourselves to remain open to the possibilities. One way to do this is to talk to children and get them to take us on tours of their places.

    In addition, we can use such creative tools as idea exaggeration, ideal reversal, reassembling the parts, identifying and recording the patterns, visual-visual and verbal-visual transformations, clashing opposites, using metaphors and allegories, scale changes, thickening, and the like.

    Such creative tools can and must be brought to the inventory process because they help us to understand places and objects in terms of their infinite possibili­ties. When we begin to see things in this way, we realize there are an endless number of things, ideas, places, and patterns that never get inventoried‑-everything from junk to handicrafts, inventors to story-tellers, stacks of wood, buried streams, cliffs, cloisters, parade routes, portages, rain barrels, and clever canopies.

    What is needed is a new perspective and process for undertaking and re-undertaking place inventory. This also implies a major change in the way urban, municipal, state, and provincial govern­ments go about their business of planning and managing cities and landscapes.

    If we are indeed serious about improving our environmental interventions then we must begin with a change in the invent{ing}ory of place. I conclude by postulating several "rules" that might help to provoke that change.

 1. EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT: too often, we tend to think of things as insignificant because, at the moment, we can't "see" their relevance; we can't see them as clues for new directions and possibilities.

 2. MORE IS MORE: Place and city are rich, highly diverse, and dynamic. To ignore any items, ideas, and energies of a place eventually means that the place is invariably and irrevocably altered, often in unintended ways.

 3. GOOD INVENTORY ASSUMES MANY DIF­FERENT FORMS: Any information that is invento­ried must be presented in as many different ways as possible so that the possibilities inherent in the information is revealed fully.


4. GOOD INVENTORY INFORMS AC­TION: The purpose of any inventory is to inform subsequent possibilities and actions and not to justify intended actions.

5. THE USER IS THE BEST PERSON TO IN­VENTORY: The user of the information is ulti­mately the person most interested in being in­formed. It is invariably difficult, if not next to impossible, for that user to grasp the full physical, spiritual, and intellec­tual meaning of materials compiled by others.

6. INVENT{ING}ORY IS A CREATIVE ACT: The people who do good inventories are "creators"; they know that an open and enriched inventorying of place can energize.

7. INVENT{ING}ORY MUST BE REPEATED: Inventories must be done again and again. Each new individual or group seeking information needs to undertake the inventory them­selves. While some data can remain as suitable abstractions for future analyses and comparisons, a full understanding of environment only arises from a total immersion in place.

8. INVENTORY IS NOT STOCK: If inventories are seen as "boring" or "stock" information, their role and importance will be devalued.

9. INVENTORY SYSTEMS OFTEN DISTANCE THE USER: Geographical Information Systems and other computer­ized schemes often hide, ignore, or confuse the nature of inventory‑-especially the underlying values and biases it assumes.

10. GOOD INVENTORIES FAVOR THE PAR­TICULAR OVER THE UNIVERSAL: Good invento­ries lead to more site-specific, place-related solutions.

11. GOOD INVENTORIES EMPHASIZE VALUE OVER FACT: Good inventories provide under­standing of all the values in play in any situation and help to keep the facts "in line" with those values.

12. GOOD INVENTORIES ARE POWERFUL: The individu­al who really knows the territory can fight the good fight.