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Revealing the Story of Place: Why Falling in Love with Where We Are is Key to Lasting Transformation

By: Pamela Mang
Principal and founding member of Regenesis Collaborative Development Group

The present moment offers the potential, born of crisis, to transform the way humans inhabit Earth. To do so, we must learn to respond creatively to an increasingly unpredictable world. We must enable the places where we live and work to thrive, not just sustain a precarious balance. We must embrace the inherently beautiful complexity of life as a source of innovation and evolution. We must discover new ways to participate in a dynamic universe.”

Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability, (available Fall 2016 from Wiley & Sons)

Around the world, people are increasingly aware that the interlinked social, economic and environmental crises we currently face are symptoms of a fractured relationship between people and nature—the complex, multi-layered living web of interactions we live and work in. The core issue for sustainability, then, is cultural and psychological and only secondarily technological. From this perspective, true sustainability requires people and nature to be partners, co-creating the living places they inhabit. That means addressing seemingly intangible issues like motivation and will. Fail to do so and the tangible solutions that seem so obvious will continue to elude us.

What makes this shift to true sustainability possible is the power of the connection between people and place. Place is a doorway into caring. “Rootedness in a place,” wrote Simone Weil, “is the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Love of place unleashes the personal and political will needed to make profound change. It can also unite people across diverse ideological spectra because place is what we all share: it is the commons that allows people to call themselves a community.

Caring about place is powerful motivation to take action locally, but caring about any living entity without understanding how it works can lead (and has led) to well intentioned but ultimately damaging interventions.  “Each particular place,” noted René Dubos, who coined the catchphrase “Think Globally, Act Locally, “is the continuously evolving expression of a highly complex set of forces—inanimate and living—which become integrated into an organic whole.”[i] Places are alive, characterised by all the fluid, dynamic and multi-level relationships that shape all living beings, and understanding them presents a special challenge.

Several years ago, Regenesis began developing a process for addressing this challenge which we call Story of Place. In every place, geology and nature interweave over time with human history and culture to create a place’s recognizable character and nature—its essence. The Story of Place process begins with a journey of collective discovery aimed at revealing the ongoing and distinctive core patterns that shape the complex web that makes place, the patterns that determine the dynamics of a given place and influence the complex relationships that result in its activities, growth, and evolution. Understanding these patterns helps reveal new possibilities for how to live in partnership with place, growing a future of greater abundance and creativity for all life.

These core organizing patterns, and the opportunities they reveal, provide a narrative structure or framework for unfolding the “story” of a particular place—the essence of a place, how it fits in the world, and what the role the people who live there can play in its evolution. 

In a world that equates data with credibility and sees the answer to every problem as more data, stories could seem frivolous. However, a growing body of research tells us that human memory is story-based, and that stories are fundamental to how people learn and organize what they know. Stories, which are ultimately about relationship, enable us to make complex wholes comprehensible and, even more important, meaningful. For millennia humans used stories as cross-generational “guidebooks” for harmonizing cultures and economies with their ecologies—capturing generations of accumulated wisdom about how to sustainably live and thrive in a place. As one storyteller notes, “While analysis is good for control and prediction, story-sensibility is good for understanding meaning and role.”

The power of Story of Place endures and grows because it provides a framework for an ongoing learning process that continually and consciously regenerates the story as a place evolves, and enables humans to co-evolve with their environment. Join us at Schumacher College this April as we explore Story of Place together, and uncover its potential to transform all of our lives, for good.

[i] René Dubos, A God Within: A Positive Approach to Man’s Future as Part of the Natural World (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972).