Academic journal article Human Organization

Rapid Ethnographic Assessment in Urban Parks: A Case Study of Independence National Historical Park

Academic journal article Human Organization

Rapid Ethnographic Assessment in Urban Parks: A Case Study of Independence National Historical Park

Article excerpt

This article presents a case study of the use of rapid ethnographic assessment procedures (REAP) to study an urban heritage park and its relationships with some of the cultural groups living in that city. The literature on REAP and rapid assessment, and on applied ethnographic research on parks, is surveyed. The context of the study is discussed at length: Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia and its historic relationship to the city, the park's proposed improvements that necessitated the study, and the communities that were consulted. Emphasis is given to the difficulties involved in selecting, reaching, and fairly representing particular communities for study. The article reviews the different methods used in this case and how well they worked in relation to one another. The findings of the study are summarized, giving attention to how the various methods produced particular findings. The article concludes with some observations about the study's usefulness to park management in this case and on the value of such rapid ethnographic research as a basis for park planning and programming in general.

Key words: rapid ethnographic assessment, heritage park, historic preservation, Philadelphia

ark managers are continually planning for improvements to their parks. While it is not unusual for parks to conduct visitor counts and even survey public opinion on facilities and programs as part of the planning process, managers are less likely to see ethnography as a basis for decision making. Park managers tend to concentrate on the physical resource, valuing it as wildlife habitat, conservation land, or as a scenic or historic landscape. Improvements consequently are driven by perceived needs to improve biodiversity, stem erosion, protect scenic values, or restore historic structures. In our work on various urban parks, we have found that applied ethnographic research produces information of great utility in planning and policy making. Park ethnography can complement the opinion survey by uncovering the cultural ties between parks and local communities.

In bringing local communities into the decision making loop, the research process itself nurtures those ties. Ethnographic research also informs the planning process so that management decisions will resonate with user constituencies and avoid unwitting impacts on historic relationships between park lands and cultural groups.

This paper will discuss our experience in conducting applied research at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1994. It is a case study of the use of rapid ethnographic assessment procedures (REAP), an applied research methodology approved by the National Park Service. Although this case study concerns an existing national park, the REAP methodology can be employed to gather cultural information in planning for public spaces and monuments of all kinds, existing or proposed.

Like traditional ethnographic research, REAP is designed to illuminate significant cultural values and to draw out special meanings. It departs from traditional ethnography in attempting to produce such knowledge in a rapid time frame compatible with project scheduling commitments. REAP cannot fully represent communities, but it does identify issues and build bridges between a park and local communities. In this paper we discuss the challenges of applied research on a prominent urban park and review the strengths and weaknesses of REAP and its constituent research methods. We then suggest what can be learned from this case study about bringing a tourist-oriented heritage park into closer involvement with the everyday cultural practices of local communities.

Rapid Assessment and Applied Ethnographic Research

Rapid assessment methodologies have been adapted for research on parks in the United States from methods pioneered in developing nations. The idea of rapid assessment originated at about the same time in two separate fields of work: one in rural and agricultural development projects, the other in connection with public health programs and epidemiology. …

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