Property and Aesthetics in an Ordinary American Landscape

By Boulton, Andrew | The Geographical Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Property and Aesthetics in an Ordinary American Landscape


Boulton, Andrew, The Geographical Review


We spent years looking for just the right bungalow.

-Mark, a Kenwick resident, 2009

People react to, aspire to occupy, are drawn to, and seek to create landscapes, including residential landscapes, from which they derive a degree of pleasure. Idyllic residential landscapes are "scarce positional goods" (Duncan and Duncan 2004, 25). Having bought into a particular landscape vision, residents work to preserve and to produce aesthetically pleasing places. Investment in a residential landscape is not just financial; it may also be viscerally emotional. These "sensuous, passionate" dispositions toward the materiality and visual quality of specific landscapes constitute landscape aesthetics (p. 36).

In this article I examine the entanglements of landscape aesthetics and property in an ordinary residential landscape. Specifically, using the example of the Kenwick neighborhood of Lexington, Kentucky, I present a critical account of the articulation between a proprietary sense of property ownership and a bungalow landscape aesthetic (Meinig 1979c). I make two main arguments. First, if aesthetics is to be a keyword in landscape studies, as I believe it should, then it may be possible to apply aesthetics as an analytical lens on ordinary residential landscapes and not just on the rarefied, well-documented enclaves of the elite. Second, if we are to attend to the spatially and temporally specific contexts through which normative aesthetic claims to place are made (see Schein 2003, for example), then, I suggest, it is necessary to consider in situ the complex entanglements of landscape aesthetics with proprie-tarian conceptions of real property as a crucial vector in and through which the materialization of specific landscape visions proceeds. (1)

In making these claims, I proceed as follows. First, I draw on recent work in the landscape literature to demonstrate the importance of landscape aesthetics as a way to understand something about how ordinary residential landscapes work; that is, how people come to understand, to identify with, and to enact community through aesthetic preferences (Blomley 2oo4a; Duncan and Duncan 2004). I argue that successful aestheticization of a neighborhood requires the materialization of landscape aesthetics through particular iterations of property. Thereafter, I illustrate in some detail the ways in which these broader claims work in the context of the Kenwick neighborhood. I move between primary source material and secondary literatures to show how the complex articulations between proprietarian understandings of property and landscape aesthetics work to produce and to preclude particular claims about the nature of the neighborhood. I use neighborhood iconography-as promulgated by the neighborhood association-and the front porch as key sites/sights for the explication of this property-aesthetic entanglement.

WHY AESTHETICS?

The most sustained and empirically developed account of landscape aesthetics is Nancy Duncan and James Duncan's Landscapes of Privilege (2004). Their account of landscape aesthetics is set in the outer New York City suburb of Bedford, New York-a place of extreme wealth and a landscape in which a rarefied "old Bedford" pastoral idyll is fiercely protected, reproduced, and enforced through formal and informal social and political codes. The spirit of Duncan and Duncan's conceptualization, which I adopt in this article, holds that landscape aesthetics is not universal, natural, or essential but spatially and temporally specific, "unavoidably embedded in various social contexts" (Schein 2003, 201). As such, a landscape aesthetic represents both a normative claim-"landscape ought"-and a visual, visceral disposition toward the materiality of particular landscapes that exceeds "individual interpretation" (p. 201). Duncan and Duncan's aesthetic expose of Bedford offers a compelling illustration of the ways in which an American upper-class, landowning elite is able to secure, to more or less completely materialize, a particular landscape vision with all the social control that entails. …

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