One of the main aims of the People’s Parish is to encourage people to look at their locality with a fresh eye and highlight distinctive features of the area and community which could form a starting point. The following two resource have been adapted from Common Ground, an arts and environmental charity based in Dorset, England.

The ABC of Local Distinctiveness is a tool created to inspire people and communities to discover and re-discover whatever is distinctive about a place.

When you have lived or worked in a place for a long time you may cease to notice it unless something happens to jolt you. It might be the sun glinting on a stone wall revealing the fossils in it, discovering that the street name cheap indicates a market place which explains the wide pavements, the felling of an ancient and much loved tree which makes you look more closely at the remaining mature trees in the place. Common Ground describe it like this:

Creating an ABC liberates us from classifying things as rare or beautiful to demonstrate what we care about in the everyday. It is useful in that it levels everything, it reshuffles things and juxtaposes them in ways that surprise and make you think. This can change what we see, disperse our complacency, make things we take for granted seem new to us and encourage us to action.
— Common Ground

Making an ABC can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it. First, decide upon a definition of your area - it could be one street, one school, one neighbourhood, village or town or any other area that is important to you. As a group, or individually, you could go on walks to look specific things or systematically take different parts of your area at a time. You might put a sheet of paper on the wall and just add things any time you think of them. 

We have suggested the kind of things you might like to include below:

  • Special landmarks
  • Geology
  • Flora - vegetation, trees, plants and flowers
  • Fauna - animals, birds, insects
  • Types of houses and building materials
  • Special buildings
  • Occupations
  • Food and drink
  • Festivals
  • Customs
  • Traditions
  • Stories
  • Songs 
  • Famous people and local heroes
  • Family names
  • Weather

We tend to think first about the special landmarks that make our places, but it is the commonplace, the locally typical, locally abundant or the local vernacular which often contribute most to a sense of place. The use of local material is important. The vegetation plays a part.

What about the wild life? Landmarks help to define a place: from hills or cliffs to trees with a history; contemporary sculptures like the Kelpies; lighthouses, church steeples or towers, mosques, piers, power stations, cooling towers, wind farms, pit tips, gravel workings, lime-kilns. There are things which are widespread, but which vary regionally, such as buildings which differ not only in use but in style and building materials. There are the subtle indicators such as family names, street names, language, milestones, smells, gates, gravestones, local food and drink, or signifiers carried in coats of arms.

The ephemeral and invisible are important too: customs, dialects, celebrations, names, recipes, spoken history, myths, legend, story and song. Many calendar events are particular to place, such as anniversaries of local events or local Gala days or festivals. There may be places notable for the seasons or natural phenomena such as ­ high or low tides; rainbows or lightning; bird, fish, butterfly migrations; signs of spring and autumn leaves or holiday places. Look for detail, but remember that it is the parts that make the whole.

You may decide to spread the net wider by getting in touch with the local radio station and newspaper to ask for suggestions. You could also contact your local history society, field walking association, tourist information centre, civic society, allotment or gardening club, sports club, schools, evening classes to get as wide a range of information as possible. As a group, or individually, you could go on walks to look and photograph specific things or systematically take different parts of your area at a time.

Final Product

Your final ABC could take many forms. It could be pictorial or simply words. It may be drawn by one artist or include artwork by different people. Much will depend on the skills of the people within your group, but ideally it would be good to involve as many people with artistic abilities as possible. Choose someone to help organise who illustrates what, and to what scale. A good art director can make the most of visual material of varied quality and create an overall design to hold everything together.

Photography is easy because most people have a camera; some community members may have old existing snaps. Your ABC could be made entirely from photographs.

The alphabet could vary too and consist of different type faces or styles of lettering to be found in the locality. Look at the letter-cutting on gravestones, milestones, street signs, manhole covers, sign posts, shops etc.

What Next?

  • You could use the ABC as the basis for creating something new – a piece of art or an exhibition
  • You could turn your list into a poem or a song. Find out if there is a local storyteller or a songwriter who can work with you to create it
  • You could photograph your chosen local places to create a small exhibition or display. Take simple pictures of buildings or details of chimneys, people and their houses, trees, local breeds of animals, local dishes, festival days. Some may already have old snaps that could be used
  • You could create a story walk based on your ABC and encourage people to become tour guides!