Sense of place at Werk aan het Spoel

On May 17, four master students from TU Delft conducted a sense of place-survey at the site of Werk aan het Spoel. Werk aan het Spoel is a former fortification (constructed 1816-1824) close to the city of Culemborg. It is part of the New Dutch Waterline, a heritage landscape that is to receive UNESCO World Heritage-status in 2019. The fortification was constructed between 1816 and 1824 to protect the strategic sluice that accommodated inundation of the landscape in case of an enemy approach from the east. Over the last decade, Werk aan het Spoel has been revitalized with a small-scale restaurant, amphitheater and gallery for an artist-in-residence. Anagnostou Angeliki, Gnana Abhinaya, Sachsamanoglou Maria and Yang Ming conducted the survey for the course of Heritage Landscapes under supervision of PICH researcher dr. Nikki Brand.  The central question was how people experience Werk aan het Spoel (sense of place) and what role heritage plays in this.

The survey was based upon the analysis of 26 on-site interviews. Respondents answered 10 questions: How old are you? (Q1) Where do you live? (Q2) How did you come here? (Q3) Do you come here often? (Q4) Why did you come here? (Q5) Do you know anything about the history of the place, and does this add any value to you? (Q6) How would you feel about future change? For example, if it is to be transformed or demolished? (Q7) What do you like about this place and its surroundings? What do you not like about it? (Q8) Can you give us three words that come to mind when you think about this place? (Q9) If you have been coming here often or live around the area, you must have seen how the place changed. Can you tell us how it changed and what you think about it? (Q10)

After combining the data derived from the interviews and identification of possible correspondences (for example place of origin and frequency of visit, knowledge of history and response to past and future change), it appears that the attractivity of Werk aan het Spoel is related most to natural qualities: the open landscape and the views it offers, as well as the relaxing atmosphere that allows an escape from urban life (especially for the nearby areas). Another important factor are the leisure possibilities offered by a range of activities like festivals, concerts and art classes at the site. These seem to be the most decisive issues for how people experience Werk aan het Spoel. However, heritage does play a role. Its presence in the experience might not be obvious, yet it exists as an indirect ‘framework’ in peoples’ minds. This can be supported by the fact that most of the respondents knew about the history and stated that it adds more value to the place. Moreover, they are sensitive to matters of future change to the fortification and its surroundings:

“Don’t change anything! We will shoot them dead if there is some change!”

It appears that heritage is important for sense of place, but it comes up only when a relevant question is put forward. This may be explained by the fact that it is often considered self-evident and only becomes an issue when its continuity is questioned. On the other hand, issues related to the direct perception of the environment and to use are the ones that mostly contribute to sense of place.

The majority of the respondents (62%) were aged between 50 and 60 years old and the distribution between women and men was almost equal (42%-58% respectively). Half of the respondents came from a distance of 0-5 km, while the second greatest percentage (15%) travelled more than 50km to arrive there. As far as the means of transport are concerned, even though many bikes are passing by, most respondents came by car. The frequency of visits varies: most people (23%) visit the place on a daily basis, 19% once a month and 15% for the first time. The reasons to visit cover a range including work, walking and food (12% each), holidays (7%), photography & art classes (4%) and relaxation (3%). However, the majority (46%) comes for multiple reasons, including biking, food, relaxation, walking their dog and such. Despite the fact that in a radius of 2km and 4km around Werk aan het Spoel there is an abundancy of food services, people are attracted to the area. It offers them multiple possibilities combining leisure, nature and history. The site also serves as a resting point for cyclists.

“The place is perfect. Look at how I’m sitting here on a sunny day, sitting in the shade, watching the people stroll by…”

Concerning knowledge of history, 54% knew about the history of the fort and the New Dutch Waterline.

“We are interested in everything about history. The struggle of Holland against water.”

Only 3 people were not informed and the rest had partial knowledge of it. It is important to note that when asked about future changes, the vast majority (69%) answered negatively, stating that they prefer everything to remain as it is, while the rest of the interviewees are equally distributed, answering either that they agree with small changes (16%) or that some changes are necessary in the area (15%).

“The result was even more beautiful than we had expected and could imagine. I am very proud of this place. “

In Q8 most responses were correlated to the natural features of the area, the landscape, the water, the views and generally the peaceful atmosphere, while heritage is rarely mentioned.

“In the winter it is quite different here, there are different birds, different landscapes. The trees have no leaves, so I can see the river, the land, I can see everything from here during the winter.”

Most respondents answered that they dislike the nuisance caused by the motorbikes, usually arriving in groups. Answers that triggered a lot of discussion during the decoding and analysis of data were given in Q9, where the interviewees mostly used words such as “green”, “nature”, “beautiful”, “open”, “nice”, “relaxing”, “calm”, “people” , “culture”, “meeting” and “history” – in sequence from the most to the least mentioned items.

“You go up the dikes and you can look further. It is what the 17th century painters saw with the clouds…”

In Q10 many of the respondents mentioned the change of the restaurant, the attraction of more people and publicity, changes in art and architecture, the transformation of the fort, the changes in the “Uiterwaarden”-the area between river and land (the land between the summer- and winterdike of river Lek) but also in the character of the place as the most striking changes they have perceived during the revitalization process. Most of these changes are welcomed by the interviewees.

Earlier nothing happened here, but now its a place to communicate with people.”

 “When we were young, we were not allowed to walk near the farms and close to their backyards, but now it is great.”

One respondent had mixed feelings about the revival of just one particular period of the history of the site, and the exclusion of equally important other historical periods.

“I feel mixed about bringing back just a certain period (…) why do you need all the shooting areas of the WW1 and WW2? You can also bring back to the Middle Ages. Why is that the age you want to preserve? The Waterline was way before. They only brought back one part of it.”

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