• "The goal was to build something that was robust, that was more than just an Excel spreadsheet, that was actually a way to communicate with the public and broaden our constituency," says Cultural Landscape Foundation president Charles Birnbaum.

    Credit: Paul Kline

    "The goal was to build something that was robust, that was more than just an Excel spreadsheet, that was actually a way to communicate with the public and broaden our constituency," says Cultural Landscape Foundation president Charles Birnbaum.

For 16 years, Charles Birnbaum worked for the National Park Service (NPS), helping to identify significant cultural landscapes that were not a part of the park system. He dreamed of creating a comprehensive and searchable database to celebrate these places. After leaving the NPS, Birnbaum founded the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in 1998, and today he has realized that vision.

Last fall, TCLF’s website launched What’s Out There, a database with several hundred landscapes from around the country. Highlighted places are categorized using a precise glossary of terms, including type (e.g., amphitheater), subtype (Depression-era theater), and style (Mission Revival). Each entry includes a succinct summary accompanied by carefully selected images that illustrate key design characteristics. For some entries, there are also oral histories of the places and the pioneers who developed them.

What’s Out There is the culmination of a decade’s worth of planning, research, and countless volunteer hours—not to mention seed funding from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the NPS’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. The database is searchable by type, style, region, state, or pioneer (think Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.). Soon, visitors will be able to use Google mapping technology to home in on landscapes contained within a specific geography.

In addition to generating entries in-house, TCLF encourages submissions from the public. What’s Out There is not, however, a Wikipedia-esque site of self-edited data. Every entry is thoroughly vetted and edited by a team of experts. (There are about 3,000 additional entries being readied for the site by staff and a corral of volunteers, he says.) Birnbaum hopes the database will support the creation of new nationally designated historic sites. “In many cases, there are iconic landscapes that lack designation because we don’t have the context. What this project is going to do is allow a state preservation office to be able to create their own Russian nesting dolls of how these places stack up,” he says.


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