What is sense of place?
Sense of place refers to the degree of meaning people ascribe to a particular location or area. Those places deemed more meaningful are generally considered to have a stronger sense of place. Places in general have definitive characteristics that go beyond mere geographic location. In the absence of place there is only space; an undefined area with no particular meaning.
What contributes to sense of place?
Places that have unique characteristics and histories are often considered to have a heightened sense of place. Layers of history, unique architecture or layouts, and place-specific signs and symbols help differentiate one place from another. Those places with few unique or place-specific attributes are often said to feel generic, and lack a strong sense of place.
Consider for example your local Starbucks coffee shop or other chain retail store. No matter where you are, Starbucks offers a very similar experience; the interior of the stores often look similar in terms of layout and decor and the menu offers essentially the same coffee drinks and snack foods whether you’re located in Seattle or Sydney. Even the employees typically sport the same outfits. Compare this with a local coffee shop or restaurant you’re familiar with. Your local coffee shop or restaurant is probably one of a kind; it has a style and menu that is not perfectly repeated elsewhere. It is unique and specific to that location. This sense of uniqueness is an important part of sense of place.
The role of personal memory and experience
It is important to consider that your individual experience and memory of a place can alter how you perceive and feel about that location. In the above example, any given Starbucks may feel generic to most costumers, and thus have a relatively limited sense of place, but what if you were an employee there? What if you met your spouse there or went there to study after school nearly every day for a time? Because of your enhanced experience with an otherwise generic place, to you that place is one of a kind — your memories make that place special for you.
Sense of place is thus very much subjective and beholden to your particular point of view. Yet, we can still make some generalizations that are useful. In describing places we can say that, at least for most people who encounter them, the experience is going to be unique, place-specific, or, alternatively, rather generic. Take, for example, an average strip-mall versus an historic re-purposed warehouse district. The experience the strip mall offers is not unlike the experience you would have in any other strip mall, and chances are good that you would have difficulty identifying exactly where that development is located if you weren’t familiar with it. The historic warehouse district, however, is more likely to feature an eclectic variety of buildings and uses, with unique architectural styles unique to the place and time it was built. The more pedestrian-oriented environments of traditional urban neighborhoods also encourage you to wander about on your own two feet and experience — with all your senses — the place that surrounds you.
The aforementioned example brings up an interesting debate among human geographers: whether “sense of place” is waning in our society; whether we are constructing place-less cities? Most seem to agree that much of the modern urban development in industrialized countries has a generic quality to it, as if shopping malls, office parks, and residential subdivisions have simply been photocopied from one place to another. Yet, urban design movements such as new urbanism and smart growth have attempted to re-capture the feeling of place and community by physically constructing more human-oriented environments that feature moderate densities and a mix of land uses.
Place is community
Sense of place is not just about the materiality or physicality of the environment; it reflects the social bonds that people forge. The places that are most important to you, or to which you ascribe the most meaning are likely to be those places that you have positive social interactions. These interactions can be with family, friends, or perhaps even complete strangers. The classic TV show “Cheers” is about a group of people with very different backgrounds coming together at a neighborhood pub, forming a community independent of work or home. Ray Oldenburg (1999) calls these places “Third Places”. They are often bars, pubs, coffee shops, barber shops, and book stores — wherever people come together to socialize outside their more formal circles. For their patrons, these locations often exhibit a strong sense of place, regardless of whether they are located in an old historic district or generic strip mall.
Is a greater sense of place always better?
In life, unfortunately, it is difficult to avoid unpleasant experiences entirely. If these experiences are particularly painful, it may be difficult not to associate a particular location with those negative emotions. If, for example, your partner broke up with you in a restaurant you are likely to have negative feelings about that place for quite some time. For you the restaurant’s sense of place is actually quite strong, but what you sense is a negative rather than positive emotion. Some places elicit negative feelings and memories for large numbers of people and are infamous for their strong sense of foreboding or sadness. The renowned humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan first wrote about these “Landscapes of Fear” (1979) nearly four decades ago. Concentration camps in Germany or war-torn areas such as Syria are prime examples.
Oldenburg, R. 1999. The Great Good Place. Da Capo Press: Philadelphia.
Tuan, Y.-F. 1979. Landscapes of Fear. Pantheon Books: New York.