Defining Sense of Place

Preservationists often talk about a community’s “sense of place” in relation to creating, identifying or enhancing that sense of place. To those of us in the preservation field and those of us who interact with communities, sense of place is an expression that we inherently understand and unanimously agree is important. Yet, perhaps it sounds like an abstract concept to others.

A mini-series (beginning today!) on Preservation in Pink will explore sense of place, beyond its casual mentions here and there. How can you define sense of place? How can it be measured? How can it be improved?  In this first post, let’s discuss how to define and understand sense of place.

What comes to mind when you hear “sense of place” in conversation? Without any further meaning it sounds like knowing where you are located – which town, city, state, country. But, sense of place isn’t really about directions. Aside from knowing your point on a map, knowing your location can be attributed to identifying landmarks – built and natural.

Alright, you know your location on a map, you can see familiar landmarks; but, what more is there to sense of place?

A good quote about sense of place, found via the Northwest Earth Institute is from Wendell Berry, a well-known bioregionalist, is: “If you don’t know where you are,  you don’t know you who are.”  If you know your location in all senses, you’ll understand its sense of place.

For simplicity’s sake, take the word “sense” literally and combined your five senses: sight, smell, hear, touch, taste. What do you see in a place (buildings, landscape)? What do you smell (agricultural, industry, nature)? What do you hear (cars, trains, river, ocean, wind)? What can you touch (street surface, building materials)? What do you taste (what are the local foods)?

Think about where you live or a particular place that you love. Can you answer those for your neighborhood, community or town? (A place does not have to be defined by town and city boundaries, remember.) Now consider the combination of those answers to the five senses and answer this: how do they make you feel about a place? What memories can you associate with those feelings (and senses)?

Sense of place is about identity and relationships: the identify of a place and the relationship that people have with it. In other words, how do people connect to a place?And how do they define that place, through what tangible (buildings, landscape) or intangible (smells, sounds, feelings) connections?

So, sense of place is subjective, but not necessarily abstract. Would you agree? What else would you add or like to know?

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Do you have good resources to share? Let me know. For more on sense of place and relationships and other disciplines, read this research by Jennifer E. Cross at Colorado State University.