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.

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14 thoughts on “Defining Sense of Place

  1. Karri says:

    For me, a “sense of place” captures not just the physical “sense” of a geographic location, but the cultural/social “sense” as well. Creating a “sense of place” in historic preservation, for me, should capture both the physical impressions (sights/sounds/smells/etc.), the emotional responses to them, AND the cultural and social vibe.

    • Kaitlin says:

      I agree, the cultural and social vibe are very important to sense of place. It is worthy of discussion at a more in depth level for defining sense of place than simply the five senses mentioned above. To me, the five senses are defining your relationship and the cultural/social aspects are about life in that place. Perhaps that sentence is not fully developed as an idea, but do you see where I’m going?

  2. kvlandau says:

    Thanks for this series! 🙂 I’m excited.

    First, definitionally, would you say that a town/city/etc. “has” a sense of place? Or is sense of place an emotional(?) concept that we humans impose? If the latter, then sense of place is very personal, individual. For every person that enters, a particular building would be a different place.

    Second, does a sense of place exist if one has never been there? For example, I have an idea about what Los Angeles is like, but I’ve never visited. Do I have a (an arguably preconceived) sense of place for LA? Or do I have to develop a relationship with people there and learn its history in order to “tune into” its sense of place?

    Third, I think senses (the five) are something very different than identity and relationships. Parroting Karri, the senses are physical, but there’s the sociocultural as well. Sociocultural aspects of sense of place might include class, race/ethnic and gender relations, and other kinds of alliance networks (e.g., neighborhood watchmen…). I would think memory is huge for sense of place.

    Fourth, in the post 10 Nov 2009, Kate implies that sense of place has a range — it could be good, or I suppose, bad. What does a “bad” sense of place mean? Does it mean that there is NO sense of place, or that the sense that exists is negative? Is it the place’s fault? Is it the human connections to the place’s fault? Probably a complex mixture.

    Last, how does sense of place change, for whom, and why? For example, the physical, social and emotional aspects of sense of place were effected for most NYC residents after 9/11. Would an event like that change one’s sense of place? What could you do to improve a wide range of people’s sense of place for a particular location? Considering the past and memory, is this possible?

    Just some rambling thoughts!

  3. Mark says:

    To me, a “sense of place” traffics in idiosyncracies….it means that when I think of a place, that there are very few, if any, other places like it. Its not easily confused. I can look at it and know instantly what place it is. And on the whole, there’s something of a continuum here, with the generic on one end and unique on the other.

    This is a huge topic, much could be said. But I always find myself seeking out places with a sense of place, with a certain saliency. Good or bad. Here, I’ve included a “sense of place” meter to further my point (about a certain mind-numbing locale):

    Strong Sense of Place………………………. -VS-……………………………….. GENERIC(boo,hiss)

    Tlayacapan, MX ………………………………………………………………………..Brampton, Ontario
    Peggy’s Cove, NS
    Cairo, Illinois
    Fiji, South Pacific
    Manhattan

    • Kaitlin says:

      I like your idea that you don’t think confuse a place with another when thinking of its sense of place. Your meter didn’t come out in proper formatting it looks like — The only place familiar to me on that list is Manhattan. Where do you have it categorized?

  4. gzimmerman says:

    great info! this sense of place concept is really taking off.

    we’re just wrapping up an honors seminar on sense of place and held the symposium in which students presented their projects. the students did a great job and we had several very interested attenders.

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