Measuring Sense of Place

Last week, the Sense of Place mini-series began by discussing how to define the concept “sense of place.”  I wrote that asking questions relating to the five sense can help you to understand and define a place, and commenters added their own thoughts. It’s a topic open for scholarly and casual discussion, one that is gaining popularity and understanding. While preservation includes discussions of sense of place, the topic of sense of place could be its own dissertation. Therefore, I’m letting you know that I’m not an expert; I enjoy pondering the concept, learning about it and talking with you about sense of place. So let’s continue.

Beyond defining sense of place, how do you measure it? How do you classify this somewhat abstract concept? How do you know if a place needs a sense of place improvement?

First, ask yourself if you can define sense of place for your locale. It may seem obvious, but if you cannot identify this particular place, then it probably lacks a sense of place. Typically, I think of many suburban locations as lacking a sense of place. If you have driven along Long Island highways, particularly central Long Island, you probably know what I mean. Basically, the highways looks like Anywhere, USA filled with car dealerships and chain stores and restaurants, all with the same, standard plans. (This isn’t to say Long Island is the only place that looks like this; it is just what I am familiar with.) However, imagine my pleasant surprise when I came across Build a Better Burb, an organization dedicated to improving sense of place on Long Island through Main Street revitalization, regional planning and housing solutions. Finally!

While one community may have a stronger sense of place than another, I’d say that it isn’t something necessarily up for traditional comparison. The idea isn’t to give every place the same feeling and measure it by the exact same standards. Perhaps a good way to measure is by cultural/social feeling (mentioned by Karri). If a community hosts events, has people out and about in all forms of transit (depends on location) with daily interactions, features a variety of businesses and has a welcome vibe, then it must have a strong sense of place. Right?

We preservationists talk about local businesses over and over, but for good reason. An important measure of sense of place could be the ration of locally owned, independent businesses vs. chains of corporate America. Common sense will say that the more local businesses = a stronger sense of place.

Another measurement could be the overall happiness  (though measuring happiness is another difficult subject) and level of involvement from community  members and frequency of events. A town with residents who care and want to create a home will shine and be a welcoming place and appear as a nice place to live. And since individuals compose a town, when they are involved, they will shape the town and sense of place.

How to measure sense of place is a good question. It’s one to which I do not have an answer. For now, I’ll leave my opinion on this matter as: understanding how to define sense of place, allows you to recognize the strength of a place and to empirically measure sense of place. This paper from the University of Queensland, Australia suggests empirical studies, for example. But, as for the charts and graphs type of measurements, I don’t believe it’s that kind of concept.

And while these may be subjective measurements and opinions, perhaps sense of place is a concept best understood and measured subjectively, in order to maintain the individuality of places. Maybe a measurement is based on how in depth you can define the sense of place for the community. What do you think? What would you like to add to measuring sense of place?

Pop Quiz Answer

If you didn’t catch the most recent Preservation Pop Quiz, read it here.

The answers from readers touched on key points. Here is the original photo.

What can you decipher from this photograph? Click and zoom for additional clarity (this is a large file).

As John guessed in the comments, this appeared to be an old road alignment and perhaps bridge. And Ellen & Jen suggested this area had been hit by the August flooding, and Jen presumed the younger trees suggested a recent change in the landscape. All around, everyone had great answers for reading the landscape.

And the answer? The picture above shows an old road alignment, which you can decipher from two key points. First, in the picture above (and see below for a more central view), the sloped bank that has a rise to it is a bridge abutment. If you look closely you can see how the road slightly curves in towards the old abutment. Second, the utility wires cut across the river rather than following the road. Often when bridges and roads are realigned, the wires remain in place, which can often be a helpful hint.

Here are a few photographs and aerials to aid in explanation.

Looking at the old bridge abutment.

Looking west.

This area was heavily affected by the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Throughout Vermont you can see rivers with more cobbles and rocks than pre-flood and banks that have been ravaged by the strong currents and await restoration.

Standing above the river, you can see the path of the old road - based on the utility wires, not the grassy path in this picture.

Where is this? The bridge abutment is part of the former alignment of VT Route 73 in Rochester, VT. Route 73 intersects with VT Route 100 further north.  See these aerial maps below.

Route 73 (Brandon Mountain Road) would have turned in the center of this image, and connect to what is now State Garage Road.

The current alignment of VT Route 73 and Route 100.

Old bridge abutments are everywhere – be on the lookout! Thanks for reading and playing.  If you like reading about old road alignments, check out Jim Grey’s blog Down the Road, where he often writes about old alignments of the National Road.

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p.s. Look for the next Sense of Place post this afternoon.