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?

94 thoughts on “Measuring Sense of Place

  1. kvlandau says:

    Thanks for the post Kate! I think I am arriving at a better understanding of “sense of place”, but I disagree that a particular place “has” a sense of place. Rather, it is indeed an emotional attachment or level of commitment in our own heads toward the place. An abandoned, crumbling old home in Vermont might be full of tragedy and bad memories for a certain family, but represent an opportunity to invest energy and love for preservationists. I also don’t think that a place can “lack” a sense of place, but that sense of place for a person varies along a continuum from weak to strong.

    I took a look at that article you told us about. I think it is difficult and debatable to quantify any social construct (e.g., sense of place), but the attempt to do so is very important. By quantifying sense of place at this national park in Brisbane, we can do the same study elsewhere, and be able to systematically compare the two. Similarities and differences between them allow us to make generalizations among populations and places, rather than go on the impossible endeavor of accounting for all the specific details of one person’s sense of a place vs. another’s. Generalizing sense of place might also inform policy decisions or neighborhood revitalization efforts.

    While quantification uses a lot of what social sciences would call middle-range theory (connections between ideas and actual behavior — in this case, what people understand as their sense of place and how they might act because of or despite it), you’d be surprised at the consistency in the patterns of results (thereby validating those connections). For example, Axford and Hockings came up with some creative ways to “connect” the abstract concept of sense of place to specific operators (e.g., positive perception, knowledge of place history, etc.). In the end they came up with three statistically significant groups of people with weak, medium and strong senses of place. Going back and looking at the qualitative interview data, their quantification seems right on.

    So now we know that variables such as positive perception and knowledge of place history are significant factors that shape one’s sense of place. Measurement!

    To add to their article, I think there is also a strong spatial component (distance of place of residence to park) that might be further revealed by working with their data statistically in a GIS. Cool!

    For my own research in archaeology, I wonder what material indicators might correspond with sense of place. I was hoping to pick up some ideas from the article, but since I can’t interview skeletons, this makes my life harder. What are some ‘connections’ between a weak/medium/strong sense of place and material remains that would preserve over 1300 years? Archaeology requires more creative thinking you’d imagine!

  2. Mikalee Byerman says:

    Interesting post — I love that you’ve asked your readers to weigh in on the concept of the senses as they relate to a sense of place. I can see where this would be a critical concept for preservation.

    I can’t wait to explore more of your blog — fascinating stuff! 🙂

  3. Jean says:

    A sense of place is a place where you want to linger for several hours and explore with no particular motive except sit, look around and walk/bike around. A sense of place is a place where you feel safe.

  4. readerareadevelopment says:

    I love the topic of “place” and often reference it. It’s really hard to measure something like it, but we try incredibly hard to do so. Our nature to Top 10 things is a bad habit.

    I live in an area drying up of small local businesses. Sure, they are there, but they don’t create the town. But yet there are a plethora of community events. They are scattered all over town and usually put on by local organizations but they fail to really connect everyone to the “place.” Some people are content as things are, others like myself aren’t so much.

    Preservation adds those layers of social fabric which create a link to our past. In today’s terms we are protecting beautiful and forgotten structures and places. If we continue to build and develop in the fashion we are, would there be as much people would want to “preserve” in the future? I don’t think people will be lined up to stop the bulldozer of an Applebee’s or Wal-Mart.

    It’s true that one’s misery could be another’s opportunity. But I don’t think that really weighs heavily in the human instinctive nature of feeling when something is good or special.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Good question: what will we want to preserve from 2012? Strip malls, big boxes? No thank you. Of course, there are some who will argue otherwise because such development is indicative of a certain period of time and society’s habits.

      Listing and measuring — another societal trait, I guess. We are creatures of comparison, for better or for worse. Interesting point.

  5. MJ, Nonstepmom says:

    This is so very important, people under-estimate concepts like this but then don’t understand how walmart & the rest so easily take hold ! (I worked in economic development in my “past life”)

    • Kaitlin says:

      I agree; people subconsciously appreciate sense of place and other benefits of preservation, without being to identify what it really is or why one place is preferably to another. It’s only when bad things like Walmart happen that people think, hmm… something is different, something is wrong. So those of us who care and understand preservation and sense of place, just have to keep working hard because we know it benefits everyone. And we’re happy to do so.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Good link, I really like the idea of a building being loved and therefore being preserved, saved, invested in, etc. Thanks for sharing. Psychology and architecture sounds like a fascinating connection, and I imagine it ties well with preservation. I’m looking forward to visiting your blog, too.

  6. salfordgareth says:

    I find the sense of place stuff fascinating, so much so that I decided to make it the focus of my PhD. I was interested initially in trying to answer some of the questions you have posed here around measurement and comparison between places. But I soon realised I was missing a vital ingredient: relations of power. That’s when I started to ask different questions. Instead of how to measure sense of place, I now ask “In whose interests is it to promote sense of place?” “What are the political contexts in which the promotion of sense of place operating?”, “Where does the idea that a strong sense of place makes for a better community come from?” “How does sense of place include and exclude certain groups of people from particular places?” (John Dixon’s work on place identity in post-apartheid South Africa being a prime example). All deeply interesting and worthy of further attention. Glad to have found your blog!

    • Sarah D. says:

      These are great questions. Thanks for adding them to this discussion. I live in a region where we are trying to raise our profile for tourism, yet retain the reason that we love it: open space, small towns, distinctive characteristics (not wildly unusual, but ours just the same). Another question that arises involves newcomers and (vs?) old-timers. Do we value the same things about this place? Do we see a similar future?

      • Kaitlin says:

        Sarah, I love that you mention newcomers v. old-timers. That seems to be a topic of conversation everywhere, including here in Vermont. In cases like this, I think it is probably helpful to use historic preservation surveys and research such as National Register nominations in order to identify to significant characteristics of the town/region. Those features and characteristics are likely what defines the physical environment and what attracted the newcomers in the first place. Then, perhaps the newcomers can better appreciate what exists and realize why they came, and the old-timers can appreciate that the newcomers value what they do, as well. There is no perfect solution, but maybe that helps a bit.

        A critical tool is proper zoning and a regional or at least a town master plan. Without zoning plans, anything can happen. Many towns do not see the need for such measures until it is too late (i.e. big box and McMansion developments comes to town), even though it would have benefited them from the start.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, salfordgareth. Sense of place is quite the topic; it’s almost like going down a rabbit hole! But, I really like the questions you ask about who determines sense of place, for whose benefit, why does it matter, etc. I’d be interested to hear more about your PhD studies. My friend, (commenter kvlandau) would love this conversation too. I’ll direct her to your comments.

  7. angelique523 says:

    I agree MJ, Walmart is a huge threat to many things. I love “Build A Better Burb” and the concept needs to be applied and accepted. When the economy fell a few years back, our Walmart put up concrete barricades to force traffic only one way in and one way out. Many people do not realize that they are allowed to declare marshal law and issue weapons to employees should the public become frenzied. It was crazy, they removed all the ammo and guns from the shelves for almost a month here. That THAT I say, is why this blog is spot on today. Excellent writing. Wonderful thing to promote. Cheers!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Thank you, Angelique! I find Walmart horrendous, and it is terrible how the company can just keep fighting development laws because of deep pockets, even when a town initially opposes the idea. While all big boxes harm our communities, I still find Walmart to be one of the worst.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Mark, I agree. Sense of place most definitely involves a community vibe and connectedness. Glad to hear others feel the same way. It’s what makes our towns and cities great.

  8. gretchen says:

    Thank you for giving me some new language I can use: sense of place. My metropolitan suburb has none. All chains and anonymity. We finally got one local, one-of-a-kind pub that has been transformative and is doing great business! This is a topic that needs attention. Thanks again.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Gretchen, so glad you stopped by and that this post could be helpful. Suburbs have the hardest time with sense of place, I think (though I grew up in suburbs so maybe I’m biased). Often it’s poor planning and zoning laws. It’s nice to hear that your someone in your suburb started a local business — perhaps it will become a trend!

      A related concept that might interest you is “Third Place” — as in, people have home and work as their first two places, and third place is someone in between the two. It is someplace you feel comfortable, can socialize, visit, work, etc. but not be at work or at home. A book that discusses “third place” is The Great Good Places by Ray Oldenburg. enjoy!

  9. Samantha says:

    Sense of place is different for everyone. I think that some places that are famous, etc. can resonate with a large amount of people, such as New York City or San Francisco or national parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, because even for people who haven’t been there it is familiar in a sense. However each of us has a personal sense of place, such as the small town I work in which is supremely unique because of how few corporate businesses there are and most are local, while my hometown establishes a sense of place because it’s a mid-sized city with a good balance of corporate and local business in the area.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Samantha, I like your distinction between well known places and personal places, and how sense of place is created in one over another. I would venture to say that those famous places are (partially) famous because of their strong sense of place. what do you think?

  10. Di says:

    I’m glad I found this blog- I come from a country that is talking about measuring happiness, and I must say measuring ‘sense of place’ sounds a lot like that. It can mean many different things to different people, and each place will have an entirely different value to a person, just like different things make people happy in different ways. But in both these cases, I think there is some common ground, some things that everyone will agree is necessary for happiness/sense of place to exist. Even though they seem immeasurable, we try to express them in terms of quantity- ‘I am so much happier now’, I say, or ‘My city has absolutely no sense of place’. I don’t know if it makes sense to measure either of these concepts, or other concepts like it, common sense, for instance, or sense of humour? But I see why we attempt to measure them (the earlier two, I don’t know if anyone has tried measuring common sense or sense of humour), and how that measurement, despite being inevitably flawed in some way, can help us improve, happiness, or sense of place. Will keep an eye on the discussion. Thanks for the food for thought. 🙂

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hello Di, I hope the discussion in these comments is helping to fuel your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, happiness and sense of place go hand-in-hand, if you ask me. While people will have different standards for happiness, I bet there are underlying built environment concepts that reflect and/or shape happiness, assuming people live where they want to. I’m not sure measuring common sense is related or necessary, as you say, but it sounds like a fun(?) complex discussion.

  11. Frits Ahlefeldt, HikingArtist.com says:

    Might sense of belonging and sense of place be related?
    Great post – as a Hiker (from architecture school) I have been walking through a lot of locations and a few places, and always wondered about the difference. One of the essential differences, for me, is how a place can make me feel a the sense of “belonging”. To me that is what make much of the difference – I get a feeling of an welcome, of belonging to a place, even if I just arrived, and as a contrast I feel “alien” in a lot of modern locations that misses this dimension of “belonging”.
    And maybe this feel of belonging plays a role in what makes us want to preserve the places that makes us feel like we belong there, and not the ones that don’t

    • Kaitlin says:

      Sense of belonging sounds right in line with sense of place, based on your description. And consequently that impacts care, maintenance, respect and ultimately preservation. Good link!

  12. divilthebit says:

    Hi I’m very new to blogging but enjoyed this one. My sense of place at the moment has inspired me to write this novel http://www.nuthollow.com. I’m not originally from the place where I now live but was swept away by the majesty, mystery and mythology of this area ie the north Antrim coast of Ireland. We have recently set up a B&B too http://www.wix.com/divilthebit/teachancheoil. As a father of two young children I find it very important to give them a link to what went before and both my wife and I do this through Irish language and music. The land here echoes to the laughter of our ancestors.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Congrats on the book! Your children are lucky to have a father and mother who care about place, history and sharing it with them. Good luck with your B&B, too!

  13. home, garden, life says:

    I lived in a huge urban area for 16 years and finally defaulted back to the small town where I spent 11 years with my family, as a child. I have lived here for 11 years, have a home and garden, where I feel “grounded” most days.

    The quiet voice inside me is louder now, telling me that it is time to leave this place. Change is on the horizon, yet dealing with all the logistics of selling a home, finding a new “place” and purpose causes me to head to the sofa with a book.

    Being an adult is difficult, riddled with challenges that not necessarily make me a better person. Too often I am just tired and cranky.

    My one consolation is my Nikon and beautiful surroundings where I document days to my blog. I feel the urge to build my own space, yet finding land with a small budget takes all the fun out of the possibilities.

    As a designer, I renovated two previous spaces, with much sweat equity, only to find a restlessness that will not be suppressed.

    Therefore, sense of place is an excellent topic with unknown resolutions.

    • Kaitlin says:

      I wish you luck and happiness as you figure out your next move. I keep hearing over and over, “it’s your life, so live it.” Enjoy your photography — I’ll head over to your blog to check it out. thanks for stopping by.

  14. Jetty M. Hartsky says:

    Identification, identification, identification. Places, organizations, an other abstract somewhat non-human things can have an identity. How to quantify and verify that identity or ‘sense’ is a hard task!

    • Kaitlin says:

      I suppose we are all searching for the identity of everything. And we personify non-human things as you say. I know I’m guilty of personifying most everything — maybe some of us are hardwired that way.

  15. Grumpa Joe says:

    I like your premise that we need to define our sense of place. I feel that my town of Frankfort, Illinois is my special place. It pronounces to be town with 1850’s charm. That connection to the past and a preservation of the old district with an integration with the new population infusion convinces me to belong here.
    One thing that differentiates my town from others is the tax rate. It continues to climb as the ambiance of the 1850’s charm integrates with the 2012 suburban sprawl. For the first time in twenty-two years, I have become unhappy because of the intrusion of too many regulations and the expense of living here.
    It is time to find a new sense of place; maybe heaven?

    • Kaitlin says:

      Proper infill to a historic district is often difficult. “Charm” as you say, draws people to a place and makes it more desirable, thus increasing the property values and taxes. What sort of regulations do you mean?

  16. pressurechamber says:

    Sense of place is a very interesting topic, To have a sense of place, I would define place as anywhere, whether it be a physical location, or your place among relationships/friends/family/community. Then for me I would define sense of place as where give and take are balanced. if one gives too much without taking, or takes too much without giving then you will start to lose that sense of place. In my books balance is the key to preserving sense of place.

  17. onmynatureofthings says:

    Tūrangawaewae

    Tūrangawaewae is one of the most well-known and powerful Māori concepts. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.

  18. mary says:

    Congrats on freshly pressed. Great post and interesting topic. One thing I discovered through my research is that a sense of place can be looked at by how people use the “space” in their everyday lives, how space becomes inhabited as “place” and how memory and place are connected. I did a thesis on this very topic. If you would like to have a peek, it is under urbanreconnaissance.wordpress.com

  19. Martha in Oregon says:

    I’m happy to have run across this post — haven’t done much web-surfing for a while. Some years (can it really have been 20 years!) back I and others here spent time studying and celebrating the concept of a sense of place. I’m busy today but look forward to coming back to read all the comments.

    I, too, think the sense of place belongs to people (individuals or groups) rather than to the place itself. I’d guess people who grew up on Long Island do have a sense of place there that visitors cannot know. Knowledge of place informs sense of place. It has to do with the importance of landmarks in our mind-maps.

    I grew up here in Grants Pass, Oregon, lived away for several years, then came back. For many years I walked almost everywhere I went. As a child I spent many hours on the riverbank while my dad fished – I know the smell of the river and the plants on its banks. I served as librarian at the local historical society for over 8 years and published a local history book. I know where some of the local Indian villages were, and I have climbed two local mountains. (Small ones.) All these things and many others have formed my sense of place.

    When I think back to other places where I have spent significant amounts of time, I have a sense of those places as well. Significance is more important than time spent, I think. I can picture my college campus and its surroundings — and I’m sure I’d be surprised at the changes there in the past 25 years. I have spent several weeks at different times of my life exploring Kentucky with a dear friend, and I have a strong sense of place for Kentucky, although I have never lived there.

    How can we cultivate a sense of place in others? That is an important question. I am always surprised when I tell local people my driveway is “the first one on the left past the bridge on Gilbert Creek” and find they are unaware of the creek that runs all the way through town (and formed its original western boundary, and was the reason the train stopped here in the first place).

    I look forward to coming back to read your blog again.
    Martha

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Martha, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on sense of place. I especially like where you mention that people are unaware of the bridge/creek. Connecting to a different topic, this is often a result of how our transportation network has changed — when our bridges are replaced with standard “girder” bridges that basically look no different than the road, except that boring guardrail is introduced rather than bridge railing. This can be helped through education: people need to be aware of their environment and how to read it. For that issue, I always recommend “Outside Lies Magic” by John R. Stilgoe. It is a good read and discusses how to read the built environment.

      As for sense of place, time spent in a place will most certainly aid in creating a sense of place for you, regardless of how strong it may be to a new person. Good point.

  20. MoonWynd Studio says:

    Great post! I believe a creative person needs ‘a sense of place’ even more than most. It’s a deep feeling of peace and joy you get when standing in that place with your feet on the ground right there. The soul is a very earthy place. The more nature you can give to feed it, the higher the spirit flies… Gardeners are able to find that sense of place anywhere they go, I think, because they are digging around in it no matter where. And we know what they create: Beauty, peace and love made visible in the flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit that they nurture. Here’s to the gardeners of the world; in fact, the farmers as well! They know how to nourish both the body and the soul. (I wish I was one of them…)
    Love MoonWynd
    http://moonwyndstudio.wordpress.com/

      • MoonWynd Studio says:

        Hm, yeah. Me too. I have to stick with my few plants on my balcony 19 floors up…sigh…. I love your commitment and your project mission. Absolutely wonderful. “Community Plans” seem to sometimes forget the ‘community’ part. I will be visiting your blog more often. It’s so interesting. All the best to you, love MoonWynd

  21. Nicole says:

    Great post. Its been years since I’ve graduated from school, but this was always a hot topic for discussion. I don’t know that I can add much to the discussion that is already occurring on this thread, but certainly having a sense of community ties into that sense of place. In my region of the world, sense of place always seems to spark a debate about what differentiates our metropolitan area from any other metropolitan area in the nation. What makes us unique? How would you tell the difference between one city or another? It’s one of those concepts that overlaps with all areas of planning – and being – within a community.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Thank you! Planning can most definitely make a city unique. The questions you ask (or your city asks) are questions every community should consider. Well said.

  22. lincoln300 says:

    Living in a city where there are (tall) buildings & shopping centres everywhere, I think people (type of crowd) and ambiance are two factors that make a difference to me on how “great” a place is.

  23. Dani Loebs says:

    I couldn’t stop thinking of terroir when I read this. Terroir is a french word used primarily in the wine world which roughly translates to “sense of place.” From the perspective of a boidynamic wine maker, a wine’s terroir is something you can taste, smell, feel on your tongue, etc that reflects the place in which the grapes grew.

    Tastes, smells, sounds, the way things feel, the quality of the light—all of these things can trigger memories. When something transports you to a memory, it triggers a very personal sense of place within your soul.

    So I think the onus of improving a “sense of place” rests on the observer. If one is closed off to experiencing something in an introspective and reflective way, it’s pretty hard to conjure up a sense of place.

    Fun topic! Thank you for writing and taking a sec to read my odd little thoughts! 🙂

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Dani, thanks for the new vocabulary. I agree: tastes and memories can contribute to a sense of place. And great downtowns, villages and city centers usually have good restaurants. Coincidence? Probably not!

      • Dani Loebs says:

        You bet! Now having read the comments below, something clicked for me. An easier question to answer (at least for me) is “how do you stimulate a sense of belonging in a community?”

        Building an emotional connection and spurring people to invest in their community is best done through story-telling and story-sharing. Example: I’ve spent the last two years helping my local Historical Society and I wrote a play based on the amazing life of one of the town’s founders.

        Uncovering the stories of this place I’d lived for 18 years sealed my sense of belonging. The gift of learning, carrying and teaching stories of a place breeds a sense of ownership and pride.

        Perhaps improving a sense of place can be as easy as letting its stories be uncovered and shared? Also, if preservation is applied to the stories of the present as well as the past, there is a higher chance of growing that feeling of emotional connectivity. To sum up: tell the stories of old and celebrate them with the stories of now.

        • Kaitlin says:

          Preservation connects the past to the present, so it definitely applies. And sharing stories, whether informally or through oral history is an excellent way to help people realize their sense of place and how to be aware. Thanks!

  24. mysweatyshirt says:

    when there’s a sense of place, there’s a sense of belonging. Love the place, love the people. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  25. marsellaj says:

    Having moved from a very beautiful, mountainous city to an uninspired, flat, plain city I discovered that it was the invitation of community, of being welcomed that made it seem prettier.Didn’t know that until I experienced it.

  26. Brenda K says:

    Wow!! You’ve just inspired me to write about a subject close to my heart, but is a total departure from my (recent) internal monologue as echoed on my personal blog – thanks!! The title will be “Making Peace with L.A.” I could go on for volumes about the various subjects your post addresses (I’ve lived, worked studied, traveled in a LOT of places!), and have to find a way to distill it down to a reasonable blog size. In fact, that very volume is clogging up my thought train to formulate an answer to the question at the end of your post. Thanks for the inspiration and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    P.S. I just saw the sidebar to your blog about Izzy, and she looks very similar to Pink, the youngest of the Panache Cats who is currently engaged in a war with cancer (we’re fervently hoping he will win and doing everything we can! http://fiddlerchick.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/when-mondays-go-from-bad-to-horrible-or-can-we-bring-pink-back-from-the-brink/ ). Goodness, even her tower looks like ours. In fact, it was the “Pink” aspect of the title of your blog that attracted my attention 😉

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