Improving Sense of Place

The previous sense of place posts have discussed how to define and how to measure sense of place, as a concept and as something more tangible. Sense of place is an empirical concept, but one that is understandable and applicable by those who study communities and the combined cultural and built environment.

The point of studying sense of place through casual discussion or scholarly analysis is to improve sense of place, and consequently improving quality of life. What makes one place better than another? And what does better mean? Each community or group of people is going to have different definitions for what sense of place means. I think that is one of the most important ideas to remember; sense of place and quality of life is not a standard one-size-fit-all idea. Some communities may want to focus on one aspect over another, whether economic health, transportation, schools, community centers, cultural events or something else.

The town lines up for a parade down Broad Street in Southern Pines, NC, December 2006.

Once sense of place is defined and measured for each community, how can it be improved? What makes a better sense of place?

No matter the goal, achieving it will require the combined effort of the municipality, local organizations and community members, including many volunteer hours (as that seems to be how much is accomplished). An important step will be for the community to identify what it needs and what it wants, and to rank its priorities. Projects can occur simultaneously, but knowing which is a higher priority can focus efforts.

That probably sounds vague, but it is the simple process of identifying what you want and outlining how to achieve it.

For example, if a town lacks a center, then zoning and development patterns are possibly the problem. In that case, getting the municipality to understand that the town zoning needs to be amended will be important. If a community lacks organized festivals or cultural events, then a non-profit organization or a group of concerned community members may be up for the challenge. If a community wants local businesses, then it must develop a plan to attract business owners. Pop-up businesses are a great way to kickstart enthusiasm and economic development in a community. Creating a sense of place can develop into a very in-depth topic, pulling in marketing and “branding” of a town.

Main Street in Middleburg, VA.

Of course, these businesses and events need somewhere to occur. This is an excellent opportunity for rehabilitating or restoring historic buildings (or even old buildings) and cleaning up community parks and green space. Improving sense of place can happen one event at a time, one building at a time. Resources such as Project for Public Spaces and the National Complete Streets Coalition offer guidelines for creating healthy communities. Each town or community will interpret the information differently.

The most important element of improving sense of place is people; the community needs concerned, dedicated residents who want to be proud of where they live.

What do you think? How can you improve sense of place? Do you have any concrete solutions?

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Next up (next week) for the sense of place series: inferences and assumptions about places you’ve never been. Anything else you’d like to discuss?

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