Sense of Place

Our relationships with places are as necessary, varied, and sometimes perhaps just as unpleasant as our relationships with other people.1

Sense of Place Sense of Place

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    - Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976

    It may seem strange, but people have feelings toward places! As Relph puts it, they are as complex as the relationships we have with people. Although places can't speak back to us, they are the settings of our lives either temporarily or permanently. This means we are affected by the natural elements, design, and human activities that may be present there. If that sounds interesting, you should read on to learn more about Edward Relph's concepts and how they are used in geography now.

    Sense of Place Definition

    A place is a point or area on Earth. It becomes subjective and relational when we develop feelings toward it. For instance, places can feel familiar, foreign, friendly, or hostile, depending on how we experience a place. Those feelings towards a place are otherwise referred to as a sense of place. Sense of place is the way people create emotional bonds to environments.

    The reason we learn about a sense of place is because of the way people's emotions toward a place can affect it. Because every place has unique characteristics and histories, it's important to understand how people's relationships with places can shape their design and characteristics.

    Sense of Place Geography

    The study of people's relationship to places involves the application of human psychology to geography. This is because geography was previously studied independently of culture, society, and psychology. However, there were many gaps in trying to understand how and why places develop (or don't).

    The concept of a sense of place derives from Edward Relph's work on people's relationship to places.1 Along with other geographers, Relph attempts to combine these concepts to better understand the uniqueness of places.2 Since Relph's work, sense of place has been studied thoroughly, with books and articles attempting to describe how places and people change according to their relationships with each other. It is now considered part of the greater concept of Humanistic Geography.

    Memory and Geography

    You might be wondering -- why do humans develop feelings toward places? To answer that, we need to understand how psychology and memory are affected by places. Humans and other mammals (ex. elephants), use memory to help them survive. Memory serves as a way to recognize previous patterns in order to make better survival choices in the future.

    This is one possible explanation for why we attach feelings to places - to help us survive. If we recognize certain characteristics as dangerous or safe, we have a better chance to find food, shelter, and community.

    For many of us, immediate survival isn't a need. We focus on going to school or work, exploring hobbies, or even just having fun. Our priorities paired with our ability to create relationships with places form our sense of place. Because no relationship is quite the same, your sense of place will vary depending on who you are and what you've experienced.

    Signs are put up to invoke a sense of danger at a street corner. This sign may have been necessary because people weren't feeling a sense of danger and needed cues that evoked feelings of alarm in order to be more careful. As a result, local residents may slow down or be more mindful of this specific corner.

    Sense of Place please stop sign in Cork County StudySmarter Fig 1. - Signage in Cork County, UK

    Sense of Place Factors

    There are several factors that affect sense of place. This includes placemaking strategies, changes in transportation and communication technology, and placelessness.

    Placemaking

    Placemaking is the way culture is expressed in the world. Culture can include language, tradition, religion, or values. The way in which they're expressed depends on the scale and goal of the projects. For instance, building a mosque is a form of placemaking that uses religion, architecture, and urban planning to create a place of worship. In turn, this can give the community a sense of communion and spirituality.

    Sense of Place Yeni Cami StudySmarterFig. 2 - Yeni Cami, Istanbul, Turkey; Istanbul has mosques all over the city, evoking a unique sense of place

    For smaller projects, other elements may be used to create a place people want to go to. If local residents value nature and leisure time, adding benches or trees at a local park may be an option. In using values for placemaking, a sense of place can be developed.

    Place branding is a way that cities or industries promote locations to attract tourists, new residents, or investments. This can be presented in advertisements that highlight the local culture, environment, and community. These advertisements also have an influence on the sense of place by creating an outward image of a city or town.

    Technology

    Advancements in transportation and communication have changed the way we develop feelings toward places. With smartphones and social media, we can now see pictures and videos from places all over the world. Now, we can get a sense of place without even being physically present at the location.

    Transportation and mobility also influence a sense of place. We are now traveling the world more and in greater numbers than previous generations. This means we are affecting places as either residents or tourists. This is because the level of attachment and meaning we have towards a place depends on the length of time and experiences we have there.

    Placelessness

    Placelessness, a term coined by Edward Relph, explains the "standardization" of places which contributes to a lack of uniqueness or distinction. This happens when urban or architectural designs are not in line with the local character of a place. Some examples of this are the commercialization of areas. Storefronts and façades may take on similar features due to cost, branding, or lack of knowledge of community character.

    Placelessness affects the sense of place through diminished relationships with those places. When there are fewer relationships to a place, there may be less responsibility to take care of, clean up, or maintain the area. For instance, while strip malls host amenities and services people need, they don't evoke engagement with the space or represent the values of the community. We may feel less inspired and more detached as a result.

    Sense of Place Importance

    Topophilia, a term popularized by Yi-fu Tuan, similarly explains the bonds people form for places.3 These can be familiar bonds, like feeling "at home." In contrast, topophobia is the anxiety or dread that a place induces. This can be due to previous negative experiences, perceived fears, or general dislike.

    These feelings we form toward a place can define them. If we have positive feelings toward a street, park, or corner, we are likely to reinforce those feelings by visiting and protecting such places. If we have negative feelings attached to a place, we may develop anxiety, stress, and depression. In the worst case, we may want to abandon or ignore places that evoke this feeling in us. As a result, these areas could get worse and people's feelings could further solidify negatively.

    The importance in learning about sense of place is to acknowledge that we do develop feelings toward places for various reasons. We may make decisions that affect those places further, consciously or subconsciously. Regardless of how we feel, we should try to understand and respect environments just as we do people.

    Sense of Place Examples

    There are numerous examples of sense of place. Can you think of some places you've attached a feeling toward? Here, we provide one relevant example which applies to other areas experiencing environmental damage from climate change.

    Coral Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

    The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, with large amounts of marine biodiversity, scientific observation, and tourism. The Great Barrier Reef has produced numerous feelings of attachment from people who have visited or seen media about it.

    Due to unusually high ocean temperatures, the Great Barrier Reef experienced high levels of coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017. Coral bleaching occurs when waters are too warm, and corals begin to release algae that cause coral to turn white. Although they are not dead, they are under stress and are more likely to die. In such cases, marine life is severely affected as food and shelter are disrupted.

    Due to these events, an outpouring of emotional distress and grief was expressed all over the world. People's emotional attachment or feelings toward the Great Barrier Reef were affected, sparking even greater media, financial support, and concern for climate change and its effects.4

    Sense of Place Coral Bleaching in Australia StudySmarterFig. 3 - Coral Bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia (2016)

    Sense of Place - Key takeaways

    • Sense of place refers to the way people create emotional bonds with environments.
    • Everyone's relationship with a place varies based on who they are, where they are, and their life experiences.
    • Although we're still trying to understand why we form relationships with places, there is evidence that it's meant to signal whether it provides food and shelter, or is dangerous. These cues help us survive.
    • Placemaking, changes in technology, and placelessness are a few factors that contribute to our sense of place.
    • Our feelings towards a place are usually reinforced in our behavior and in the way we treat environments.

    References

    1. Relph, E. Place and Placelessness. 1976. London: Pion.
    2. Foote, K. E., Azaryahu, M. Sense of Place. International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Elsevier Science, 2009, 96-100.
    3. Tuan, Y. Topophilia A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values. Prentice-Hall. 1974.
    4. Raymond, C., Manzo, L., Williams, D., Masso, A., Wirth, T. Changing Senses of Place: Navigating Global Challenges. Cambridge University Press. 2021.
    5. Fig. 1, Hoping for common sense (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hoping_for_common_sense_-_geograph.org.uk_-_2117257.jpg), by Neville Goodman (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/14974), licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    6. Fig. 2, Yeni Cami, Istanbul, Turkey (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_view_of_Istanbul-_Yeni_Cami_(The_New_Mosque),_Galata_Bridge._Turkey,_Southeastern_Europe.jpg), by Mstyslav Chernov (http://mstyslav-chernov.com/), licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    7. Fig. 3, Coral Bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bleached_coral_(24577819729).jpg), by Oregon State University (https://www.flickr.com/people/33247428@N08), licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sense of Place

    What does the sense of place mean in geography?

    Sense of place in geography means the way people create emotional bonds to environments. 

    What is an example of a sense of place?

    An example of sense of place is topophobia, anxiety or dread that a place induces.

    Why is place important in geography?

    Place is important in geography as it becomes subjective and relational to people. 

    How does the environment affect the sense of place?

    The environment can affect sense of place by providing natural elements. For instance, a beach can evoke a sense of relaxation and adventure. 

    What factors affect the sense of place?

    Factors affecting sense of place include placemaking, changes in technology, and placelessness. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is sense of place?

    We can get a sense of place without even being physically present at the location.

    The level of attachment and meaning we have towards a place depends on the length of time and experiences we have there. This can vary for tourists and residents.

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