The Making of Place

July 23, 2002

A sense of place means different things to different people. To some, it derives from shared memories, experiences, traditions, and history—the site of a farmers market or the location where a historic event took place. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, would be just another beach without the tie-in with the Wright Brothers, and Hannibal, Missouri, just another river town if it were not the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. To others, however, a sense of place comes from distinctive sights, smells, and sounds—the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the smell of fresh-cut tobacco in eastern North Carolina, the sound of subway cars in Manhattan. A place reminds us of where we came from—and shapes who we are.

by David Salvesen Urban Land Institute

These special places are what make us homesick or nostalgic when we are away from them. In any case, a sense of place is difficult to define and measure, primarily because it is so subjective. (See “Town Watch,” page 36, May 2001; “The Meaning of Place,” page 36, March 2001; and “Place Making in Suburbia,” page 72, October 2000.)

In his classic 1976 book Place and Placelessness, geographer Edward Relph wrote that the basic meaning of place—its essence—does not come from a specific location, the community that occupies it, or superficial and mundane experiences, though all these are common and perhaps necessary aspects of places. The essence of place lies in its role as a profound center of human existence. There is for virtually everyone a deep association with and consciousness of the places where we were born and grew up, where we live now, or where we have had particularly moving experiences, wrote Relph.

In essence, people create places. They share experiences, invent and celebrate rituals and traditions, change the physical landscape—create farmland, build dams, dig tunnels, and erect buildings—and in the process, they build communities. In one way or another, people put their stamp on a place. Try to imagine Lancaster, Pennsylvania, without the Amish.

In general, a sense of place has to do with the interaction of three elements—location, landscape, and personal involvement; each by itself usually is insufficient to create a sense of place. A place most often is tied to a certain location, something unique that exists in space—a building, neighborhood, street, region, state, nation, continent, or planet. The Adirondacks in New York is a place that conjures certain images among people familiar with it, as does the Wright-Dunbar neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Each is a real place with specific coordinates and identifiable boundaries. In general, when people think of place, they think of something physical, something that occupies a certain location on a map. Yet, location, though a more exact notion than “place,” is only one component of it. A place can exist in the memory, as in our nostalgic recollections of past events or landmarks. Also, a location can lose its sense of place—such as abandoned coal mining towns in West Virginia, or small, rural towns in the upper Midwest that are struggling to survive despite the steady loss of population.

Natural features account for some of the more obvious components of place. On a large scale, place-shaping features include, for example, the Texas Panhandle, the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Lakes. Locally, they can include the farmland outside of town, a nearby lake or beach, or the snow-capped mountains in view from a town square. Similarly, buildings can create a sense of place—brick rowhouses in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; antebellum mansions in Charleston, South Carolina; or the 28-building Robert Taylor Homes project in Chicago. We react to these buildings and develop an affinity for or repulsion to them. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”

Place is more than just a location—a spot on a map—and it is more than just a landscape. Place is inextricably linked to people and the things that happen in that location that are meaningful to them. Place, after all, is a social construct. It is where important words have been spoken, vows exchanged, promises made, and demands issued. In this regard, even places devoid of people can have a sense of place. Few people, if any, live in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies a large chunk of land in northern Alaska, but it exists—it has exact boundaries as well as regulations governing its use—as a result of human involvement. And it has a strong sense of place, particularly among environmentalists, who consider it sacred ground. People did not create the land and the wild animals that inhabit it, but they created the wildlife refuge.

Places acquire much of their permanence and their distinctive character from the collective activities of the people who dwell there, who shape the land through their activities, and who build distinctive institutions, forms of organization, and social relations within, around, or focused on bounded domain, according to geographer David Harvey.

Places change, sometimes rapidly. They undergo economic, social, cultural, and political transformations that can lead them to lose their sense of place. For example, in the wake of severe flooding of the Missouri River in 1993, residents of the small riverfront town of Rhineland, Missouri, voluntarily moved to a bluff 900 feet above the river. Following the move, Rhineland seemed to lose its sense of place. Its businesses—a bank, a garage, a grain elevator, a post office, and a tavern—opted to stay in the valley to be close to the highway, so the new town became a bedroom community. People drove more—and interacted less. After the move, the river, which served to unify the town, was no longer a threat, and the town lost its cohesiveness.

On a larger scale, federal policies after World War II helped facilitate the destruction of inner-city neighborhoods. Urban renewal programs, while well intentioned, destroyed many close-knit, low-income urban neighborhoods and replaced them with monotonous, placeless, public housing projects, many of which were later deemed such failures that they were demolished or targeted for demolition, like the Robert Taylor Homes project. In 1956, Congress enacted the Interstate Highway Act calling for the construction of 41,000 miles of expressways—one of the largest public works projects ever undertaken in the country. In short order, new multilane highways encircled cities, sliced through inner-city neighborhoods, and facilitated the exodus of businesses and residents to the suburbs that continues to this day. Many of the neighborhoods left behind still have not recovered.

There are several threats to a sense of place, such as our nation’s restlessness, the homogenization of the built environment, and the emerging digital age. Since our nation’s founding, Americans have been on the move, always searching for new frontiers to explore and unspoiled territory in which to begin anew—always seeking, as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn put it, “to light out for the Territory.” Changing places has long been a peculiarly American trait: Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 that an American changes his residence ceaselessly. When things are going badly—a dead-end job, a failing marriage, rising crime—we cut our ties and move on. In such a vast country, space is our greatest safety valve. No horizon is out of reach. Our abundance of land and our pursuit of new horizons have made us the most mobile, and probably most restless, society on earth, writes David Lamb in A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans. We are refugees in our own country, notes Peter Schrag in Out of Place in America.

In the United States, people move on average once every five years, more often than people in any other culture except nomadic tribes, author James Jasper asserts in Restless Nation. This may be great for moving companies and real estate agents, but it makes it tough to build a sense of community. Is it the lack of a sense of place that makes leaving so easy, or do people not bother getting attached to a place because they know they are likely to leave in the near future?

Pull off at any interstate highway interchange and you enter a landscape cluttered with the same national chains of gas stations, restaurants, and inexpensive motels. You could be anywhere. Gone are the local influences in architecture, cuisine, hospitality, and entertainment. Ditto for shopping malls: a mall in Washington, D.C., looks a lot like a mall in Los Angeles—same stores, same marble floors, same music. The suburbs, in general, are becoming more and more alike. Tract homes on a cul de sac in one part of the country are often indistinguishable from tract homes in another area. According to James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, we have become a nation of look-alike suburbs where there is little sense of having arrived anywhere because every place looks like no place in particular.

The sameness of our suburban landscape diminishes a sense of place. Those features that make a village, a town, or a city unique and foster a sense of place are giving way to a creeping homogenization that waters down the influences of local culture, style, and traditions. Chevy Chase, Maryland, an upscale suburb of Washington, D.C., exhibits a strong sense of place in large part because each home is different from the next. Yet, even a place such as Levittown, New York, with street after street of cookie-cutter Cape Cods, has a strong sense of place. Perhaps Levittown’s placeness results from its endless sameness.

Finally, the digital age can render places irrelevant. Cellular phones, the Internet, fax machines, and overnight couriers have made it possible for more and more people to live and work wherever they choose, with or without attachment to place. Even industries themselves have become increasingly footloose because they are no longer tied to sites with river or railroad access. This new freedom of choice among workers and industries, particularly those that are part of the so-called new economy, could reshape the geography of America. Some people foresee the digital economy fracturing the metropolis as people become increasingly removed, physically and socially, from their community. However, it is also possible that the Internet and cellular phones will make it easier for people to stay in touch. In addition, certain places that offer a unique environment, such as downtowns, could have a competitive advantage over those that do not. Why? If people, in particular the so-called knowledge-based workers, have greater choices in where to live and work, they may select places that offer unique recreational and cultural amenities, such as restaurants, theaters, museums, and professional sports arenas.

Over the past 25 years, we have created virtually from scratch new, decentralized cities at the urban fringe to replace traditional cities that we no longer find useful. These suburban cities lie outside every major metropolitan area, usually in the form of glitzy, high-rise office buildings, stand-alone hotels and condominiums, and sprawling regional malls, all clustered around the highway interchanges that have overtaken waterways and railroad junctions as the preferred location for business and industry. Scattered across the metropolitan landscape, the new cities often contain more office and retail space than nearby central cities. For example, Oakland County, Michigan, outside of Detroit has become the dominant business center. By 1990, its population had surpassed that of Detroit, and it now boasts more office space than the Motor City. Yet, despite their relative youth, some of these suburban agglomerations are showing signs of aging. Many contain the seeds of their own destruction—overbuilding, traffic congestion, and rising crime. One of the biggest complaints of people who live or work in these areas, however, is that they lack a center—a sense of place.

Why does place matter? Place shapes who we are and what we will become. A sense of place provides a sense of belonging and of commitment. It is the repository for our shared memories, experiences, and dreams. It is a place of family and community ties—of roots—that stems from our connection to a particular location and its people. And when people feel connected to a place—emotionally, culturally, and spiritually—they are more apt to care for it. Thus, a sense of place may spur greater concern for farmland, neighborhoods, cities, and the environment. Much of the interest in environmental conservation, farmland preservation, historic preservation, and neighborhood protection derives from people’s strong connection to place and their reaction to threats against it. The smart growth movement, in large part, is a reaction to our sense of loss of the uniqueness of our places as the landscape around us deteriorates in the face of rapid, unchecked, low-density growth, otherwise known as sprawl.

Of course, a sense of place can conjure negative feelings or images as well. Relph wrote in Place and Placelessness about the “drudgery of place”—that is, a sense of being stuck in a place, bound by established scenes, routines, and symbols. A common theme in rock and roll music is escaping from places that offer no hope for the future. As Bruce Springsteen wrote in the song “Thunder Road”: “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.”

For the most part, however, a sense of place is a feeling that people find comforting. It could be where we were born, grew up, or hope to raise our children—a place worth caring about—or a place, such as the World Trade Center, that in the aftermath of its destruction, helps bind a city and a nation together.

David Salvesen is the director of the program on smart growth and the new economy at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. This article was adapted from a piece written for Project Learning Tree, a program of the American Forest Foundation.

FEATURE BOX

Ingredients of Place

Campo di Fiore in Rome is a typical European plaza of an earlier century. Five- and six-story masonry buildings are clustered around a square paved with rough stones. A diminutive fountain topped with a deeply patinaed bronze statue of 16th-century philosopher Giordano Bruno commands a spot near its center. Four narrow streets connect the plaza to the rest of the city, but it is impossible to see far down any of them. The area is the size of a football field, no great churches or palazzi grace its perimeter, and not a tree is to be seen. Yet this otherwise unremarkable space is filled with urban life. It begins each day as a public market replete with several dozen stalls; by 10 a.m., it evolves into a parking lot used by local workers; in late afternoon, it becomes a soccer field for neighborhood kids; and toward evening, it is a center of gravity for local retailers and an outdoor seating area for surrounding restaurants. It ends each night as a gathering place for tourists and students who loiter on the fountain steps. (See “Why Cities Need Squares,” page 66, February 2000 Urban Land.)

What commonalities make urban places like this so compelling to visit, to linger within, and visit again? What activities and physical characteristics exist in successful gathering places regardless of their context? What kind of management invisibly supports such spaces? And finally, how can these traits be incorporated in urban design and architecture in the United States?

In the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her seminal and oft-cited 1961 critique of urban planning and design, Jane Jacobs noted, “For illustrations [of her analysis], please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger, and think about what you see.” Observing how people use such successful urban spaces as New York City’s recently redesigned Bryant Park, Portland, Oregon’s Pioneer Square, and many others, 40 critical ingredients for public space can be identified. While it may not be possible for all public spaces to include every ingredient, it is readily apparent that a large percentage of them are present when a place is perceived as comfortable, popular, respected, and well used. These ingredients can be grouped into the following six categories:

Character—compelling physical characteristics establish a sense of place; Ownership—an identifiable group has a sense of pride and responsibility for a definable space; Authenticity—a genuine ethos of historic or contemporary meaning or context is present; Accommodations—amenities are present that meet basic human needs and desires; Nature—water, trees, plants, sky, and sun are present, attended to, and respected; and Social and private space—conversation, play, and special events, as well as retreat and solitude, are accommodated and encouraged.

Character. Urban spaces need clear boundaries or limits, together with attributes that make them unique and give them focus.

Gateways. Whether actual architectural features or symbolic arrival points, gateways add to the emotional sense of arrival when one enters a city, a district, a building, a plaza, or a park. Gateways also can be doorways to adjacent buildings; numerous gateways such as these are critical to activating any edge lined with building walls.

Enclosure. Buildings, landforms, landscape, and bodies of water define space and create understandable and psychologically defensible boundaries. Urban plazas and parks should provide refuge for visitors, like meadows after a long trek through the forest of the city.

Stairways. Beyond providing access to places above and below, stairways provide seating and a position to survey the surrounding environment.

Vantage points. From high points one can define the scope of the greater environment, and peer down on and observe the actions of others.

Patterns. Just as repeated sounds and variations on them turn notes into musical compositions that stir emotions, repeated elements in the environment—patterns in paving, landscape, and building forms—create soothing visual frames.

Scale. In some instances, people want to be engulfed in a throng, elbow to elbow; other times, they do not desire to see another human being. Not every space can satisfy this variation of need, but horizontal and vertical limits of given spaces act as natural sieves for the activities they can sustain.

Flexibility. Public spaces that provide multiple-use areas, without fixed features near their center, can function like outdoor hotel ballrooms.

Ownership. Every urban space must belong to a caretaking entity that takes pride in and is responsible for it. In most cases, a resident population constitutes the soul of ownership.

Management. The best public spaces have caretakers—individuals, neighborhood groups, a city district, a state, or even a nation that values the place and carefully manages and looks after its best interests.

Democratic accessibility. The best spaces allow easy access and equal opportunity to everyone, provided those people respect both the place and others who also wish to use it. Too many spaces purport to be public but exert physical and legal pressures to limit their use to specific groups.

Safety and security. People who visit a public place deserve to feel safe and comfortable; at the same time, any active security should be as benign or invisible as possible. Even if it is a cliché, there is safety in numbers, and the public realm feels more comfortable when plenty of people are around.

Maintenance. It should be obvious that urban places require careful, regular maintenance to keep them clean and attractive.

Quality and durability. The best public spaces use pavement, furnishings, landscaping materials, and artwork that is of high quality and able to withstand constant use—but without being reduced to relying on the drab and mundane based solely on resistance to wear and tear. Reason dictates that even the highest-quality materials and features need to be replaced over time.

Boundary. While every space needs a recognizable edge and limit of management and ownership responsibility, the best urban places manage to hide those limits, making the boundaries between public and private space nearly invisible.

Resident population. When people live around and above public space, they use and observe it nearly 24 hours a day and assume greater pride and responsibility for its condition.

Authenticity. Every urban setting has features that make it unique. Historic artifacts, informational and educational markers, landmarks, and artwork express the characteristics exclusive to that place. Authentic places derive character and meaning from local sources—history, materials, climate, and culture—and never pretend to be something they are not.

Artifacts. Memorials and historic markers lend significance to a place. They remind the user of a person or event that shaped or influenced the particular character of the place, the city, or the nation.

Information and education. Readily available facts—from the history of neighboring buildings to the whereabouts of restrooms, or the types of trees overhead and plants underfoot—ensure that places are easy to use and filled with learning.

Landmarks. Simple or complex, visually memorable landmarks may have local significance or may simply be fun or expressive. They may contain occupiable space or just be markers within or adjacent to a public space. Landmarks often serve as meeting places or directional indicators in the urban framework.

Art. Whether steeped in social commentary or displayed as an expression of beauty, approachable public art lends solemnity, joy, wonder, or debate to any space in which it is present.

Accommodations. Public urban space helps people to relax and should acknowledge their physical comfort by providing a number of amenities.

Seating. Successful spaces encourage people to rest, to converse, and to observe the world. Movable chairs or benches are preferable to fixed seating because they allow groups to assemble as they desire. Some fixed seating can be arranged to promote face-to-face conversation, and low planter walls can double as seating surfaces. Lawns are wonderful places to sit, allowing people to determine their own position and posture.

Restrooms and drinking fountains. Restrooms and potable water should be available in almost every circumstance. Ideally, such basic amenities should be provided free to the public, but modest fees can help support the maintenance that constant use requires.

Shelter. During extreme weather, people seek shelter—a place to take refuge from the heat of the sun or from a sudden deluge. Trees can provide shade or protection from a light rain, as can trellises, arcades, and gazebos.

Food vendors. People stay longer in public spaces when food and drink are available.

Dining areas. Restaurants or seating areas with outdoor tables and chairs enliven the atmosphere and provide opportunities for people to dine alfresco when the weather is pleasant.

Sundries. Public space is enlivened and enriched by such facilities as newsstands and flower stands, and by umbrella vendors who materialize when it rains.

Pet areas. As friends and companions, pets deserve a place alongside their owners. Rather than forbidding their presence, many public spaces accept pets and provide for their needs—a place to run, play, and get a drink of water.

Nature. In the urban context, nature has profound psychological and therapeutic benefits. The sight of colorful plantings, the sight and sound of water and leaves rustling in the breeze, the textures of stones and plants, the smell of earth and flowers or the air after a summer rain, and the sight and sound of birds and squirrels and other urban wildlife stimulate the senses and make people feel better. When people are exposed to such elements—combined with the presence of the sun and sky, the change of seasons, and the passing of time itself—they tend to forget the pressures of life; they relax and are restored.

Colorful plantings. The beauty of plants—their color, texture, motion, and fragrance—can be compelling.

Sight and sound of water. The movement and rhythmic sound of clean, clear water can be soothing and can mask unpleasant sounds in the environment.

Interactive water. Touching water, dipping one’s hands into it, even submerging oneself in it can be fun, especially on a hot summer day.

Green canopy. The oxygen that trees create and the shade they cast, the flutter of sunlight through green leaves in the spring, and the rustling of dry, yellow leaves in the fall can all be sources of solace and protection.

Water’s edge. People are drawn to water in a primordial way—people like to walk alongside it, to hear waves lap against the shore, to watch it change with the wind and light throughout the day, and to marvel at its nighttime mystery.

Texture. Variations in the texture of the environment—cobblestone paving, smooth granite, ivy-covered walls—help create visual and tactile complexity.

Time. Parks, plazas, and streets provide a place to observe the change in temperature, humidity, and the quality of light through the day or over a period of months. Seasons regulate the character of landscape; its colors, fragrances, and textures change through them.

Sun and shade. People crave and face the warming sun on a cold winter day and retreat to the shade of a tree on a hot summer afternoon. Climate extremes enhance these desires and should be carefully evaluated; some spaces need nearly full sun while others need almost complete shade.

Daylight. The presence of the sky and the particular quality of light it casts are critical to people’s well-being. Indoor public spaces need daylight as well.

Social and private space. Public space is the theater of everyday life. There is joy and comfort in watching and interacting with neighbors and strangers. But places to sit and talk, run and play, listen to music, watch jugglers, and buy vegetables also should contain places where one can spend time alone.

Dialogue. The best urban places provide a place for people to meet and talk with one another in a context that is comfortable and that provides distance from the urgency of major thoroughfares.

Play. The physical and emotional benefits of vigorous activity are essential to a balanced life; broad expanses of hardy turf or paved plazas allow organized or spontaneous play.

Entertainment. Performances can be restorative and pleasurable for both the audience and the performers.

Special and regular events. Market days and gatherings of all kinds, from celebrations to political rallies, help to define a community. Public places should always be equipped to handle large groups of people.

Children’s play areas. The smallest of children find games and interesting occupations in the simplest things—a bug crawling on a leaf, a rock to climb on, or a puddle to splash in. As they grow older, children need more complex activity; playgrounds with imaginative features can help them to develop their physical and social capabilities.

Quiet places. The most successful public spaces can allow truly private moments. At home, people are subject to the demands of family or friends. Paradoxically, in the public realm, people can find solitude in places where no one knows them, places where no one can disturb their quietude. In his book City: Rediscovering the Center, William H. Whyte noted that the best way to evaluate a person’s comfort level in a public environment is to observe his or her willingness to fall asleep alone in it.

Stress relief. Urban life provides a constant barrage of sensory stimulation; the sights, sounds, smells, and density of its context and inhabitants can be overwhelming. Public spaces can provide a therapeutic setting for retreat and recovery.

Most great public spaces have an overwhelming majority of these ingredients. Though not every urban space can contain all of them, most should be present for a place to be successful. Several elements are always required—management, maintenance, seating, and the sight and sound of water, to name a few. Some ingredients, such as steps or a vantage point, may not fit into a given space. Outside factors can constitute fatal flaws, such as a landfill upwind from the site or the absence of ready access for pedestrians or nearby residents. But awareness of the basic characteristics that in some measure must be part of every successful urban space is critical to understanding why certain places are “alive” while others are not.—Randy Shortridge, an architect and urban designer in the Los Angeles office of RTKL; this article first appeared in ArchNewsNow.com

July 2002 © 2002 ULI–the Urban Land Institute, all rights reserved.

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