Sense of Place

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Sense of place

Every adult seems to remember a special place from their past: a place of refuge as a child; sites of family vacations; a grandparent's farm; somewhere shared with a loved one at a special time. Many people, though often with some embarrassment, will confess to a favorite place in the present where they can go to be alone, to gather with friends, or spend leisure time. Places we can identify withand that feel special. A literature about that identification with placethat sense of placehas burgeoned in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

Yet, contemporary literature, both fictional and factual, is packed with documentation of alienation, root-lessness, displaced people, loss of connection to any particular place, loss of identity and character in suburb and city. In 1957, in America as a Civilization, Max Lerner documented the loss of community and the quest to regain it, claiming "this is what I call the problem of place in America, and unless it is somehow resolved, American life will become more jangled and fragmented than it is, and American personality will continue to be unquiet and unfulfilled." As the century ends, an increasing number of scholars, thinkers, and writers are advocating a reinhabitation of place, a reclamation of the spirit and sense of place as a solution to numerous contemporary problems, including environmental degradation , sustainability, and social alienation.

Sense of place as a phrase has at least two meanings. First, the particular characteristic of a place that makes it what it is. For example, though few people have visited Antarctica , most have some sense, an image in their mind's eye, of what that continent is like. That image may be realistic, or unrealistic, or may be dramatically simplified, but it will usually be based on physical characteristics that the place actually does have.

The second meaning is the particular sense that individuals have of places they know by experience; we all have a sense of many places that we have visited, but a sense of the same place is experienced in many ways by many different people. Even after a visit to Antarctica, for example, people will return with a variety of different views, depending on their reasons for being there, on how long they stayed, and on how much they know about the place. An explorer will carry one view, a natural scientist studying how organisms adapt to extreme environments will bring back a quite different view, and a tourist yet another viewpoint. Yi-Fu Tuan even claimed that "sense of place...implies a certain distance between self and place that allows the self to appreciate a place."

For many, a third meaning is the only one of consequence: that one can gain a sense of place only from being or becoming deeply involved with a place and by coming to know that one place and its inhabitants intimately. This is the meaning implicit in the claim that modern Americans must regain a sense of place to counteract their mobility and alienation from environment . The poet Gary Snyder refers to this when he claims that "there are many people on the planet now who are not 'inhabitants.' He teaches that spirit of place is accessed only through knowledge gained by direct experience in a specific locale; "Know the plants" has become almost his mantra. When you really know the plants, you are beginning to get a sense of the place, a sense of what is possible and a sense of how to live there in harmony with the site and setting.

Interwoven with the concept of place is the sense of home. We all have a sense of many places (in the first two meanings of the phrase), but a feeling of home is always associated with a sense of that specific place where home is thought to be. Home can be a dwelling, a town, even a state or a nation (in the sense of "homeland")or all of thesebut it always is a place, at one or several scales. Most of us live in some degree of intimacy with the place we call home; even if that is restricted to a dwelling, it is a place we know and are to some degree comfortable with. Beyond the dwelling, and even our identity with region and nation, to recognize what it means to say "the earth is our home" might change the way we behave toward the world on which we live.

Scholars and students agree that sense of place in all three meanings is best developed by increasing one's knowledge of the locality in question. A full sense of the third meaning can only be developed by really getting to know one place well. That usually means living there, becoming engaged with the surroundings, getting involved with the community, making enough of a commitment of time to get beyond the surface. It takes real effort to get to know the plants (even in cities, to know what the trees and shrubs are in the parks and on the streets, and to know why those particular species are there rather than others), to know, in rural areas, what crops are planted and why, to know the climatic patterns and the reasons for those patterns. If such a sense of place could be enhanced and strengthened, this might change the way people use energy in their homes and cars, interact with other parts of the environment, and consider how connected each of us really is to the particular places where we live.

Some of the best American literature focuses on the complex relationships of an individual writer with a specific place. For example, Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond trumpeted the personal significance and the transcendence of one small place. More recently, Aldo Leopold's struggle to reclaim a ravaged farm in the sand counties of Wisconsin has become a metaphor for attempts to understand the importance to human lives of being immersed in the workings of a place of one's own. Annie Dillard's mystical tome on Tinker Creek has, as a modern day Walden, helped many better understand the spirit of place. And, the "Refuge" Terry Tempest Williams found on the shores of the Great Salt Lake has generated empathy for the human condition and for the natural world with which it is so entwined.

If, says the poet Wendell Berry, you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are. People who have a better sense of who they are by knowing more about the places where they are, start paying attention to the impact those places have on their lives. Recognizing that place and identity are related, that place and well being cannot be disconnected, should lead to taking better care of those places.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Swan, J., and R., eds. Dialogues With the Living Earth: New Ideas on the Spirit of Place From Designers, Architects, and Innovators. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books-Theosophical Publishing House, 1996.

Tall, D. From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.


Cuba, L., and D. M. Hummon. "A Place to Call Home: Identification With Dwelling: Community, and Region," The Sociological Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 111131.