More than just another term for geographical character, sense of place can stir the soul, inspiring song, art, literature, and passionate allegiance. It is the ultimate test of good destination stewardship, the sum total of what makes one place different from another. Sense of place means enrichment—in terms of money, knowledge, and experience—for both residents and visitors. For an example, see Ed McMahon’s persuasive TED talk delivered in Jacksonville, Florida. It is 15 minutes well spent.
It also represents an under-appreciated opportunity for creating alliances in support of good destination stewardship. Below, the professions and practices involved with sense of place. They can help each other but don’t always know it. Scroll down farther to see some references about sense of place—how to use it, how to lose it. —J.B.T.
Fields of endeavor that benefit from sense of place:
- Real estate
- Economic development
- Conflict resolution
Fields of endeavor that can help protect or create sense of place:
- Regional planning
- Urban redevelopment and placemaking
- Conservation and preservation
- Creative cities movement
- Rural renewal
- Diaspora populations
- Common-asset economics (“the commons”)
- Transportation technology
- Sustainable technologies
- Government, civil society, policymaking
Fields of endeavor that can do both
- Arts and humanities — theater, film, literature, art, music, etc.
- Architecture & landscape design
- Place branding & marketing
- Social media, crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding
- Spiritual activities
Fields of endeavor that can damage sense of place
- Almost all of the above
Sources about Sense of Place
This list is under construction. Please make suggestions!
Organizations that support sense of place
National trusts often perform this function, but many limit themselves to historic structures. Some address only natural areas. One exception:
Classics on sense of place
The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, by James Howard Kunstler.
Analysis and How-To
Community Culture and the Environment: A Guide to Understanding a Sense of Place U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Massive publication (293 pp) all about sense of place.
Infrastructure and Heritage Conservation: Opportunities for Urban Revitalization and Economic Development. By Katrinka Ebbe, World Bank.
Read sample paragraph *
Cultural endowments such as traditional architecture, unique streetscapes, and historic sites are increasingly recognized as important economic resources in both developed and developing countries. Cities are often an important focal point for development based on these resources because they provide concentrations of heritage assets, infrastructure services, private sector activity, and human resources. Improving the conservation and management of urban heritage is not only important for preserving its historic significance, but also for its potential to increase income-earning opportunities, city livability, and competitiveness.
Actionable points and examples, like key point #3:
Read #3 *
The design of urban infrastructure, such as architecture, streetscapes, transportation facilities, and so on, presents an opportunity to interpret the many constituent elements of a sense of place: the natural environment, history, culture, language, and other aspects of local environmental, economic, and social conditions. Through the development of creative streetscape design, transit facilities, street signage, and other infrastructure, artists can inform, educate, and comment on these local conditions.
For example, through investment in the integration of public art in water and sewer infrastructure, the City of Calgary, Alberta, provides essential services to residents while also enhancing sense of place. The city takes pride in the intact ecosystem of the Bow River, which flows through the city and provides residents with a sustainable source of drinking water, recreational opportunities, and world-class trout fishing. As a result, the city’s Council and Department of Utilities and Environmental Protection (UEP) created a Public Art Plan for the Expressive Potential of Utility Infrastructure to engage artists in utilizing public art to raise awareness of water as a critical and finite resource, foster environmental stewardship, and continuously engage residents in education about UEP services, infrastructure, and the surrounding watershed. The plan outlines how the city can integrate public art into its utilities and environmental systems to map the relationship between the man-made and natural watershed of the Bow River. The plan creates a “conceptual framework and visual tone for how UEP wants citizens to recognize and respond to its infrastructure.” This plan reveals the “untapped potential” of infrastructure as a unique, artistic, and cultural asset to the community and lays the foundation for realizing infrastructure’s expressive potential.