Valuing Sense of Place

Page editor: Michele Archie

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. —Jonathan Tourtellot

Sense of place — character of place, indentity of place, integrity of place – also represent an under-appreciated opportunity for creating alliances in support of good destination stewardship. Below, check out all the practices and professions – possibly your profession – involved with sense of place. They can help each other but may not know it.

Scroll down farther to see some references about sense of place—how to use it, how to lose it.

Fields of endeavor that benefit from sense of place:

  • Tourism
  • Real estate
  • Economic development
  • Publications
  • 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
  • Agriculture

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
  • Academia/research/consulting
  • 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:
Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI) This Italian nonprofit could serve as a model for other countries in that it addresses protection of heritage in all aspects—nature, culture, history, and art, whether rural or urban. Usually referred to in English as the Italian National Trust, its holistic mission is twofold: “To promote a tangible culture of respect for Italy’s natural heritage, art, history and traditions; and . . .  to protect a legacy that forms a fundamental part of the roots and identity of the Italian people.” In Italian; click the Union Jack symbol for English.

Classics on sense of place

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill Bryson

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, by James Howard Kunstler.


The impact of skylines:
Ed McMahon on high versus low
London versus its skyscrapers

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.

How Arts and Cultural Strategies Create, Reinforce, and Enhance Sense of Place
Actionable points and examples, like key point #3:

Read POINT #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.

About Michele Archie

Principal, The Harbinger Consultancy. I work with communities, regions and supporting organizations to understand, harness and expand the power of their place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one × 2 =