Stewardship Resources

Valuing Sense of Place

Page editor: Michele Archie

To quote D.S.C. director Jonathan Tourtellot: “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 17 minutes well spent.

All tourism takes place somewhere. As travel motivations shift increasingly from leisure and entertainment to experience and discovery, the quality of the visitor experience and the uniqueness of a place give well-managed destinations a comparative advantage in global and domestic travel markets. And, bonus(!), the same characteristics that add to a destination’s visitor appeal are often equally compelling to residents. Robust destination stewardship is grounded in and seeks to preserve and enhance the essential character of the place.

The links on this page provide resources for understanding and enhancing the value of place. Sections below address:

  • Your natural allies – you are not alone.
  • References about sense of place—how to use it, how to lose it, and how to understand its value.

Your natural allies

Sense of place is a shared good, and an under-appreciated opportunity for creating alliances in support of good destination stewardship, among partners, professionals and practices which, witting or not, are involved with sense of place.

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

Assessing and Building Community Character and Sense of Place

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. What it’s good for: developing community-based environmental protection strategies; understanding the meaning of “sense of community” and “sense of place”; defining community; and understanding community attitudes, values and behaviors.

A “Community Character” Inventory, Wendy Grey in Planning Commissioners Journal, Fall 2010. A three-page overview of how to inventory the physical character of a community and assess needs and opportunities, often done as part of a broader comprehensive planning process.

How Arts and Cultural Strategies Create, Reinforce, and Enhance Sense of Place This briefing paper explores how arts and culture strategies can be used to understand community context, celebrate community character, and ultimately create, reinforce, or enhance sense of place. The first section focuses on understanding and celebrating local communities through quantitative and qualitative methods. The second section focuses on implementation tools such as public art master plans and arts and culture programming. Stocked with 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.

Sense of Place Matters: Community of Practice Resources for Conservation, Clare Hintz, PhD; Jeremy Solin, PhD; Chiara D’Amore PhD, Prescott College, 2016. Explores the significance of sense of place for conservation engagement and decision making through seven strategies: Presence, Journey, Learning, Work, Kinship, Personal Identity, and Planning. Resources include theoretical, case examples, and curriculum materials.

Infrastructure and Heritage Conservation:  Opportunities for Urban Revitalization and Economic Development.  By Katrinka Ebbe, World Bank. Thematic report explores connections among urban revitalization, heritage, and tourism using examples from World Bank projects.

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.

Building a Sense of Place:  A Cooperative Approach to Discovering and Preserving Community Character.Land Information Access Association, April 1999. Based on a study in Michigan.

Sense of Place in Sustainable Tourism Development, presented to ICOMOS 2008. A case study methodology used to understand and articulate sense of place as assets in sustainable tourism policy and planning.

The Economic Value of Place

Travel-Stimulated Entrepreneurial Migration, Snepenger, David J, Jerry Dean Johnson and Ray Rasker, Journal of Travel Research, Summer 1995: 40-44. Explores the movement of existing and potential businesses to a region by entrepreneurs who first visited while on pleasure or business travel in the Greater Yellowstone region. Of special interest: research findings about the community characteristics most important to entrepreneurs’ choice to conduct business there — notably, most of these have to do with the character of the place more than with traditional “business climate” variables.

Understanding Sense of Place, Placemaking, and Tourism

Tourism planning and place making: place-making or placemaking?Alan Lew, Tourism Geographies 19(3): 1-19. Explores tourism destination planning and marketing as fundamentally place-making actions intended to shape the image and imageability of a place.

Destination NEXT 2019 Futures Study. Identifies destination stewardship and community alignment — essentially, placemaking/enhancing sense of place — as two future roles for destination organizations.


The impact of skylines:

Ed McMahon on high versus low

London versus its skyscrapers

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.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre  This is the home page for all things World Heritage, including publications, papers and other resources related to preserving natural and cultural heritage. In English and French.

Community and Program Examples

We Speak Oregon program for engaging local residents with expertise in everything from birding to wildflowers to hiking to craft beer to train staff from local businesses to talk knowledgeably about what makes their community distinctive. This case study from South Lincoln County is an illustration of how the program can work locally.

Oakridge, Oregon, pioneered the “We Speak” program as part of its effort to revitalize itself after the timber industry declined in the area. This 7-minute video tells the story of a community reinventing itself in a deeply authentic way. See the Communities Powered by Travel video series for more stories that reflect the Travel Oregon Rural Tourism Studio’s commitment to helping communities offer high-value authentic travel experiences in off-the-beaten-path destinations.

Project for Public Spaces  Resources include an article on placemaking that showcases the Project for Public Spaces “Place Diagram,” a graphic tool developed to help communities evaluate places, and the “Placemaking: What if we built our cities around places?” booklet; and an article on main street placemaking to revitalize rural communities, which provides an overview of a partnership between PPS and the National Main Street Center. 

Slow Food International.  Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, and how our food choices affect the world around us. Slow Food connects food to many other aspects of life, including culture, politics, agriculture and the environment – i.e., sense of place.

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.

Our Towns: A Journey into the Heart of America, by Deborah and James Fallows. A book and a series of posts on The Atlantic’s website.

The Sense of Place, by Wallace Stegner.

Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place (focused on the Pacific Northwest in the United States)

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