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Place + Placelessness

Apr 02, 2010

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

We planners like to use the term sense of place as shorthand. “Place-making” is an everyday verb where I work. But it’s really a complex term, and what does “place” really mean anyways!? I thought I would write some thoughts on it to help me approach our new planning project work on Seattle’s East Side.

The term, “a sense of place” evolved from the work of Canadian geographer Edward Relph in his classic phenomenological study Place and Placelessness. The book, written in the post modern mid-seventies, explores the value that local human behavior, practice, and lived experience have on the formation of our built environment.

Relph wrote that a “sense of place” has to do with the interchange between three essentials — location, landscape, and personal involvement; but that each by itself is insufficient. He recognized that how we design our communities is more than all else, a battle of identity. And place shapes who we are and what we will become.

For example, Seattle as a geographically bounded “place” relies on any number of historic events that defined interaction with our unique ecology: the Ballard locks and fisherman’s terminal, the cherry trees on Lake Washington Blvd, craftsman houses, or the relentless march of our rectilinear grid from the shoreline to the hills. Relph wrote that a “sense of place” has to do with the interchange between three essentials—location, landscape, and personal involvement; but that each by itself is insufficient. He recognized that how we design our communities is more than all else, a battle of identity. And place shapes who we are and what we will become.

As practicing architects and urban planners, we are asked to craft our designs in recognition -even reverence- to this intangible, but also very real “sense of place.” But often enough, particularly outside of the well-defined community, the primary goal seems to be to invent a sense of place itself; thus the title “place-maker.” Well intentioned designers push back against the insidious “no place” of strip suburbia. But I find this to be somewhat treacherous territory, and the balance depends very much on the heavy handedness of its application. We all know that an idea when entirely too crafted (Celebration Florida anyone?) doesn’t feel genuine either. Why do some of the newly invented “neighborhoods” we’ve all seen, be they greenfield or brownfield developments work as “places,” while others don’t?

Relph wrote,

“Authenticity is above all that of being inside and belonging to your place both as an individual and a member of the community, and to know this without reflecting on it. We strive for a sense of insideness—or the idea that the more strongly an environment generates a sense of belonging, the more strongly does that environment becomes a place.”

while,

“Placelessness arises from kitsch–an uncritical acceptance of mass values, or technique–the overriding concern with efficiency as an end in itself. The overall impact of these two forces, which manifest through such processes as mass communication, mass culture, and central authority, is the “undermining of place for both individuals and cultures, and the casual replacement of the diverse and significant places of the world with anonymous spaces and exchangeable environments.”

Returning America’s “geographies of nowhere” to livable communities is a heavy task. We need lots of collaboration and civic engagement to do it, in particular to circumvent the tangle of codes, ordinances and standards that seem to default even the best of intentions to homogeneity, a default to avoid the complexity involved in making our own fragmented decisions about place.

I think as we move towards rebuilding, and redefining neighborhoods, a real question for us will be how to “plan for” both the adaptability and flexibility required for place, while leaving accessible the predictability needed for capital investment.

A precarious balance, which continues to evolve as we redefine American ideas of self reliance, and individuality, within the natural constraints of community.

One Comment

  1. Yup. As you say, enough predictability to feel “safe” for investment, enough unpredictability to feel like an individual, truly human, if not humane, environment in which to be.