What is place?

Where lies your landmark, seamark or soul’s star?
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1886

Of course, everywhere is a place in the very traditional, dictionary definition sense, so what I am talking about here?  This month I plan to consider sense of place, placelessness, space and landscape whether that is urban or rural.  At the heart of this is the human connection with somewhere and the emotional relationship to a specific site but I shall begin by exploring a few words and phrases.

Place

Place can mean different things depending on context but the definition most relevant here is “a particular position, point, or area in space; a location.”

You’ll note here then that there is an difference between place and space with place being a part of space.  Space exists without humans to mark it or claim it or know about it, whereas place is a human filter on that space.  Milan Kundera uses the examples of highways being spaces and roads being places, roads have meaning and associations where highways tend not to.  It is imaginative possibilities, cultural histories and stories which help to turn spaces into places.  The difference between house and home might be something to lean into to try and grasp the intangible nuances here.  Similarly, we invite people back to our place, not space.

Lawrence Buell defines place as “a space that is bounded and marked as humanly meaningful through personal attachment, social relations and physiographic distinctiveness” and it is these aspects which can create a sense of place.

Sense of place

The term sense of place refers to a quality of characteristic that some places have and some do not.  It might be a feeling or perception that people have of the place rather than something inherent in the place.  It might be unique characteristics which make a place feel special and which create a sense of belonging in the human who is experiencing sense of place.  There is a sense of meaning in the place, it might be memories for example.  Sense of place, feeling intimately and personally connected to a place can foster a sense of belonging.  And it is important to note that a sense of place doesn’t always mean it is a positive experience.  Negative sense of place also exists.

Spirit of place

Spirit of place is similar but seems to be more focused on positive aspects of a place and goes beyond the personal experience to include the celebration of place in folktales and festivals.  It is a meeting of culture and the physical.  It may be created from stories, art, memories, folklore, pathways, rivers, woods, the presence of family and friends and the history of the place.

There seems to be a convention that sense of place applies to urban landscapes whereas spirit of place applies to rural spaces.  Personally, I don’t feel that we should, or can, create a hierarchy of place – if spirit or sense of place is an emotional, felt experience, then how can we distinguish between the two.  If you were to talk about a garden in a city, would that be spirit or sense?  I will probably stick mostly to sense of place for no other reason than consistency.

Local distinctiveness

Local distinctiveness is a phrase used by Common Ground to capture the “particularity in the buildings and land shapes, the brooks and birds, trees and cheeses, places of worship and pieces of literature. It is about history and nature jostling with each other, layers and fragments, old and new. The ephemeral and invisible are important too: customs, dialects, celebrations, names, recipes, spoken history, myths, legends and symbols.”

Genius Loci

Sometimes genius loci gets used synonymously with sense of place but there is a distinction.  This phrase from ancient Rome refers to the protective spirit of a place, often a guardian but in The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes we find a negative genius loci:

“He could feel the weight of the past pressing down upon him as he walked…He found himself recalling the notion of genius loci, that fanciful conviction that a place itself materially affects the individuals who pass through it. If this place had any tangible effect upon its inhabitants then it was surely a malign one.”

Placelessness

Implicit in the idea of sense of place or local distinctiveness is the idea that not all places possess this magic quality.  Whatever language we are using to attempt to capture this feeling or relationship, to put it in words as existing implies the lack of existence or it would be enough to call a place a place as sense of place would be tied up in the word.

Places that don’t have a sense of place are sometimes called placeless or non-places.  Gertrude Stein’s quote “there is no there there” feels like an appropriate description.  Examples of places without sense of place may include shopping centres, supermarkets, chain stores or chain restaurants.  New housing estates often feel like the lack a sense of place and even some tourist attractions have been criticised because over commercialisation has lead to the loss of sense of place in the eyes of some people.

Because sense of place is such a personal thing, I don’t think you can automatically rule out certain types of place as being without sense of place – if you have powerful emotions about a particular branch of chain of restaurants eg it was where someone proposed to you, then you may experience a sense of place there.  That said, there are certain qualities which make some places more likely to have a sense of place – local features, use of local materials in buildings, a strong local culture, historical stories and something unique about the place.

Landscape

Any discussion on place will inevitably come to landscape at some point and again the definition of landscape isn’t as easy to pin down as you might think.  Annie Proulx argues that:

Landscape is geography, archaeology, astrophysics, agronomy, agriculture, the violent character of the atmosphere, climate, black squirrels and wild oats, folded rock, bulldozers; it is jet trails and barbwire, government land, dry stream beds; it is politics, desert wildfire, introduced species, abandoned vehicles, roads, ghost towns, nuclear test grounds, swamps, a bakery shop, mine tailings, bridges, dead dogs.  Landscape is rural, urban, suburban, semirural, small town, village; it is outports and bedroom communities; it is a remote ranch.

As with sense of place, landscape goes beyond what is tangible and physically present.  There are elusive hands which touch and shape how we experience landscape.  There are the physical, geological elements, the plants and animals which live there but land is a map through time of human influences.  Traces of human history can be seen in managed forests, coppiced trees tell stories and shape the land.  Further, how we see the landscape depends on our history, on our values, our religious beliefs, our political affiliations, our professions even – a forest changes simply by being viewed by a timber mill owner.

This month I’ll be looking at how these concepts of place, sense of place, placelessness and local distinctiveness have been used by writers in novels and poetry and how these portrayals have changed.  I will also be trying to create my own alphabet of local distinctiveness and thinking very local in my own creative writing.

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