What makes sense of place?

“Local distinctiveness may be described as the sum of the points of connection between the place and the person.  It is the things any writer will instinctively smell our and set down.  It is a kind of language.  It might appear to be an environmental question, but it is quite as much a psychological one”
– Roger Deakin

Having attempted a definition of sense of place or local distinctiveness, the next obvious step is to ask what makes it; an easy question with a difficult answer.  But writers have tried and so I’m going to explore some of those aspects which contribute to a sense of place.

William Hazlitt in ‘On the Love of the Country, written in 1814, talks about how we do not admire nature for it’s beauty, although he notes, there is “no doubt, the sky is beautiful” and “the sun is cheering”.  Instead he proposes that we connect elements of nature with strong emotions; “we become attached to the most common and familiar images as to the face of a friend whom we have long known”.  This, he claims, is because of associations with childhood, with friends, with pleasure and pains and because, these elements, have been with us in all kinds of circumstances, they are “a part of our being, that we love them as we do ourselves”.  Whilst he is talking about aspects of nature – the sky, a view, the ocean, the clouds – the same concept can be applied to place.  We do not love a place because it is superficially beautiful, we love it because it is part of us.

A common strand running through sense of place, one which Alison Hazlitt alludes to, is that of not being able to put your finger on it.  Gillian Darley talks of the chimera of place, an image which feels powerful and nebulous, appropriately I think.  It is something we intuit rather than know.  Our feeling self not our logical self.

Emotion, rather than reason, facilitates closeness, attachment, intimacy with the other… Geographer Barry Lopez recognizes that being vulnerable to place is a process of opening yourself up to intimacy with the other by leaving your rational senses behind and tapping into emotional states of being.”
– Anja Claus

Despite not being able to list the exact qualities at play here, Sue Clifford and Angela King note four words which can be used to try and think about sense of place; detail, particularity, patina and authenticity.

To consider with detail, we need to attune ourselves to a place and sense the nuances and subtle ways in which the land is unique.  Detail may include clues about the past, secrets which require work to uncover – paths worn deeply by thousands of years of feet or rubbled stone, residues of boundaries and ownership.  With this in mind, we find that sense of place is as much about the everyday as it is about the specific or rare or spectacular.

What is there in a Cornish hedge

The broken herring bone pattern of stones,

The gorse, the ragged rick,

The way the little elms are,

Sea-bent, sea-shorn

That so affects the heart?

– AL Rowse

Authenticity and particularity may include champagne only being made in one region or the bent elms of the Cornish coastline.  It is those things which are unique or specific to a place.  The accumulation of experience and knowledge that go into making produce and products.  The specific flora and fauna of place also varies across the land with different types of soil, different weather patterns and so on coming together to create a unique matrix.

These elements also come together when we turn our eyes to buildings.  The use of local materials creates local distinctiveness, because materials change depending on area they create a particular sense of place.  Local skills and traditions of building also create distinction.  Moving from West to East as I did at 18, I found that fields had lost their thick, high, imposing hedges and I found myself in a landscape of fields divided only by narrow ditches.

“The difference is not just a matter of natural geological features, of limestone pavements and scree slopes, but of what local people have done with the stone: the way drystone walling follows the patterns of layering in the bare terraces, the “found-stones” and vernacular gargolyes that adorn so many cottage walls and roofs”
– Richard Mabey

“Particularity based in nature on the foundations of geology and climate, has diverged with the alchemy of life, the articulation of the social and economic demands of successive stories, the narratives of myth and legend, and the ethical and cultural variations over the time.”
– Sue Clifford and Angela king

The social aspect, the inclusion of the person, is crucial in making sense of place.  Deakin writes that knowing or getting to know a place is like knowing or loving a person.  This sense of relationship is echoed in what Alyson Hallet calls geographical intimacy:

“Geographical intimacy suggests that writing about the earth arises from a two way and personalised relationship and that this relationship requires both parties (earth and writer) to share that which is innermost and withing.  In other words, a relationship based upon trust and rooted in affection (or love) enables an exchange to occur.”

Doreen Massey makes the human relationship more explicit when she writes:

“What gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the face that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus”

 Place is created through a gathering of layers of history whilst also being open to adding to the layers.  It is not static but instead is continually changing through the accumulation of memories and activities and experiences.  This evolution of place, and sense of place, is one of the aspects which make it hard to hold onto.

Perhaps because it is so hard to pin down, sense of place often gets overlooked by planners and town councils and builders.  Standardisation and homogenisation are threats to sense of place, “the place-annulling forces of uniformity” may lead to panicked reactions but we mustn’t fall into the trap of romanticising the past or holding onto something just because it has age.  True places are continually changing and must be allowed to keep reshaping themselves.  Places benefit from being lived in.  There is a risk that in trying to create a sense of place, we simply turn everywhere into a different homogenised place or a country of dead cliches.  Local distinctiveness is continually being redefined as places grow and change and new people arrive and others leave.  Writing this into the ‘definition’ means that we don’t get stuck, we don’t put up blocks to certain people coming in and we don’t use it as an excuse to abuse or prejudice people.

It also acknowledges that sense of place is different for different people.  The number of threads that come together to create it necessitate this difference of experience.  People see and feel place through who they are, what they do and how long they have interacted with the place.  People have different paths and different memories and this can all add to the richness of a place.  If we let it.

Further reading

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