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Place

The idea of “place” has been with us since at least the time of the Greek philosophers. The idea has been present, but it was only in the period after the second world war that “place” began to be studied in, of and for itself. Tim Cresswell has written a gentle introduction, “Place: encountering geography as philosophy.” It's written for students thinking about a geography major in university and is a good place to start exploring the ideas.

Much of the modern attention to place can be traced back to a seminal book by Edward Relph – Place and Placelessness (1976). Ted Relph was then a faculty member in Geography at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto. He's now a Professor Emeritus at the university. He recently published an almost retrospective examination of place - “A Pragmatic Sense of Place” (2009).

Several points stand out in my mind. Initially, I thought having a sense of place was good and being in a placeless location was bad. But then I began to think about what draws some people to placeless downtown high rise towers. They seem positively attracted to the anonymity that comes with living in a placeless building, and in a placeless neighbourhood. The best explanation I can find is that some people have all the identity they can handle through their family, their church, and their job. They don't want the extra identify that would come from living in a recognized place.

Relph made the point in 1974, and makes it again in 2009, about the distinction between Sense of Place and Spirit of Place. This is the distinction between the sense that a community gives to a place, and the inherent characteristics of a location that makes it a place. Clearly, the most powerful places have a strong Sense of Place for those using the place, supported by a strong inherent Spirit of Place.

In all of this there's an interesting and important question about how Place can be made. What steps can we take to confer placeness on a location? The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and the UN Habitat recently published Placemaking and the Future of Cities (2012). The heart of this 35 page pamphlet is a list of ten possible ways to improve your city:

  1. Improve Streets as Public Spaces
  2. Create Squares and Parks as Multi-Use Destinations
  3. Build Local Economies Through Markets
  4. Design Buildings to Support Places
  5. Link a Public Health Agenda to a Public Space Agenda
  6. Reinvent Community Planning
  7. Power of 10
  8. Create a Comprehensive Public Space Agenda
  9. Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper: Start Small Experiment
  10. Restructure Government to Support Public Spaces

The opportunities for making places are endless, and the need is growing more and more important as more and more of our urban fabric takes on a placeless sameness. We're being disconnected, and the consequences could be dire. We need to connect to places and to the communities which value those places. The opportunities are staring us in the face – we have but to look.

There's an important end note about the literature on Place. Yi-Fu Tuan has written almost poetically about the subject. His 1977 book Space and Place became the aesthetic foundation for our modern understand of Place. Chapters One and Two provide an appealing introduction to his thought (in the 7th, 2001 printing of the book).

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