The Making of Place
A sense of place means different things to different people. To some, it derives from shared memories, experiences, traditions, and
history—the site of a farmers market or the location where a historic event took place. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, would be just
another beach without the tie-in with the Wright Brothers, and Hannibal, Missouri, just another river town if it were not the boyhood
home of Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. To others, however, a sense of place comes from distinctive sights, smells, and
sounds—the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the smell of fresh-cut tobacco in eastern North Carolina, the sound
of subway cars in Manhattan. A place reminds us of where we came from—and shapes who we are.
by David Salvesen Urban Land Institute
These special places are what
make us homesick or nostalgic when we are away from them. In any case, a sense of place is difficult to define and measure,
primarily because it is so subjective. (See “Town Watch,” page 36, May 2001; “The Meaning of Place,” page 36, March 2001; and
“Place Making in Suburbia,” page 72, October 2000.)
In his classic 1976 book Place and Placelessness, geographer Edward Relph wrote that the basic meaning of place—its
essence—does not come from a specific location, the community that occupies it, or superficial and mundane experiences, though
all these are common and perhaps necessary aspects of places. The essence of place lies in its role as a profound center of human
existence. There is for virtually everyone a deep association with and consciousness of the places where we were born and grew up,
where we live now, or where we have had particularly moving experiences, wrote Relph.
In essence, people create places. They share experiences, invent and celebrate rituals and traditions, change the physical
landscape—create farmland, build dams, dig tunnels, and erect buildings—and in the process, they build communities. In one way or
another, people put their stamp on a place. Try to imagine Lancaster, Pennsylvania, without the Amish.
In general, a sense of place has to do with the interaction of three elements—location, landscape, and personal involvement; each
by itself usually is insufficient to create a sense of place. A place most often is tied to a certain location, something unique that
exists in space—a building, neighborhood, street, region, state, nation, continent, or planet. The Adirondacks in New York is a place
that conjures certain images among people familiar with it, as does the Wright-Dunbar neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, or Bourbon
Street in New Orleans. Each is a real place with specific coordinates and identifiable boundaries. In general, when people think of
place, they think of something physical, something that occupies a certain location on a map. Yet, location, though a more exact
notion than “place,” is only one component of it. A place can exist in the memory, as in our nostalgic recollections of past events or
landmarks. Also, a location can lose its sense of place—such as abandoned coal mining towns in West Virginia, or small, rural towns
in the upper Midwest that are struggling to survive despite the steady loss of population.
Natural features account for some of the more obvious components of place. On a large scale, place-shaping features include, for
example, the Texas Panhandle, the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Lakes. Locally, they can include the farmland
outside of town, a nearby lake or beach, or the snow-capped mountains in view from a town square. Similarly, buildings can create a
sense of place—brick rowhouses in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; antebellum mansions in Charleston, South
Carolina; or the 28-building Robert Taylor Homes project in Chicago. We react to these buildings and develop an affinity for or
repulsion to them. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”
Place is more than just a location—a spot on a map—and it is more than just a landscape. Place is inextricably linked to people and
the things that happen in that location that are meaningful to them. Place, after all, is a social construct. It is where important words
have been spoken, vows exchanged, promises made, and demands issued. In this regard, even places devoid of people can have a
sense of place. Few people, if any, live in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies a large chunk of land in northern
Alaska, but it exists—it has exact boundaries as well as regulations governing its use—as a result of human involvement. And it has
a strong sense of place, particularly among environmentalists, who consider it sacred ground. People did not create the land and the
wild animals that inhabit it, but they created the wildlife refuge.
Places acquire much of their permanence and their distinctive character from the collective activities of the people who dwell there,
who shape the land through their activities, and who build distinctive institutions, forms of organization, and social relations within,
around, or focused on bounded domain, according to geographer David Harvey.
Places change, sometimes rapidly. They undergo economic, social, cultural, and political transformations that can lead them to lose
their sense of place. For example, in the wake of severe flooding of the Missouri River in 1993, residents of the small riverfront
town of Rhineland, Missouri, voluntarily moved to a bluff 900 feet above the river. Following the move, Rhineland seemed to lose
its sense of place. Its businesses—a bank, a garage, a grain elevator, a post office, and a tavern—opted to stay in the valley to be
close to the highway, so the new town became a bedroom community. People drove more—and interacted less. After the move, the
river, which served to unify the town, was no longer a threat, and the town lost its cohesiveness.
On a larger scale, federal policies after World War II helped facilitate the destruction of inner-city neighborhoods. Urban renewal
programs, while well intentioned, destroyed many close-knit, low-income urban neighborhoods and replaced them with monotonous,
placeless, public housing projects, many of which were later deemed such failures that they were demolished or targeted for
demolition, like the Robert Taylor Homes project. In 1956, Congress enacted the Interstate Highway Act calling for the construction
of 41,000 miles of expressways—one of the largest public works projects ever undertaken in the country. In short order, new
multilane highways encircled cities, sliced through inner-city neighborhoods, and facilitated the exodus of businesses and residents
to the suburbs that continues to this day. Many of the neighborhoods left behind still have not recovered.
There are several threats to a sense of place, such as our nation’s restlessness, the homogenization of the built environment, and
the emerging digital age. Since our nation’s founding, Americans have been on the move, always searching for new frontiers to
explore and unspoiled territory in which to begin anew—always seeking, as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn put it, “to light out for the
Territory.” Changing places has long been a peculiarly American trait: Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 that an American changes
his residence ceaselessly. When things are going badly—a dead-end job, a failing marriage, rising crime—we cut our ties and move
on. In such a vast country, space is our greatest safety valve. No horizon is out of reach. Our abundance of land and our pursuit of
new horizons have made us the most mobile, and probably most restless, society on earth, writes David Lamb in A Sense of Place:
Listening to Americans. We are refugees in our own country, notes Peter Schrag in Out of Place in America.
In the United States, people move on average once every five years, more often than people in any other culture except nomadic
tribes, author James Jasper asserts in Restless Nation. This may be great for moving companies and real estate agents, but it
makes it tough to build a sense of community. Is it the lack of a sense of place that makes leaving so easy, or do people not
bother getting attached to a place because they know they are likely to leave in the near future?
Pull off at any interstate highway interchange and you enter a landscape cluttered with the same national chains of gas stations,
restaurants, and inexpensive motels. You could be anywhere. Gone are the local influences in architecture, cuisine, hospitality, and
entertainment. Ditto for shopping malls: a mall in Washington, D.C., looks a lot like a mall in Los Angeles—same stores, same
marble floors, same music. The suburbs, in general, are becoming more and more alike. Tract homes on a cul de sac in one part of
the country are often indistinguishable from tract homes in another area. According to James Howard Kunstler, author of The
Geography of Nowhere, we have become a nation of look-alike suburbs where there is little sense of having arrived anywhere
because every place looks like no place in particular.
The sameness of our suburban landscape diminishes a sense of place. Those features that make a village, a town, or a city unique
and foster a sense of place are giving way to a creeping homogenization that waters down the influences of local culture, style, and
traditions. Chevy Chase, Maryland, an upscale suburb of Washington, D.C., exhibits a strong sense of place in large part because
each home is different from the next. Yet, even a place such as Levittown, New York, with street after street of cookie-cutter Cape
Cods, has a strong sense of place. Perhaps Levittown’s placeness results from its endless sameness.
Finally, the digital age can render places irrelevant. Cellular phones, the Internet, fax machines, and overnight couriers have made it
possible for more and more people to live and work wherever they choose, with or without attachment to place. Even industries
themselves have become increasingly footloose because they are no longer tied to sites with river or railroad access. This new
freedom of choice among workers and industries, particularly those that are part of the so-called new economy, could reshape the
geography of America. Some people foresee the digital economy fracturing the metropolis as people become increasingly removed,
physically and socially, from their community. However, it is also possible that the Internet and cellular phones will make it easier
for people to stay in touch. In addition, certain places that offer a unique environment, such as downtowns, could have a
competitive advantage over those that do not. Why? If people, in particular the so-called knowledge-based workers, have greater
choices in where to live and work, they may select places that offer unique recreational and cultural amenities, such as restaurants,
theaters, museums, and professional sports arenas.
Over the past 25 years, we have created virtually from scratch new, decentralized cities at the urban fringe to replace traditional
cities that we no longer find useful. These suburban cities lie outside every major metropolitan area, usually in the form of glitzy,
high-rise office buildings, stand-alone hotels and condominiums, and sprawling regional malls, all clustered around the highway
interchanges that have overtaken waterways and railroad junctions as the preferred location for business and industry. Scattered
across the metropolitan landscape, the new cities often contain more office and retail space than nearby central cities. For example,
Oakland County, Michigan, outside of Detroit has become the dominant business center. By 1990, its population had surpassed that
of Detroit, and it now boasts more office space than the Motor City. Yet, despite their relative youth, some of these suburban
agglomerations are showing signs of aging. Many contain the seeds of their own destruction—overbuilding, traffic congestion, and
rising crime. One of the biggest complaints of people who live or work in these areas, however, is that they lack a center—a sense
Why does place matter? Place shapes who we are and what we will become. A sense of place provides a sense of belonging and of
commitment. It is the repository for our shared memories, experiences, and dreams. It is a place of family and community ties—of
roots—that stems from our connection to a particular location and its people. And when people feel connected to a
place—emotionally, culturally, and spiritually—they are more apt to care for it. Thus, a sense of place may spur greater concern for
farmland, neighborhoods, cities, and the environment. Much of the interest in environmental conservation, farmland preservation,
historic preservation, and neighborhood protection derives from people’s strong connection to place and their reaction to threats
against it. The smart growth movement, in large part, is a reaction to our sense of loss of the uniqueness of our places as the
landscape around us deteriorates in the face of rapid, unchecked, low-density growth, otherwise known as sprawl.
Of course, a sense of place can conjure negative feelings or images as well. Relph wrote in Place and Placelessness about the
“drudgery of place”—that is, a sense of being stuck in a place, bound by established scenes, routines, and symbols. A common
theme in rock and roll music is escaping from places that offer no hope for the future. As Bruce Springsteen wrote in the song
“Thunder Road”: “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.”
For the most part, however, a sense of place is a feeling that people find comforting. It could be where we were born, grew up, or
hope to raise our children—a place worth caring about—or a place, such as the World Trade Center, that in the aftermath of its
destruction, helps bind a city and a nation together.
David Salvesen is the director of the program on smart growth and the new economy at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies,
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. This article was adapted from a piece written for Project Learning Tree, a program of the
American Forest Foundation.
Ingredients of Place
Campo di Fiore in Rome is a typical European plaza of an earlier century. Five- and six-story masonry buildings are clustered
around a square paved with rough stones. A diminutive fountain topped with a deeply patinaed bronze statue of 16th-century
philosopher Giordano Bruno commands a spot near its center. Four narrow streets connect the plaza to the rest of the city, but it is
impossible to see far down any of them. The area is the size of a football field, no great churches or palazzi grace its perimeter, and
not a tree is to be seen. Yet this otherwise unremarkable space is filled with urban life. It begins each day as a public market replete
with several dozen stalls; by 10 a.m., it evolves into a parking lot used by local workers; in late afternoon, it becomes a soccer field
for neighborhood kids; and toward evening, it is a center of gravity for local retailers and an outdoor seating area for surrounding
restaurants. It ends each night as a gathering place for tourists and students who loiter on the fountain steps. (See “Why Cities
Need Squares,” page 66, February 2000 Urban Land.)
What commonalities make urban places like this so compelling to visit, to linger within, and visit again? What activities and physical
characteristics exist in successful gathering places regardless of their context? What kind of management invisibly supports such
spaces? And finally, how can these traits be incorporated in urban design and architecture in the United States?
In the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her seminal and oft-cited 1961 critique of urban planning and
design, Jane Jacobs noted, “For illustrations [of her analysis], please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as
well also listen, linger, and think about what you see.” Observing how people use such successful urban spaces as New York City’s
recently redesigned Bryant Park, Portland, Oregon’s Pioneer Square, and many others, 40 critical ingredients for public space can be
identified. While it may not be possible for all public spaces to include every ingredient, it is readily apparent that a large percentage
of them are present when a place is perceived as comfortable, popular, respected, and well used. These ingredients can be grouped
into the following six categories:
Character—compelling physical characteristics establish a sense of place;
Ownership—an identifiable group has a sense of pride and responsibility for a definable space;
Authenticity—a genuine ethos of historic or contemporary meaning or context is present;
Accommodations—amenities are present that meet basic human needs and desires;
Nature—water, trees, plants, sky, and sun are present, attended to, and respected; and
Social and private space—conversation, play, and special events, as well as retreat and solitude, are accommodated and
Character. Urban spaces need clear boundaries or limits, together with attributes that make them unique and give them focus.
Gateways. Whether actual architectural features or symbolic arrival points, gateways add to the emotional sense of arrival when
one enters a city, a district, a building, a plaza, or a park. Gateways also can be doorways to adjacent buildings; numerous gateways
such as these are critical to activating any edge lined with building walls.
Enclosure. Buildings, landforms, landscape, and bodies of water define space and create understandable and psychologically
defensible boundaries. Urban plazas and parks should provide refuge for visitors, like meadows after a long trek through the forest
of the city.
Stairways. Beyond providing access to places above and below, stairways provide seating and a position to survey the surrounding
Vantage points. From high points one can define the scope of the greater environment, and peer down on and observe the actions
Patterns. Just as repeated sounds and variations on them turn notes into musical compositions that stir emotions, repeated
elements in the environment—patterns in paving, landscape, and building forms—create soothing visual frames.
Scale. In some instances, people want to be engulfed in a throng, elbow to elbow; other times, they do not desire to see another human being. Not every space can satisfy this variation of need, but horizontal and vertical limits of given spaces act as natural
sieves for the activities they can sustain.
Flexibility. Public spaces that provide multiple-use areas, without fixed features near their center, can function like outdoor hotel
Ownership. Every urban space must belong to a caretaking entity that takes pride in and is responsible for it. In most cases, a
resident population constitutes the soul of ownership.
Management. The best public spaces have caretakers—individuals, neighborhood groups, a city district, a state, or even a nation
that values the place and carefully manages and looks after its best interests.
Democratic accessibility. The best spaces allow easy access and equal opportunity to everyone, provided those people respect
both the place and others who also wish to use it. Too many spaces purport to be public but exert physical and legal pressures to
limit their use to specific groups.
Safety and security. People who visit a public place deserve to feel safe and comfortable; at the same time, any active security
should be as benign or invisible as possible. Even if it is a cliché, there is safety in numbers, and the public realm feels more
comfortable when plenty of people are around.
Maintenance. It should be obvious that urban places require careful, regular maintenance to keep them clean and attractive.
Quality and durability. The best public spaces use pavement, furnishings, landscaping materials, and artwork that is of high
quality and able to withstand constant use—but without being reduced to relying on the drab and mundane based solely on
resistance to wear and tear. Reason dictates that even the highest-quality materials and features need to be replaced over time.
Boundary. While every space needs a recognizable edge and limit of management and ownership responsibility, the best urban
places manage to hide those limits, making the boundaries between public and private space nearly invisible.
Resident population. When people live around and above public space, they use and observe it nearly 24 hours a day and
assume greater pride and responsibility for its condition.
Authenticity. Every urban setting has features that make it unique. Historic artifacts, informational and educational markers,
landmarks, and artwork express the characteristics exclusive to that place. Authentic places derive character and meaning from
local sources—history, materials, climate, and culture—and never pretend to be something they are not.
Artifacts. Memorials and historic markers lend significance to a place. They remind the user of a person or event that shaped or
influenced the particular character of the place, the city, or the nation.
Information and education. Readily available facts—from the history of neighboring buildings to the whereabouts of restrooms, or
the types of trees overhead and plants underfoot—ensure that places are easy to use and filled with learning.
Landmarks. Simple or complex, visually memorable landmarks may have local significance or may simply be fun or expressive.
They may contain occupiable space or just be markers within or adjacent to a public space. Landmarks often serve as meeting
places or directional indicators in the urban framework.
Art. Whether steeped in social commentary or displayed as an expression of beauty, approachable public art lends solemnity, joy,
wonder, or debate to any space in which it is present.
Accommodations. Public urban space helps people to relax and should acknowledge their physical comfort by providing a number
Seating. Successful spaces encourage people to rest, to converse, and to observe the world. Movable chairs or benches are
preferable to fixed seating because they allow groups to assemble as they desire. Some fixed seating can be arranged to promote
face-to-face conversation, and low planter walls can double as seating surfaces. Lawns are wonderful places to sit, allowing people
to determine their own position and posture.
Restrooms and drinking fountains. Restrooms and potable water should be available in almost every circumstance. Ideally, such
basic amenities should be provided free to the public, but modest fees can help support the maintenance that constant use requires.
Shelter. During extreme weather, people seek shelter—a place to take refuge from the heat of the sun or from a sudden deluge.
Trees can provide shade or protection from a light rain, as can trellises, arcades, and gazebos.
Food vendors. People stay longer in public spaces when food and drink are available.
Dining areas. Restaurants or seating areas with outdoor tables and chairs enliven the atmosphere and provide opportunities for
people to dine alfresco when the weather is pleasant.
Sundries. Public space is enlivened and enriched by such facilities as newsstands and flower stands, and by umbrella vendors who
materialize when it rains.
Pet areas. As friends and companions, pets deserve a place alongside their owners. Rather than forbidding their presence, many
public spaces accept pets and provide for their needs—a place to run, play, and get a drink of water.
Nature. In the urban context, nature has profound psychological and therapeutic benefits. The sight of colorful plantings, the sight
and sound of water and leaves rustling in the breeze, the textures of stones and plants, the smell of earth and flowers or the air
after a summer rain, and the sight and sound of birds and squirrels and other urban wildlife stimulate the senses and make people
feel better. When people are exposed to such elements—combined with the presence of the sun and sky, the change of seasons,
and the passing of time itself—they tend to forget the pressures of life; they relax and are restored.
Colorful plantings. The beauty of plants—their color, texture, motion, and fragrance—can be compelling.
Sight and sound of water. The movement and rhythmic sound of clean, clear water can be soothing and can mask unpleasant
sounds in the environment.
Interactive water. Touching water, dipping one’s hands into it, even submerging oneself in it can be fun, especially on a hot summer
Green canopy. The oxygen that trees create and the shade they cast, the flutter of sunlight through green leaves in the spring, and
the rustling of dry, yellow leaves in the fall can all be sources of solace and protection.
Water’s edge. People are drawn to water in a primordial way—people like to walk alongside it, to hear waves lap against the shore,
to watch it change with the wind and light throughout the day, and to marvel at its nighttime mystery.
Texture. Variations in the texture of the environment—cobblestone paving, smooth granite, ivy-covered walls—help create visual
and tactile complexity.
Time. Parks, plazas, and streets provide a place to observe the change in temperature, humidity, and the quality of light through the
day or over a period of months. Seasons regulate the character of landscape; its colors, fragrances, and textures change through
Sun and shade. People crave and face the warming sun on a cold winter day and retreat to the shade of a tree on a hot summer
afternoon. Climate extremes enhance these desires and should be carefully evaluated; some spaces need nearly full sun while
others need almost complete shade.
Daylight. The presence of the sky and the particular quality of light it casts are critical to people’s well-being. Indoor public spaces
need daylight as well.
Social and private space. Public space is the theater of everyday life. There is joy and comfort in watching and interacting with
neighbors and strangers. But places to sit and talk, run and play, listen to music, watch jugglers, and buy vegetables also should
contain places where one can spend time alone.
Dialogue. The best urban places provide a place for people to meet and talk with one another in a context that is comfortable and
that provides distance from the urgency of major thoroughfares.
Play. The physical and emotional benefits of vigorous activity are essential to a balanced life; broad expanses of hardy turf or
paved plazas allow organized or spontaneous play.
Entertainment. Performances can be restorative and pleasurable for both the audience and the performers.
Special and regular events. Market days and gatherings of all kinds, from celebrations to political rallies, help to define a
community. Public places should always be equipped to handle large groups of people.
Children’s play areas. The smallest of children find games and interesting occupations in the simplest things—a bug crawling on a
leaf, a rock to climb on, or a puddle to splash in. As they grow older, children need more complex activity; playgrounds with
imaginative features can help them to develop their physical and social capabilities.
Quiet places. The most successful public spaces can allow truly private moments. At home, people are subject to the demands of
family or friends. Paradoxically, in the public realm, people can find solitude in places where no one knows them, places where no
one can disturb their quietude. In his book City: Rediscovering the Center, William H. Whyte noted that the best way to evaluate a
person’s comfort level in a public environment is to observe his or her willingness to fall asleep alone in it.
Stress relief. Urban life provides a constant barrage of sensory stimulation; the sights, sounds, smells, and density of its context
and inhabitants can be overwhelming. Public spaces can provide a therapeutic setting for retreat and recovery.
Most great public spaces have an overwhelming majority of these ingredients. Though not every urban space can contain all of
them, most should be present for a place to be successful. Several elements are always required—management, maintenance,
seating, and the sight and sound of water, to name a few. Some ingredients, such as steps or a vantage point, may not fit into a
given space. Outside factors can constitute fatal flaws, such as a landfill upwind from the site or the absence of ready access for
pedestrians or nearby residents. But awareness of the basic characteristics that in some measure must be part of every successful urban space is critical to understanding why certain places are “alive” while others are not.—Randy Shortridge, an architect and
urban designer in the Los Angeles office of RTKL; this article first appeared in ArchNewsNow.com
© 2002 ULI–the Urban Land Institute, all rights reserved.
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