Monthly Archives: March 2015

Islandia and Love of Place

Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright is a utopian novel originally written in the years around 1910, and first published in 1942 that is remarkable both because love of place is a central theme and because the author was the brother of John Kirtland Wright, a well-remembered humanistic geographer who was librarian and subsequently director of the American Geographical Society.

The novel is about a nation called Islandia on the imaginary Karain subcontinent somewhere in the southern hemisphere where connection with place is a driving impulse and where almost all forms of technology (which effectively means machines) that might threaten that impulse are rejected. It was written not for publication but as a labor of imaginative creation. Austin Wright, who was a law professor, also wrote a history, a glossary of the language, and a description of the country, all of which are unpublished. The novel was published posthumously in 1942 by his wife (who edited it down from 2000 pages) and daughter, and includes several maps drawn by his geographical brother. These are very murky black and white, and at some time in the 1970s shortly after I read Islandia for the first time, I redrew two of them for my own amusement and these are reproduced here. They are accurate reproductions of the originals except for the addition of color.


The geopolitical context of the novel now seems very dated – with three European colonizing powers occupying the northern part of the Karain continent (the maps were oriented in the antipodean manner, with south at the top), which is sub-tropical and occupied by black and brown peoples. Islandia is a white, temperate and isolationist nation in the southernmost part of the continent, and is separated by a range of mountains. The context of the novel is that the English, French and Germans are competing to get a potential shares of the resource wealth of Islandia, where there is political turmoil about whether to end isolationism and to allow machinery to replace traditional ways of doing things.  The central character is John Lang, the first American consul to Islandia. Initially, after his experiences in the big cities of Boston and New York, he cannot understand the backward, agrarian character of the country, where everything moves slowly, travel is on foot or horse or sailboat, and work is mostly done by hand. But over the course of several years, he comes to appreciate this way of life, sides with the traditionalists, fights with Islandians against potential European colonial initiatives, and, because he was instrumental in preserving Islandian isolation, is one of few outsiders allowed to settle there.


From the perspective of place there are several remarkable aspects of Islandia. The imagined landscapes of farms, mountains, marshlands, buildings, settlements, and The City (the only large urban area – on Islandia Bay) are described in vivid detail. I have always thought that Wright drew on some aspects of New England geography and its landscapes for his inspiration, but have no firm basis for that. Islandians are presented as having a deep compatibility with nature, the sort of compatibility that Wes Jackson and those who advocate life in harmony with ecological processes would advocate, and which gives them great resilience. In its rejection of machine technologies the novel has something in common with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (also set in the southern hemisphere) and William Morris’ News from Nowhere, although there is no reference to these.

In its powerful emphasis on sense and love of place, however, Islandia is unique. In the language of Islandia there is a special word for love of place – alia (amia means love of friends, apia means sexual attraction, and ania means desire for marriage and commitment). Islandian individuals and families are strongly connected to the places where they live – they know the weather, landscapes, plants, customs and people – and they appreciate that other Islandians living in different places have a similar love for their places. Furthermore they understand that alia passes from one generation to the next, so caring for one’s place is an intergenerational responsibility. It is, in short, a quintessential account of a pre-modern, pre-industrial sense of place.

Alia is implicit throughout Islandia, elaborated mostly through specific accounts of its places, people and landscapes. It is discussed infrequently and briefly as a concept, in part because to Islandians it is so utterly self-evident that it requires no explanation. Here, however, are three extracts that deal explicitly with love of place (Dorna is an Islandian woman with whom John Lang falls in love):

779 “Alia means one’s love for one’s home place and family as a going thing.”

223 On a comparison between Americans and Islandians: “The point that Dorna made …was that we were “unplaced,” we wandered about alone in the world as homeless as fish in the sea; whereas the Islandians really had a place from which they came and where they were buried at death.”

471 In a speech made by Dorna at the National Council arguing for the continuation of Islandian isolationism: “Our whole way of life is based upon these centers – upon family and place as one. The roots of our being grow in the soil of our alia. Family and place intermingled as one make that soil.”

I have no idea now how I first encountered Islandia.  It was out of print for many years, and does not seem to have a wide readership. There are a handful of comments on the web about it, mostly favorable, but also indicating that people either love or hate it.  Aspects of it are very dated, the white Islandians versus the black and brown people to the north conveys racial superiority, parts of the story are simplistic. On the other hand, the case for an agrarian, place-based way of life rather than an unplaced machine-based way of life is presented in terms of the numerous misgivings that have to be overcome by the hero.  Finally, it has to be remembered that this never was intended to be a novel.  It was Wright’s personal imaginative account of a utopian society grounded in place that became a novel in  which place is a central character.

Wright, Austin Tappan, 1942 Islandia, (New York: New American Library) (1958 Edition)


Spirit of Place/Genius Loci


This clipping from a pamphlet about petroforms (patterns on the the ground laid out with stones) in the Province of Manitoba in Canada captures nicely the idea of spirit of place as an aspect of sacred space and a gateway to the supernatural.

The idea of spirit of place has echoed through the ages. It derives from an ancient and widespread belief that particular bits of the world are occupied by gods, or spirits who have to be propitiated. This was a key element of Roman religion. Genius loci is the Latin for the spirit or guardian deity of a place and is a phrase that has been adopted in English and into other languages and achieved a broad degree of popularity. A quick Google search for genius loci brought up links to a recent art exhibition featuring the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and others, an American kickstarter campaign for a book on tales of the spirit of place, the name of travel company specializing in Italy, and an art project in Weimar in Germany.

While spirit of place/genius loci was originally, and to some people still is, closely associated with beliefs about the sacred character of places, it has been increasingly secularized. This is apparent in the Wikipedia definition of spirit (or soul) of place as “the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of place.” The term “sense of place” is often, and I think misleadingly, used to mean much the same (see my earlier post on Sense of Place).

Probably the best known substantial investigation of spirit of place is the book Genius Loci by Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz, which I summarize below. But I’ll begin here with a overview by Isis Brook of the range of notions the concept embraces and some other discussions because I am not trying to offer some definitive statement about spirit of place but to give some sense of the diversity of thinking it has invited. All sources are fully identified at the end of this post.


And this photo of a poster at Bloedel Gardens on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, which also stresses the healing role of place, is an example of a secular, even scientific idea of spirit of place. [Bloedel was for decades a dominant figure in the forestry industry – his name is preserved in the company MacMillan-Bloedel]

Isis Brook “Can Spirit of Place be a guide to Ethical Building?” 2001
Brooks’s essay is in a book on ethics and the built environment. He begins by noting that “spirit of place” is an ambiguous rather than a robust idea, and then poses the questions: Does everywhere have “spirit of place”? Is there a boundary to it? Are there regional spirits of place? What is the role of human beings in this – is spirit of place a projection of humans? (I think the answers are, respectively, Yes; Not a clear boundary; Yes; according to some writers Yes and others No)

He then identifies the following range of ideas that have been associated with spirit of place:

  • abodes of special beings, spirits, fairies
  • energy fields – a point of intense energy
  • authenticity
  • narrative, with layers of history, preferably not preserved
  • local distinctiveness
  • the empowerment of ordinary people
  • essence or interiority
  • character – the place appears as it is in its individuality
  • ecosystem and the way the natural systems work together
  • pantheism or a manifestation of God’s creation
  • panpsychism – the idea that all things, even inanimate, have their own consciousness or mind-like qualities
  • health of a place or emergent property

He suggests that one way around this “hopeless confusion” is to accept that spirit of place describes a reality that is based neither on an inventory of the contents of somewhere nor on a description of our feelings about them but has its own legitimacy as a means to prevent homogenized design.


This is Edith’s House in the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle. She refused all offers to move out when the new building (it has a Trader Joe’s, Ross, a fitness studio) was developed around her property. The text, taken from a sign on the building, notes that the building will be preserved and “will respect the history of the place.”  In the meantime it illustrates Norberg-Schulz’ dismay about the failure of modern architecture to respond to genius loci.

Lawrence Durrell Spirit of Place 1969
This book by the novelist Lawrence Durrell is collection of letters and notes he wrote to capture his reactions to places in Corfu, Egypt, Greece, Argentina, Britain, France, (and was one of the first books with “place” in its title that actually discussed the concept a bit). His thinking was laced with evocative environmental determinism – the largely discredited idea that environments manifestly influence behaviour and culture.

“As you get to know Europe slowly,” Durrell wrote, “tasting the wines, cheeses and characters of the different countries, you begin to realize that the important determinant of culture is after all – the spirit of place.” Durrell doesn’t believe, for example, that the British character has changed a jot since Tacitus described it, and “as long as people keep getting born Greek or Italian or French their culture productions will bear the unmistakable signature of the place.” He suggests that if you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the country with Tartars, within two generations the national characteristics would be back – including restless metaphysical curiosity, tenderness for good living. “This is the invisible constant in a place with which an ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting with a glass of wine in a Paris bistrot.”

This is the reality of places that cannot be identified by inventories of contents, to which Isis Brook refers. It does not stand up to critical scrutiny but it’s not easy to keep the sort of views that Durrell expressed from slipping into our thoughts. They explain cultural and other differences so neatly. Henry James’ claim about the genius loci of London is less straightforward but also comes closer to the inherent complexity of a particular place.


This enigmatic quote from Henry James about London conveys some of the ambiguity of spirit of place. It is on a wall inside the Museum of London.

Here’s a more recent example of the idea of a deterministic spirit of place from The Somnambulist, a novel by Jonathan Barnes, but with a negative spin:
“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.“ (61-2).

Jane Brown’s 2001 book Spirits of Place seems to apply this deterministic line of thinking to novelists themselves. It is a sort of thematic biographical study of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Carrington, and E.P.Hartley, all of whom were famous in some way and connected with the Bloomsbury group, and all of whom “possessed an acute sense of place” (p.xiv). But she blends notions of landscape, sense of place and spirit of place in her discussion and offers a relatively subtle account of the influence of place on their work.

Consulting the Genius of Place
In one of his poems that the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote satirizing the life of landed gentry, he addressed landscape gardening and the need to suppress the hubris that led to Versailles, and instead to respond to nature. His explicit advice was to:

“Consult the genius of place in all”

 This is widely quoted in discussions of spirit of place, for instance, the 2009 book by environmentalist Wes Jackson Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture. What it meant for Pope and those who have quoted it, is the importance of attending to the distinctiveness of landforms and landscapes, and of local natural systems and environmental processes.

Christian Norberg-Schulz Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture 1980
This foundation book in the study of place is generously illustrated with photos intended to illustrate particular themes and to convey aspects of genius loci. Almost all of them are of pre-modern buildings and townscapes or natural landscapes from Europe and some from North Africa.

Norberg-Schulz explicitly adopts a phenomenological and Heideggerian approach, suggesting (p.5) that: “the spaces where life occurs are places…A place is a space which has a distinct character. Since ancient times the genius loci, or spirit of place, has been recognized as the concrete reality man has to face and come to terms with in his daily life. Architecture means to visualize the genius loci and the task of the architect is to create meaningful places, whereby he helps man to dwell.”


Genius loci does not always involve exceptional landscapes and buildings. This is the edge of Old Oraibi, a Hopi village in New Mexico, that is thought to be the longest continuously-occupied settlement in North America and therefore an excellent example of Norberg-Shulz’s idea of ‘stabilitas loci.’

He recognizes (p.18) that: “The structure of a place is not a fixed, eternal state.”  But this does not mean that the genius loci changes or gets lost because identity can be conserved. Indeed it has remained a living reality throughout the course of history. “Stabilitas loci is a necessary condition for human life.”

Norberg-Schulz’ substantive interest is in architecture and its intentions. He argues that it is not enough for architects to make practical towns and buildings. Architecture has to concretize genius loci, and he follows Heidegger’s thinking to suggest that this is done by creating buildings which gather the properties of the place and help people to dwell poetically and to know how they belong to a place.

J.C. Holt Spirits of the Place 2009
In the discussions by Brook, Durrell and Norberg-Schulz the idea of genius loci is almost entirely secular. They write about properties of landscapes and buildings that may be elusive but can, for the most part, be seen. Holt’s book is about Buddhism and the power of place in relation to spirit beings in Laotian traditional culture. (Holt was a student of Mircea Eliade the author of a major work on sacred and profane space).

Holt discusses studies of religion in Asia made in the 1930s by Paul Mus who maintained that the inhabitants of ancient India, Indo-China and southern China believed in spirits – disembodied human souls – that are present in all thing in all places. Mus argued for “a notion of power found in or attributed to a given, specific place, a power that accounts for the dynamism of life associated with that locality.” This power is impersonal yet can be personalized through the social experience of events. “To the genius loci, the personification of the energies of the earth, was owed the prosperity of the territory occupied by those who united to worship it, and were defined as a group by this unity.”

These ideas inform Holt’s investigation of spirits in Laotian tradition culture, and how some spirits (they are called phi – you can get some sense of them from Colin Cotterill’s mystery stories about Dr Siri Paiboun, which are set in Laos) may be associated with places, yet enigmatically refuse to be embodied or pinned down, and are unpredictable. Holt also writes about the transformation of beliefs in these through commercial and political actions that have marketed aspects of Laotian religious culture.

In an entirely different yet somehow similar vein is a short essay by sociologist Michael Bell “The Ghosts of Place.” He writes that: “A common feature of the experience of place is the sense of the presence of those who are not physically there” – the genii loci. He claims that we construct places in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit them. You may disagree, and he is presumably using “ghosts” at least partly in a metaphorical meaning, but it is an interesting contemporary version of the spirit of place.


The Ghosts of Place. The Village of Amulet in Saskatchewan has entirely disappeared except for this marker and plaque.


Barnes, Jonathan, 2009, The Somnabulist, (New York: Harper and Row)
Bell, Michael, M. 1997 “The Ghosts of Place” Theory and Society, 26, 813-836
Brook, Isis, 2000 “Can ‘Spirit of Place’ be a guide to Ethical Building” in W. Fox (ed) 2000 Ethics and the Built Environment, (London: Routledge), 139-151
Brown, Jane 2001 Spirits of Place: five famous lives in their English landscape (London : Viking)
Durrell, Lawrence, (1969) Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel (London: Faber and Faber)
Holt, J.C., 2009 Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press)
Norberg-Schulz, C. 1980 Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. (New York: Rizzoli).
Pope, Alexander, Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle IV
Tomich, S. 2002 “Genius Loci: A Poetic Approach to Urban Design” Plan Canada, Vol 42, 3 , 32034


Sense of Place: an Overview

In this post I offer a general overview of the range of different ideas about sense of place. Some of its important variations, such as a poisoned sense of place and a global sense of place, I intend to cover in more detail in future posts. I list some references at the end. Topics are:

  • Sense of Place as a Distinctive Aspect of Somewhere (=Genius Loci)
  • Sense and Nonsense of Place
  • Sense of Place as a Faculty for Distinguishing and Appreciating Places
  • Variations in Sense of Place over Time
  • Different Types of Sense of Place
  • Drudgery, Oppression and a Poisoned Sense of Place
  • GIS and Measurement of Sense of Place
  • A Global Sense of Place
  • Sense of Place as a Phenomenological Bridge between Person and World
  • Sense of Place as a Neurological Bridge between Self and World
  • A Pragmatic Sense of Place

I intend to discuss some of these (e.g. Genius Loci, Poison Sense of Palce, Global Sense of Place, Phenomenological and Neurological ideas) in more detail in subsequent posts.

‘Sense of place’ has become a popular, feel-good buzz phrase. Google it and you will be directed variously not only to sites on architecture, urban design, and geography but also to sense of place essay writing services (these descriptive essays are common writing assignments based on a particular location where students feel they belong). Making Sense of Place is a group of historical consultants in the U.S. that provides interpretations of cultural and natural history. And at an international scale there is a new (since 2013), energetic organization based in Malaysia with the clever name SoPlace that is dedicated to “Mainstreaming Place in the Urban Century” by using a range of social media and hosting conferences that it describes as “World Summits of Sense of Place” with presentations by academics, designers, planners and policymakers , and has plans until 2021 for further SoPlace summits. The aim of SoPlace is to mobilize “the global sense of place fraternity for mainstream impact.”


I came upon this advertisement in a magazine in a waiting room, and was not sure whether ‘sense of place’ here refers to what she is thinking or the chair.  In fact, it’s the chair – Matteo Grassi design and make chairs.

In spite of this diverse enthusiasm about sense of place it is not altogether clear what it means. It is often used in two apparently contradictory ways. One refers to a human faculty that grasps the distinctive subtleties of different bits of the world and helps us to find our way around; the other is about particular qualities of bits of the world. So sense of place can be variously regarded as something in our heads, or as a property of landscapes.

My inclination is to understand sense of place from a phenomenological perspective – as a fundamental aspect of everyday life and a connection between person and world. Somewhat to my surprise this idea of sense of place as connectedness or togetherness is getting reinforcement from the research of neuroscientists.

Furthermore, like almost everything to do with place, sense of place shifts across enormous scales – from direct experiences of grandma’s kitchen (a recommended topic for sense of place essays) to an appreciation of the entire globe (as in SoPlace Summits).

And while it is almost always regarded as altogether positive, it is important to remember that sense of place can contribute to negative, exclusionary, even xenophobic attitudes, and ambiguity nicely captured by John Milton in Paradise Lost Book 1:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

Sense of Place as a distinctive aspect of somewhere (equals genius loci)
The phrase sense of place is often used to refer to the quality that makes somewhere distinctive. It is the environmental equivalent of saying somebody has a strong personality. For example, Robert Fulford and John Sewell wrote a short book about Toronto in 1971 titled A Sense of Time and Place which was liberally illustrated with photographs of old buildings and streets. It often turns up in tourist and promotional literature with much the same meaning, which is not altogether felicitous.  J.B.Jackson, the essayist of American landscapes, remarks in his book A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (1994) that: “Sense of place is a much used expression, chiefly by architects but taken over by urban planners and interior decorators and the promoters of condominiums, so that now it means very little. It is an awkward and ambiguous translation of genius loci.” 


Stall at Ballard Street Market in Seattle in 2014 – sense of place as a property of things and environments.

Genius loci or spirit of place is derived from the belief that particular places have their own spirits or gods. It was a common notion in the 18th and 19th centuries, referred to, for instance, by Alexander Pope and John Dryden. D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1918 that: “All art partakes of the Spirit of Place in which it is produced.” This expression seems to have declined in usage, perhaps as the world became increasingly disenchanted in the 20th century, and is being pushed aside by the less sacred term “sense of place.”

Jackson is right that this is an awkward and ambiguous expression because it attributes “sense” – a human and animal faculty – to unfeeling bits of geography.

Sense and Nonsense of Place
Landscape architect Grady Clay was even more outspoken when he wrote about “sense and nonsense of place.” He suggested that ‘sense of place’ is “a sociological invention” and he concocted a table of “Buzzwords for the manufacture of a  ‘Sense of Place’ found in contemporary real-estate advertisements”: for example

  • Luxurious       waterfront     estate            mint-condition
    Spacious         prestigious    location         close-to
    Elegant           English           landmark       historic ambience
    Stately            Classic            enclave           panoramic vista

There is no undoing the development of language, but I do think using it as a naive substitution for spirit of place is unfortunate and best avoided.

Sense of Place as a faculty for distinguishing and appreciating places
This is the most common usage. It refers to a human faculty that pulls together and arranges information from the senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and also calls on memory and imagination. It is a living ecological relationship between a person and particular place, a feeling of comfort and security, similar to what environmental psychologists consider place attachment. Ian Nairn, for example, has written: “It seems a commonplace that almost everyone is born with the need for identification with their surroundings and a relationship to them. So sense of place is not a fine art extra, it is something we cannot afford to do without.”

From a broader perspective sense of place is an element of most social and cultural experiences. It is what Erskine Caldwell was driving at when he declared that there would be “nothing to write about if people had no fixed places of living.” In a cultural context sense of place is usually shared by others living in the same bit of the world and is an essential part of regional and local enthusiasms.

It is, furthermore, an intersubjective feeling,an innate faculty possessed in some degree by everyone and recognizable to others who live elsewhere. This was captured well in the Hawaiian Airlines inflight magazine for August 2014 which had an article on watershed reclamation projects on the Islands that are being used to restore traditional agriculture and ecosystems. Place in Hawaii is closely tied to watersheds and the article had this to say. “Hawaiians have a deeply anchored sense of place, of ‘my place’ and ‘your place.’ They take of their place, and respect your place, and know the difference.” This is not going backward but tapping into ancestral memory to promote ecological humility and responsibility.

But it is also a sense that can be enhanced through critical attention to what makes places distinctive, how they have changed and how they might be changed. As a critical approach to an appreciation of the distinctive personalities of different environments, the critical enhancement of sense of place is an aspect of education in Geography, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Design.

Variations in Sense of Place over Time
Sense of place is constant neither over the course of individual lifetimes nor over the course of history. For young children geographical experience is constrained, mostly to house and immediate surroundings, so sense of place is tightly focused with few comparisons; for adults place experience are extensive, regional, even global, with numerous comparisons; for the elderly sense of place become increasingly constrained as mobility declines.


Poster at Bloedell Gardens in the Olympic Peninsula, 2014

Sense of place has varied over the course of history, especially as technologies of communications have changed. Tad Homer Dixon has noted that until about 1800 most people lived in rural areas, met only a few hundred people in their lifetimes and communicated by walking and talking. Indeed this was partly true of the area of South Wales where I grew up in the 1950s, and still applies to many parts of the world. Geographically focused lives lead to close and intense associations with places, not always pleasant but inescapable. With the advent of railways, the telegraph, radio,motor vehicles, air travel, and the Internet, sense of place has been spread-eagled across the world.

Joshua Meyerowitz’ book No Sense of Place discusses the impact of electronic communications and he suggests that: “Where one is, has less and less to do with what one knows and experiences.” Lives in the 21st century are increasingly multi-centred and transnational. Sense of place is now comparative rather than rooted.

Different Types of Sense of Place
John Eyles’ book Senses of Place (Silverbrook Press, Warrington, 1985) was an investigation of what people think of where they live, based on many interviews he conducted in the town of Towcester in the Midlands of England. The results allowed him to differentiate several different senses of place. The most important were:

  • Social – dominated by social ties and interactions
  • Apathetic or acquiescent – little interest in place
  • Instrumental –place regarded either as a means to an end or as preventing opportunities
  • Nostalgic – dominated by feelings about the past

Substantially less important were the following, which are usually treated in discussion of sense of place as essential:

  • Family
  • Roots
  • Environment

My guess is that this ranking would not apply in other situations. For instance in the Cascadia region of North-West North America, where I now live, mountains, ocean and forest feature so prominently that the environment is fundamental to many people’s sense of place. But regardless of whether Eyles’ conclusions apply outside the town where he did his case study, his work is important because it shows that sense of place is not some sort of universally consistent response to the world.

Schmuel Shamai tried something similar to Eyles in the early 1990s. He argues that sense of place is something that can be measured. He subjected his questionnaire survey data of Jews in Toronto to various statistical tests that allowed him to identify seven levels of sense of place:

  • not having a sense of place
  • knowledge of being located in a place
  • belonging to a place
  • attachment to a place
  • place devotion/allegiance
  • involvement in a place
  • sacrificing one’s life for a place

Drudgery, Oppression and A Poisoned Sense of Place
Place experiences can be negative as well as positive. For teenagers in a small town or women subjected to domestic violence a sense of place is about being trapped somewhere rather than belonging to it.


Escaping place. This movie (which I have not seen and about which I know nothing) has a title lifted from the 1965 song by Eric Burdon and The Animals (We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do).

Sense of place can also contribute to exclusionary attitudes and practices. The psychologist Marc Fried, who in the 1970s wrote about uprooted communities in Boston, has more recently commented on “pathologies of community attachment” as disorders of place attachment. He suggests that they can be contagious, leading to territorial competition, warfare, even genocide.

I have written about these pathologies of place attachment as “a poisoned sense of place” in my essay on “Sense of Place” in Ten Geographical Ideas that Have Changed the World. This is the result when sense of place turns sour and becomes exclusionary. Much of what is positive in sense of place depends on a reasonable balance. At one extreme, when that balance is upset by an excess of placeless internationalism the local identity of places is eroded. At the other extreme, when that balance is upset by excessive commitment to place and local or national zeal, the result is a poisoned sense of place in which other places and people are treated with contempt. In its mildest forms this is apparent in nimbyism and gated communities. In its extreme forms, as Fried suggests, it is revealed ethnic nationalist supremacy and xenophobia. It was apparent, for example, in the place cocoons that Europeans took to protect themselves from the local contexts of their colonies that they found distasteful, thus bits of Britain were reproduced in India, and a Spanish way of life was exported to Latin America. At its most extreme it was manifested in Nazi Germany and the attempts at ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia, where obsessive love of national landscape and culture led to brutal attempts to purify the homeland by removing whatever and whomever was considered not to belong.

GIS and Measurement of Sense of Place
Agarwal has attempted to develop a computational theory for sense of place that will “enable the identification of minimal parameters for simulating sense of place in place-based models.”   On the basis of 50 interviews he proposes that sense of place is a mechanism through which individual conceptualizations of place are grounded in a collective notion and develops a model for a “cognitive ‘sense of place’ as follows:

  • SoPc can be expressed as < environmental knowledge : spatial familiarity : neighborhood : boundaries : k>,  where k represents any symbolically important element that has been omitted within the constraints of the experiment. the meanings of place and its links in the real world. Sense of place is shown to be a representation of ontological commitments in the real world for the formation of a place.”

I am not sure what to make of this except to note that sense of place is topic that can be approached from many different angles and it is wise not to assume that the angle you or I prefer is the only one with some measure of legitimacy.

Global Sense of Place
Doreen Massey, a geographer, suggests that it is necessary to rethink places as particular moments in intersecting social and economic relations – in effect as nodes in open and porous networks that are global in their reach. She further argues that we need a progressive or global sense of place – a global sense of the local – which is adequate to an era of space-time compression. This understands each place as a focus of a distinct mixture of both wider and more local social relations, and which interact with the accumulated history of a place. This political economic view of places as nodes in systems of networks has been widely accepted in academic geography.

Sense of Place as a Phenomenological Bridge between Self and World
A reasonable and balanced sense of place connects person and environment; it is phenomenological bridge based in direct experiences of the world. Our senses respond to places and places are informed by how we sense them. This experiential connection is at the heart of Feld and Basso’s 1996 edited book Senses of Place. They are anthropologists interested in active processes of sensing places. Their aim is to move beyond “facile generalizations about places being culturally constructed” to an understanding of the ways in which places naturalize different worlds of sense. The essays in their book “…locate the intricate strengths and fragilities that connect places to social imagination and practice, to memory and desire, to dwelling and movement.” Basso’s own chapter on places in the Apache landscape is an account of how the Apache are alive to the world around them, and how places inform their comprehension of the world. Their experience of sensing places is both reciprocal and incorrigibly dynamic: “when places are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind.”

Sense of Place as a Neurological Bridge between Self and World
A similar notion of sense of place as a connection between person and world has begun to emerge in the work of neuroscientists who have identified “place cells” in the hippocampus that store memories of specific places, and “grid cells” that orchestrate these memories in ways that allow us to find our way around. Neuroscientists have been careful to point out that there is nothing like a map of places in the brain; instead experiences of places are actively organized in neural processes in our brains. It appears to be a failure of these processes that leads to dementia and Alzheimer’s and a person’s failure to find their way around. In other words, from a neurological perspective sense of place is simultaneously both in the world and in the brain. It requires a togetherness of environment and experience.


A diagram from Nature illustrating the neurological sense of place in rats developed by Edvard and Britt Moser (Nobel Prize winners 2014). Similar processes are known to happen in humans, and it is the failure of these that contributes to Alzheimer’s. What I think is significant is that this research has revealed processes that are simultaneously in the brain and in the environment.


A Pragmatic Sense of Place
There has always been a practical aspect to sense of place that translates it into buildings, landscapes and townscapes. It involves all means of planning, making, doing, maintaining, caring for, transforming, restoring and otherwise taking responsibility for how somewhere looks and functions. I have argued in several essays that the solutions to current challenges such as those of climate change, terrorism and inequality cannot lie with comprehensive, top-down, technical approaches alone. In addition to larger scale diplomatic and political answers it is necessary to have policies and practices that reflect locally distinctive conditions and meanings. These will require fostering a sense of place that blends an appreciation of local identity and difference with a grasp of widely shared processes and consequences, and then seeks locally appropriate local courses of action. I have referred to this as a pragmatic sense of place. It is necessary part, I think, of what will be needed to meet the multiple environmental and social challenges of the present century.

Agarwal, Pragya 2005 “Operationalizing ‘Sense of Place’ as a cognitive operator for semiotics in place-based ontologies” in A.G. Cohn and D,M. Mark (eds) Spatial Information Theory (Berlin: Springer-Verlag).

Clay, G.1994 Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America’s Generic Landscapes, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Eyles, John 1985 Senses of Place (Warrington: Silverbrook Press)

Feld. S and Basso K. H. (eds) 1996 Senses of Place (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press)

Fried, Marc 2000 “Continuities and Discontinuities of Place” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 193-205

Fulford, R and Sewell J (n.d but about 1971) A Sense of Time and Place (Toronto: City Pamphlets)

 Jackson J.B. 1994 A sense of place, a sense of time, (New Haven: Yale UP)

Massey D 1994 Space, Place and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Meyerowitz, Joshua, 1985 No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour (London: Oxford UP)

Relph, E. 1997 “Sense of Place” in Ten Geographical Ideas that Have Changed the World, ed Susan Hanson, Rutgers University Press

Relph, Edward, 2007 “Spirit of Place and Sense of Place in Virtual Realities”, in Champion, E. (ed) Techne: special edition on Real and Virtual Places, 32-48

Relph, Edward, 2008 “Coping with Social and Environmental Challenges through a Pragmatic Approach to Place” in Eyles, J. and Williams, A., (eds) Sense of Place, Health, And Quality of Life (Aldershot: Ashgate)

Relph, Edward 2008 “A Pragmatic Sense of Place” in Vanclay, F., Higgins, M., and Blackshaw, A., (eds) Making Sense of Place: Exploring concepts and expressions of place through different senses and lenses (Canberra: National Museum of Australia)

Shamai, Schmuel 1991 “Sense of Place: An Empirical Measurement” Geoforum, Vol 22, No 3, pp. 347-358

Some other Sense of Place books not mentioned in this post:

Harwell, Karen and Reynolds, Joanna, 2006 Exploring a Sense of Place: How to Create your own local program for reconnecting with nature

 Heise, Ursula K., 2008 Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global

 Gussow, Alan and Wilbur, Richard 1997 A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land

 Steele, Fritz 1981 The Sense of Place

Stegner, Wallace, 1989 A Sense of Place