Monthly Archives: October 2015

Topophilia and Topophils


The cover of my tattered, well-used 1974 edition of Yi-fu Tuan’s Topophilia.

The Various Inventions of Topophilia
The word topophilia, which literally means love of place, was popularized by Yi-fu Tuan, a human geographer in his book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values, published in 1974. He apparently thought he had coined the word because he refers to it as a neologism that includes all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment” (p.93). I’ll discuss that book in a moment, but there were a couple of prior and significant, albeit brief, uses of the word.

The first use seems to have been by the poet W.H. Auden when he wrote in 1947 in his introduction for Slick but not Streamlined, a book by the English poet John Betjeman, that he hoped it “will inspire American topophils to take poetry seriously and American poets to take topophilia seriously.” The places Betjeman loved and wrote poems about were mostly the interwar suburbs of England.

So tophophils are lovers of place, and I suppose I must also be sort of intellectual “topophil” because I have devoted so much energy to writing about place.

A few years later Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist, gave topophilia a slightly different and methodological meaning in The Poetics of Space. He used it to refer to his investigations of poetic images of “felicitous space” that “seek to determine the human value of the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space that we love” (p.xxxi). It is unclear whether Bachelard had borrowed the word from Auden or coined it for himself. Whatever is the case, the word appears to be an invention of the late-twentieth century, though the sentiments it encompasses are presumably as old as humanity.

Tuan’s Topophilia
For Tuan, who refers neither to Auden nor Bachelard, topophilia is “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (p.4). It is, he wrote, “not the strongest of human emotions” (p.93). And it varies greatly in emotional range and intensity, including fleeting visual pleasure, the sensual delight of physical contact, the fondness for familiar places such as home, and joy because of health and vitality (p.247). But for all that, it strikes a chord. It is a familiar sentiment, a word that encapsulates the pleasantly varied relationships we have with particular bits of the world both as individuals and as participants in cultures with long histories.

Tuan’s book is more about –philia than about topo-, more about environmental attitudes and perceptions, as the subtitle indicates, than about the characteristics of places that contribute to those perceptions, although he is well aware that topophilia is a two-way relationship between humans and environments. The word place appears neither in the index, nor in any of the chapter titles or section headings. And in fact only two of the chapters discuss topophilia in depth (one on topophilia and environment, the other, shorter one on environment and topophilia).


A diagram from the chapter on topophilia and environment in Tuan’s book that indicates his interest in all types of places – urban, rural and wilderness.

What is remarkable about Tuan’s approach is, first, that it broke from contemporary studies of environmental perception, which mostly involved the use of psychological methods, and offered an interpretation of environmental experience from the broad perspective of a humanist scholar and geographer who wove together ideas drawn from poets, classical Greece, art critics, anthropologists, cosmology, garden cities, New York, the Middle Ages, suburbs and skid row. And secondly, it is a wonderful account of the complexity of sense of place and the diverse aspects of place experience that is elliptical and indirect. It encircles place, which is always at the centre yet is scarcely mentioned.

As soon as we become aware of topophilia, its importance becomes obvious, It is apparent in many forms of experience outdoors – skiing, hiking, sitting in the sun, we experience it when we travel to attractive places, whether resorts or historic towns, it stands behind the attempts of architects and planners to create aesthetically pleasant designs and compatible settings for people to work and live; it is demonstrated in the attention home-owners give to gardens in their front-yards, which are both for their own pleasure and the pleasure of those who pass-by; it is reinforced in community festivals and parades. It is involved, in fact, whenever somewhere gives us pleasure, and whenever our moods enable us to take pleasure from those places, regardless of whether they are primarily human constructions or natural or a blend of both. Topophilia can be comfortable and subdued, or ecstatic. Its importance is known to anybody who bothers to attend to the world around them.

The Diversity of Approaches to Topophilia Now
Tuan’s Topophilia has been widely referenced and very influential in human geography and other environmental disciplines. It has been reprinted at least twice. But like any incisive idea it has taken on a life of its own. For example, a 2005 paper titled “Topophilia and Quality of Life: Ultimate Restorative Environments”, by Oladele Ogunseitan and published in Environmental Health Perspectives, defines topophilia as an abstract psychological construct whose meaning can only be observed indirectly through its effect on measurable responses. Several hundred individuals on the Irvine campus of the University of California were asked about topophilia and their quality of life (using a standard WHO quality of life survey), and their answers submitted to various statistical techniques that generated four domains of topophilia – ecodiversity, synthetic settings (which blend natural and built elements), environmental familiarity, and cognitive challenges. This sort of approach Tuan selfconsciously avoided because he wrote simply in the introduction to Topophilia that “Research methods are not presented” for the reason that such methods miss the crucial problems.


A diagram from Ogunseitan’s paper indicating the relationship of topophilia to quality of life and the statistical strength of the four domains of topophilia.

A Google search in fall 2015 indicated that topophilia, is currently experiencing a diverse resurgence of interest. For instance:

  • the “topophilia hypothesis,” understood as something to do human affiliation with the natural world, has become a minor research theme in the subdiscipline of ecopsychology and linked with the “biophilia hypothesis.”
  • In May 2015 Planitzen had a blog entry titled: “The difficult task of creating Topophilia: Reflections on 40 years of the Project for Public Spaces,” though there is no subsequent discussion of what this might mean.
  • “Topophilia” is the title of an avant-garde Japanese music album.
  • “Topophilia”

    “Sense of Being”, from Stephanie Dawda’s Topophilia photography project

    is the title of Stephanie Dawda’s photography project “to capture the energy of the powerful sensations humans experience from natural environments.”

  • “Studies in Topophilia” is the name of an exhibition by Carol Wenning of charcoal sketches inspired by her experiences of Portuguese landscapes and marble quarries.
  • Jeffery Hirst offers “Topophilia- A Visual Poem of muted photos that speak of specific places and relationships (I provide no link because there seems to be no way back from his site).
  • Liz Toohey-Wiese has a drawing of a snow-covered mountain top that she titled “Topophilia.”
  • A blog entry with the intriguing title “Topophilia, Tobacco and Tactical Weapons” by somebody (unidentified except for the initials jdp) from the University of Kentucky, is an account of a drive on Highway 70 east from Raleigh to the coast, which is not scenic but where he/she grew up and which “triggered fond associations with eastern North Carolina – topophilia I guess.” The blog describes tobacco farms and billboards advertising guns.

    The image used by MOMA in February 2015 to advertise Peter Bo Rappmond’s film Topophilia, about the Trans-Alaska pipeline

    More substantial than any of these is “Topophilia,” an art film by Peter Bo Rappmund, which was shown at MOMA in February 2015. This is more consistent with Tuan’s breadth of interpretation. It shows the Trans-Alaska pipeline in all its diversity from end to end, and explores the complex interactions of industrial and natural landscapes. Here’s a vimeo clip.


A bar somewhere between Minneapolis and St Paul in 1976

Topophilia, Topo-apathy and Topophobia
What I gather from all these websites is that love of place is an idea and emotion as diverse as places that are loved and liked, and the different uses of the idea of topophilia reflects some of that diversity.  Of course, not everyone is particularly interested in or loves places. When I was teaching in Minnesota in the 1970s I recall reading a mid-Western literary journal that had surveyed regional authors about their sense of place. One replied that his sense of place had to do with being in a bar with a beer in his hand – a reply that nicely pricks the assumption that place is a romantic interest for everyone. I suppose this attitude could be called topo-apathy. I suspect it is not uncommon.

And while love of place is part of our “affective ties to environments,” to quote Tuan, these ties also include antipathies to place – apprehension, dislike, revulsion, even fear of places. This is topophobia. Academically inclined topophils, such as me, are no less interested in such adverse reactions to places, and I am trying to make contact with a book edited by Xing Ruan and Paul Hogben in 2007 titled Topophilia and Topophobia: reflections on twentieth century human habitat, which includes an essay by Yi-fu Tuan .  When I can find it and have read it I will update this post.  In the meantime I will write a separate post about topophobia, something which I first considered in the 1970s.

Place Cells and Sense of Place in Neuroscience

I first learned of place cells and the work of neuroscientists to locate sense of place in the brain from an article published in the New Scientist in 2006 (John Zeisel, “A Sense of Place,” New Scientist 4 March 2006, 50-51). My initial reaction was that this was scientific reduction, taking something remarkably subtle and complex and explaining it in terms of a physiological mechanism. I became less dismissive when I discovered that this research was in part an attempt to find a underlying cause for Alzheimer’s, in which a sense of place (in the fundamental meaning of knowing where you are and how you got here) is one of the first faculties to drift away, and there is some indication that damage to place cells could be a cause. And as I have learned more I have come increasingly to think that the research of neuroscientists provides valuable insights that complement rather than undermine phenomenological thought about place.

There are growing indications that “place cells” and “grid cells” – the neurons in our brains that react to specific locations – play key roles in our experiences of places. The three key scientists involved in the discovery of these cells – John O’Keefe, and Edvard and May-Britt Moser – were awarded the Nobel Prize in the Physiology of Medicine in 2014, and the nomination stated that: “The sense of place and the ability to navigate are some of the most fundamental brain functions. Sense of place provides a perception of the position of the body in the environment and in relation to surrounding objects.” Furthermore it is linked to experiences of distance and direction, and to memory.


Diagrams recording place cell firing and grid cell firing in respective parts of the brain. Yellow indicates no firing of an electrode, other colors fire when the animal was in a particular part of the maze. The place cell patterns are unorganized and do not correspond to actual spatial patterns. Grid cell firings have a hexagonal pattern.

Place and Grid Cells
Place cells were identified and named by O’Keefe in 1971. He connected electrodes to the hippocampi of rats moving freely around mazes, and discovered that whenever a rat was in a certain part of the maze a particular neuron fired – each place in the maze apparently had its own neuron. Hence “place cells.” There was, however, no apparent correspondence between the patterns of place cells in the brain and the spatial relationships of actual places. This puzzle was resolved thirty years later when the Mosers identified what they called “grid cells” in the entorhinal cortex (a part of the brain adjacent to the hippocampus) which, in effect, organize the relationships of distance and direction between place cells. It has been suggested that together place and grid cells construct a sort of cognitive map of the world as we experience it.


The hexagonal pattern of grid cell firing. The grey, wavy line in the background shows the movement of a freely moving rat in an experimental cage. The firing pattern of grid cells is superimposed – locations at the intersections of the grid lines generated repeated firings to create the hexagonal patterns. 

[Two related notes:
1. Other related types of neurons related to spatial experience have been identified – such as head-direction cells and border or boundary cells – which also contribute to how place memories are stored in the brain.
2.Grid cells are remarkable not only for their apparent organizational role in brain activity, but also because their firing patterns seem to take the form of a hexagonal grid, strangely reminiscent of the patterns in what in Geography is known as Central Place Theory. I have no idea what to make of this.]

Place and grid cells are in parts of the brain known to play critical roles in memory. It has been established that their functions are related not only to remembering how to get from place to place but also to episodic memories – memories related to one’s own experiences. It has also been established that there is “plasticity” in these memories of places. In other words, even if some of the characteristics of a place are changed, such as colours, or heights of walls, or lighting, the same place cell continues to respond to it.

Place and Grid Cells in Humans
How is this known to happen in humans? Individuals having brain surgery for other reasons, such as treatment for acute epilepsy, and are therefore immobilized, have agreed to participate in experiments involving virtual reality. Their brain activity has been monitored as they navigate through a virtual city where they are asked to undertake tasks at specific locations, and then to recall aspects of those locations and tasks. Firing patterns in place and grid cells are consistent with those in laboratory animals.

What does this mean for understanding place and sense of place in what might be called the geographical world of home, neighbourhood, city, other countries?

Clearly place and grid cells have to be functioning well if we are to find our way around, whether it is from the living room to the kitchen and back again, or around the cities we live in. We know this because those suffering from Alzheimer’s lose that ability and it appears this may be related to atrophy or malfunction of place and grid cells. In effect, place and grid cells hold the memories, meanings and sense of places.


The relationship between places and episodic memories captured in a sign in store window in Victoria British Columbia

More philosophically, it appears there is a complex correspondence between what I perceive and experience in the geographical world and what goes on in my brain. If I understand the neuroscience research correctly, there is in my brain a neuron which somehow stores or is related to my memories for each place I have experienced, whether my kitchen, the house my grandfather built that I lived in fifty years ago for a few years, or the view of Florence from the other side of the Arno. This is a huge amount of information and it all has to be sorted and recalled easily if we are to find our way around and talk about where we grew up and went on vacation. May-Britt and Edvard Moser and David Rowland put it this way in their Cold Spring Harbor article: “Spatial memories place high demands on capacity. Memories must be distinct to be recalled without interference and encoding must be fast…for large quantities of uncorrelated spatial information.”

Given this, I think the cognitive map metaphor is too simple, not least because it assumes that place and grid cells function mostly as recording devices of places that exist in a real world. My interpretation is that research into place and grid cells is demonstrating the remarkable complexity and flexibility of place experience in which the relationship between the geographical world and place and grid cells is dynamic and two-directional, continually changing both as things in the world change and as memories are accumulated. Place and grid cells record our experiences of places as memories, and the memories stored in those cells continually inform our experiences of places. By extension, notions of an objective world that is separate from subjective experience seem to have no neurological substance. What goes on in our brains, and what goes on in the world those brains encounter are so profoundly interconnected that to separate them has to be considered equivalent to self-imposed dementia. Phenomenologists have always suspected as much.

Some References:
A substantial recent review of work on place, grid and related cells, by the Mosers who won the Nobel Prize and David Rowland, is available at Cold Spring Harbor Perspective in Biology at:

The connection between place and grid cells and Alzheimer’s is discussed at

The following article from Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience discusses the link between place cells and episodic memory:

Brain Facts discusses the evidence of place and grid cells in humans.