Author Archives: admin

Toponymy and Place Names

There’s another topo- word, toponymy, which means the study of place names, their origins and history. It’s an arcane field that has been given almost no attention by those geographers (including me), psychologists, architects and philosophers who have written about place and spirit of place. This is a bit surprising because place attachment, roots, dwelling, attachment, openess, thrown-togetherness, boundaries and sense of place all involve particular places with their own names, and none of those theoretical discussions have much substance except in the context of experiences of particular places.


Solina is a hamlet in Central Ontario in Canada. I have been unable to find the origin of the name.

Deroy and Mulon suggest in the preface to their 1992 Dictionnaire de Noms de Lieux that the proper names of places are like money (dollar bills and euros and so) because they are used with no more attention to them than their everyday utility. They serve as a sort of geographical shorthand that helps us find our way around the world and is indispensable to communication because they obviate the need for cumbersome descriptions (such as “the cupboard under the stairs” – a description that by its very lack of a proper name conveyed that Harry Potter didn’t really belong on Privet Drive). Place names are so taken for granted that their importance as symbols of particularlity is largely overlooked by those who want to contemplate place at a more abstract level. [I intend to write about particularity in a future post.]


A bench in a small square just inside the medieval town gate at Chepstow.

Traditional Toponymy
The traditional approach of toponymists who study place names, has, it has been suggested by Reuben Rose-Redwood, “been characterized by political innocence.” They mostly dig into etymology, archives and local histories to unravel what names mean, but don’t consider the processes behind the naming. In fact, many Anglo-European place names probably don’t have much of a story to tell, and simply arose as descriptions that made sense for local inhabitants. These give individuality to somewhere yet can also have broader connotations, and the spelling may have shifted over the centures. Chepstow, one of the towns I regularly visited as a child, is a straightforward combination of the Old English cheap, meaning market, and stow, meaning place. There are countless places in Britain with names that have generic elements such as these. A simple guide to generic elements in British place names, such as -stow and -ton and coombe can be found here.

Some place names do summarise narratives, though it is not always clear what these are. Corstorphine in Edinburgh is said by some to derive from croix d’or fin and is where Mary Queen of Scots is said to have lost a gold cross. Alternatively it could mean Torfin’s Crossing because the earliest recorded use is Crostorfin in 1178. Nevertheless, where place names embed history toponymists can reveal obscure origins that can be of great value to historians, archaeologists and even in support of environmental protection. Gwaun Henllan in Carmarthen is the oldest recorded field name in Wales, first noted in the 8th century. When it was threatened with open pit mining the place name history proved to be critical in the prevention of the mining.

For cultures other than Angle-European ones, place names can serve as ways not only of remembering geography but also as means of reinforcing traditions and cultural memories. When the anthropologist Basso asked an Apache native American “What is wisdom?” the answer was: “Wisdom sits in places.” For the Apache the names of places have stories associated with them that are used to teach others and to convey correct behavior (Feld and Basso, p56). Basso calls this “the ethnography of lived topographies.”

Classifying and Standardizing Place Names
It is possible to see similarities in names and to classify them. Randall suggests the following categories:

  • commendatory (Pennsylvania for William Penn, or Victoria)
  • descriptive (Mont Blanc, Fisherman’s Terminal)
  • commemorative (Victoria)
  • possessive (Tom’s Place, Hank’s Place)
  • associative (New York and New York State)
  • incident or activity (Coal Harbour, or Corstorphine)
  • manufactured (Disneyworld)
  • folk-etymological (Seattle from Chief Si’ahl
  • political (Great Britain, United States

Tom'sPlaceweb  PeterleeisPlacetoBe1975web

Tom’s Place is a store in Kensington Market in Toronto, 2012, where Tom is a long-time resident and store owner. I took the Peterlee is the Place to Be sign on the side of a London bus in 1975 (you probably have to click to enlarge it to read the sign). Peterlee is a New Town in County Durham, founded in 1948 and named for Peter Lee who promoted a better life for the inhabitants of depressed mining villages in Durham.

Toponymy involves more than classification and digging into etymological origins. It also plays an essential role in ensuring consistency in spelling and usage, something that is overseen in most political jurisdictions by formally constituted boards or committees. For instance the UK has a Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. The US Board on Geographic Names is Federal board created in 1890, and Canada established a Geographical Names Board in 1897. It is interesting to note that the late 19th century was also when standardized time zones were created (before then towns had their own times, which made it difficult to coordinate train timetables and so on), so the regulation of place names seems to have been part of broader trend to government imposed standardization.


Most towns and cities have place signs at their borders. This is at Toronto’s northern boundary on Yonge Street.

Critical Toponymy, Colonisation and Commodification
Since the turn of this century toponymy has moved beyond etymological and taxonomic research to consider the politics involved in place naming. It has always been the case that a colonizing or imperial expansion has involved displacement of local names with new ones imposed by the conquerors. In the European expansions of the 18th and 19th century this was done partly to demonstrate authority and partly to honour those involved in the act of colonization by using names of the colonisers or the monarchs and aristocrats who supported them – Georgia, Victoria, Alberta, Sydney, Melbourne, Halifax, and so on in British colonies. Imported place names also provided a measure of familiarity for new settlers. Scarborough, which is now the eastern suburb of Toronto, was named by Elizabeth, the wife of the first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, because the cliffs along the lakefront reminded her of Scarborough in Yorkshire. What is now Toronto was named York at its founding in 1793, officially in honour of the Duke of York, son of George III (the same Grand Old Duke of York who marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again) but I suspect homesickness for a familiar bit of England had something to do with it.

The name was changed to Toronto in 1832 apparently because of confusion caused by having too many places called York, but York lingers on in the names of other municipalities and a university. Toronto is an indigenous place name that means something “trees standing in water” that described a weir on a lake about 90 kilometres north of the present day city. Eighteenth century fur traders used it to refer to the lake, and then to describe a portage to rivers flowing into Lake Ontario, and then for a trading fort near the current city. There was no First Nations settlement on the site of York when the British arrived, but Fort Toronto had been close by so it was the closest thing to a local place name that could be adopted.

The rewriting of place names is, as one toponymist has said, an uneven process. When it is done in the deliberate way of Simcoe it is often part of a process of claiming territory and making clear who the new owners are. But even when the naming is well-intentioned, the process can still be contested. Alderman and Inwood have written, for example, about how the renaming of streets Martin Luther King Way was often done without consulting local Black American communities, some of whom therefore felt further marginalized by a process that was intended to be inclusive.


Snidcel – a place on Vancouver Island that has regained its First Nation’s name.

In some small ways place name injustices in North America and elsewhere are being undone as features and places once named for Europeans are winning back their indigenous names. What was previously called Mount McKinley in Alaska, named for a US President and the tallest mountain in North America, has in 2015 been renamed Denali, the locally used indigenous name. In an announcement about the change the US Secretary of the Interior declared: “With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska.”




Reuben Rose-Redwood suggests that an increasingly important concern for critical toponymists is the commercialization of place names. This is more than a matter of developers finding names for new projects that will be attractive to prospective investors and home-buyers. Corporate developers now often have streets in major projects named for themselves, and sports stadiums (Etihad Stadium for Manchester City, Rogers Centre in Toronto for the Blue Jays) named for the major sponsor, and when the sponsor changes the stadium name can change. The names of metro rail stations in Dubai were sold to corporate sponsors as a form of advertising for them and revenue generation for the transit authority. It seems that toponymic commodification and place branding are merging. My favourite example is the conflation of Montreal with Coca Cola that happened for the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1992. I understand that this is the only time that Coca Cola’s distinctive calligraphy has been used for other purposes. I hope it is the only time a city allows itself to merge with a corporation and a commodity.

– Derek Alderwood and Joshua Inwood, 2013, Street Naming and the Politics of Belonging: Spatial Injustices in the toponymic commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr, Social and Cultural Geography
L. Deroy, et M Mulon, 1992 Dictionnaire de Noms de Lieux, (Paris: Les Usuels)
– S. Feld. and K.H. Basso  (eds) 1996 Senses of Place (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press)
– Richard Randall, 2001 Place Names: how they define the world – and more (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press)
– Reuben Rose Redwood, 2011, Rethinking the Agenda of Political Toponymy, Acme
– Edward Relph 2014 Toronto: Transformations in a City and its Region, University of Pennsylvania Press) [where I discuss the erratic origins of the name of Toronto]
S. Taylor  (ed) 1998 The Uses of Place Names (Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press) [Corstorphine and Gwaun Henllan]



A Dread of Certain Places and other Negative Responses to Place
Topophobia is defined in the OED as a morbid dread of certain places. From a medical perspective it is regarded as an anxiety disorder. I have no idea how common this is, but apparently  in extreme cases it can warrant psychiatric treatment.

My understanding is that has a much broader meaning than this. I first wrote about it in 1976 (in an obscure discussion paper: “The phenomenological foundations of geography,” University of Toronto, Department of Geography, Discussion Paper No 21, 1976; available at, in which I suggested that the components of topophilia, such as environments of persistent appeal, the pleasure gained from direct encounters with nature, or knowing places through good health and health and familiarity, all have a topophobic equivalent. Topophilia involves positive affective bonds between human beings and environments; topophobia refers to the dislike or fear of places, and includes all the negative emotional responses people have to spaces, places, and landscapes that they find distasteful or frightening. Think of Mirkwood in The Lord of the Rings. To put it succinctly, topophilia is about pleasant experiences of places, and topophobia is about the nasty experiences.


An army base near Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala in 1998, shortly after the end of a civil war in which the army had razed entire villages. The cute sentry post belies the deep topophobia inherent both in those actions and in the reactions of survivors to this particular place fragment.

Diverse Manifestations of Topophobia
Most negative language about place – for instance placelessness, non-places, dislocation, uprooting, dystopia, displacement, delocalization, disembedding – has to do with processes that have suppressed or undermined positive place experiences. Some of these are primarily about loss of topophilia, but others involve topophobia because a once pleasant place has become abhorrent. This was the case with uprooting during the Dust Bowl, or the “landscapes of death” in north-east Brazil described by Josue de Castro in his book Death in the North-East, (Random House, 1966).

But topophobia has to do with more than loss of place. In my 1976 essay I cited an article about the coal-mining districts of Appalachia, a region where it had been estimated that 50% of the population suffered from depression, compared to about 4% in the United States. A local doctor explained: “I feel depressed here myself just from the ways things look. That includes the roads, housing, everything.” (C. McCarthy, “Whose Who in Appalachia” Atlantic Monthly, July 1976). Something similar could probably be said about the impoverished settlements on reserves of aboriginal peoples in northern Canada, about ghettoes of social housing in high rise apartments, about the devastated cities of Syria. In such cases the ugliness of the place itself, the everyday challenges of surviving there, and the depression and anxiety of inhabitants, seem to reinforce one another in a vicious cycle.


A B movie with the name of the song. A good movie with the same theme is The Last Picture Show, with Jeff Bridges and Cloris Leachman, 1971.

Many experiences of places are far from agreeable, for reasons that have to do with our moods, environmental events, or the character of the setting. If you happen to be depressed or upset for some reason, landscapes will not appear cheerful. Experiences of the natural environment, so often benign and pleasant, can be filled with anxiety and even panic as the weather worsens, tornado warnings sound, a brush fire approaches, the drought intensifies, the earthquake happens. In cities we avoid urban neighbourhoods that are dangerous because they are gang territories, or simply because they are unfamiliar and seem threatening. An isolated place, caught in drudgery, far from the centres of fashion, lacking any sense of possible change or opportunities for personal growth, is stultifying for most young people. The places of childhood and home are rejected as intolerable burdens; the priority is to get away. This sentiment was captured perfectly in the song”We Gotta Get out of this Place” by Eric Burdon and The Animals, released in 1965. It is a theme in numerous movies and novels.

Topophobia can be aesthetic, such as a dislike of modernist buildings or graffiti. It can opinionated and intellectual, for instance in the attitude that stands behind condemnations of urban sprawl and suburbs. It can be physiological; a former student of mine suffered migraines whenever she went into an enclosed shopping mall. Or ideological; one of my uncles refused to go into the great country houses of England because he considered them manifestations of decadence and oppression. The forms of topophobia are no less diverse than those of topophilia, though academics and artists pay much less attention to them.

Paradoxical Topophobia
Because topophobia, like topophilia, is associated both with the personality of places and with our attitudes, our experiences can switch from topophilic to topophobic, and vice versa, as our moods change and as the place itself changes. The desire of those young people who got out of the places where they grew up – the small towns and farms and slums is often transformed later in life into nostalgia about them.


This poster with a paradoxical topophobic/topophilic quote from Henry James about London, is in the London Museum.

Indeed it seems to be possible, if somewhat paradoxical, that in some circumstances positive and negative reactions to a place can be held almost simultaneously. Beatriz Munoz-Gonzalez has a paper titled “Topophilia and Topophobia: The Home as an Evocative Place of Contradictory Emotions” (Space and Culture, May 2005), in which she considers how home in south-west Spain is place of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction, somewhere for belonging and creation, yet also a prison and place of conflict. The very term “domestic violence” captures this contradiction succinctly. (I expect to explore this contradiction more when I write a post about “Home and Place.”)


The cover of the publication Topophobia that describes LondonTopophobia’s performance events.

Knowing more about topophobia as a means of avoiding where we don’t want to be.
A group of musicians, dancers and electronic artists organizing performance events in London has adopted the name “LondonTopophobia.” They use trepidation and confusion about places to raise the existential question of how we find our place in the world. If I understand their intention correctly, their aim is to convey the idea that we end up where we are in part by avoiding where we don’t want to be.related publication on Topophobia and the fear of place in contemporary art describes some of these performance events, which include making a video that treats an urban wasteland as a spectacle, a “filmic pan” of the aftermath of a car accident, a depiction by a Finnish/Sami artist of her sense of being out of place, and an imaginary journey in virtual space.

To my knowledge there has been no study of topophobia that is an equivalent to Tuan’s account of topophilia. In some respects this is not altogether surprising because most people writing about place, or painting and photographing places, have chosen to illustrate their nice qualities, and place is treated as an aspect of belonging and a source of pleasure. Topophobia is about the dark side of environmental experience, and because it is, like topophilia, not the strongest of human emotions it is quite easily pushed aside, avoided or ignored, so that we can turn our attention to nicer experiences. Nevertheless, I think it would be very helpful to know more about why we avoid where we don’t want to be.

Finally, a Google search turned up two images of Topophobia, the one on the left to illustrate a show of works of the LondonTopophobia group, the more compelling one on the right from a website called Polyvore, which seems to be about fashion or something I cannot quite grasp.

Topophobia---Image             Topophobia-polyvoreweb


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.

Recent Insights into Mobility and Place

In the last couple of months I have read several articles that provide insights into the importance of place in the context of contemporary mobility. Some of these include survey and census information about how Americans relate to local areas and how many of them changed their place of residence in one year. This information is important because discussions about place mostly approach it in terms of particular, long-term local experiences, giving the impression that these are the norm. This may be the case for a small majority but it seems that a large minority of the population want to move elsewhere and every year several tens of millions act on this. Place experiences for them are of many places and multi-centred.

My interest was first aroused by an article in the Atlantic Monthly in March “Staying Close to Home , No Matter What,” which discusses the inclination of Americans not to move away from where they grew up. This is in fact a commentary on a recent poll in the Heartland Monitor that examined American’s experiences in their local areas, including their opinions on the local economy, businesses, and institutions.


“Place of Discovery”, a 1927 painting by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee.

The Heartland Monitor poll (undertaken by Allstate/National Journal) asked 1000 people  whether their local area is best described as a small city or town (41%), a suburb (22%), a big city (19%)  or a rural area 17%); these are not perhaps what many might consider as local areas. Nevertheless, and regardless of what sort of local area they lived in or their demographic or socio-economic group, respondents rated their local area very positively in terms of its quality of life and environment, and higher than the country in terms of political leadership. Perhaps what is of special significance from the perspective of place is that 54% of the respondents lived in the area where they had grown up  (34% had never moved away while 19% had left and returned)., and almost half of those had lived in the same area for 21 or more years.

It was these percentages that led the author of the Atlantic Monthly article to interpret the Heartland Monitor poll as indicating that Americans generally like to stay put. Well, yes, strictly speaking the sample of 1000 is sufficient to make reasonably confident extrapolations for the American population as a whole, and to suggest that just over half the US population likes stays close to home, which is to say in the same city, town or suburb.  But it is important to put numbers to this. The U.S. population is about 320 million, so 54% means that roughly 170 million want to stay in their local area. On the other hand, about 150 million do not, so it seems almost half Americans are restless, and for them moving elsewhere is almost as big an attraction as staying put.

A U.S. Census report in March 2015 “Staying or Going” gives further details about staying close to home or moving elsewhere. It concludes from various data that about 10 per cent of Americans, (specifically 10 million households or about 35 million people) are dissatisfied with where they live and would like to move because of the poor quality of their housing or their neighborhood, or concerns about local safety and inadequate public services. The report indicates that while In 2010-11 only about 2 million of those dissatisfied households actually did move, another 11 million households moved for other, presumably more positive, reasons. While there is some evidence that residential satisfaction is increasing and rates of moving are declining, nevertheless about 35 million Americans move to a new place every year. In each decade that is the equivalent of the entire population of the United States moving to some other place in the country.


Multicentred place experiences conveyed in real estate signs in a suburban area of Toronto popular with Chinese immigrants, 2013

Another U.S. Census Report in March 2015 “Packing it Up” suggests that 1 in 9 people changed residences in 2013-2014 (in 1948 it was 1 in 5, so this has declined over the last 60 years).  Of the 35 million who moved, 23 million stayed in the same county, another 6.5 million moved to a different county in the same state, 1.2 million moved to a different state, 3.4 million moved to a different part of the U.S. and 1.1 million moved abroad. While this supports the general notion the most people prefer to stay close to home (in the same county or same state), it is nonetheless the case that in a single year 6.7 million Americans made substantial moves. To put it rather differently,at the county and state level there appears to be a constant place churning as people move to other neighborhoods or cities, while at the national level the equivalent of the population of Philadelphia or Dallas moves to another state or region each year. For some people place may be an enduring source of focused experiences, but clearly for many millions of families and individuals it is what Luch Lippard in her book The Lure of the Local refers to as multi-centred.

Multi-centred place experience is also common at an international scale. The “Packing it Up” report notes than 1.1 million Americans moved abroad in 2013-14. If this is sustained it amounts to 10 million in a decade, the equivalent of the population of Chicago – an American diaspora spread around the globe. This not exceptional. With the waves of mass migration that have occurred over the last 70 years there many diasporas have been created, possibly more than 250 million people who have allegiances to several places and counties. The article “Long-Distance Parenting” by Ana Santos in the March 2015 Atlantic Monthly examines aspects of the Filipino diaspora. A state-encouraged policy of labor migration was introduced by the Philippines in the 1970s as a way to deal with high levels of unemployment and there are now about 10 million Filipino migrant workers living in other countries. Many of these live away from home for years or decades. They maintain some connection with their children and families by sending remittances and also balikbayan boxes – gift packages filled with goods and presents. Even though they have strong allegiances to their place of origin their lives are multi-centred.


Highway as Place with a History. This mural is at Aurora and 105th in Seattle.

I do not regard with dismay these reports of a large proportion of the population either moving or wanting to move elsewhere.  I do not think they should be interpreted as evidence that millions of people are unplaced or disembedded.  Instead I think they reveal that place and place experiences has to be understood as more than lifelong or long-term dwelling somewhere.  For many people place experiences are by choice multi-centred, they consist of relatively short-term encounters.  Whether this makes them shallower or less authentic in some way is an open question, which I expect to explore in future posts.

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

Definitions of Place

Illustration by Brian Andreas, an artist based in Iowa

Everything is Falling into Place Perfectly. An Illustration by Brian Andreas, an artist based in Iowa

Brief Description of this Post
First, this post provides a summary of definitions of place as a noun (not as a verb) in general dictionaries. It does not include discipline specific dictionaries.  I only consider a few sources because even these quickly become repetitive. Then I quote definitions by major contributors to academic discussions about place, most of which have little relationship to the dictionary definitions.

A Comment about Definitions
Most definitions identify place as a subset of space in some way, a notion that has been challenged by philosopher Ed Casey in The Fate of Place and his other books. In these he argues that place precedes space, and space is an abstract concept derived from specific place experiences.

Many definitions use the words ‘particular’ or ‘specific’. Notwithstanding Casey’s concerns, I especially like the OED definition of a usage that can be traced back to the 13th century  – “a particular part of space of defined or undefined extent but of definite situation.” This corresponds to the argument of Jeff Malpas, another philosopher, in Place and Experience that place is a gathering of people and things (i.e. a definite situation) that is simultaneously bounded and distinctive yet opens to the world and is open to the world.  I regard particularity a key aspect of almost all concepts and experiences of place.

My current understanding of place, which I have mentioned elsewhere on this website, is that it refers to particular fragments of the world – houses, neighbourhoods, towns and regions that range in scale from chairs to continents and are experienced and understood in diverse ways. For me it is their particularity, especially as this is expressed in landscapes, activities, history and associations, that is especially important. Place is focused but it is not bounded. Whatever occurs here, in this place, is always implicated in broader processes. It registers in memories, hopes, imaginings and responsibilities. My thinking aligns with that of Jeff Malpas in that I think that in particular places the world is open to us, and through those places we open to the world. It is the particular experiences of the particularity of places that lies at the foundations of all ideas and meanings of place, and these, I believe, can only be adequately grasped through phenomenological approaches.

Dictionary Definitions

Random House offers 29 definitions for place as a noun, many of which refer to space and/or particularity, for instance:

• a particular portion of space
• space in general (as in time and place)
• the specific portion of space normally occupied by anything, a space or spot set apart or used for a particular purpose
• position, situation or circumstance (e.g. I would complain if I were in your place)
• a region or area.

The Oxford English Dictionary 1989 Edition prefaces its entry for “place” with the comment that the “senses are… very numerous and difficult to arrange.” It has 69 entries for place arranged in 29 categories and seven main sections. The history of the noun is traced to the adoption in the 10th century of the French word place – an open space in a city or a square. Rather different meanings include “a material space,” and “a particular part of space of defined or undefined extent but of definite situation”, both of which emerged in the 13th century. More recent meanings include:

• the portion of space occupied by a person or thing,
• a piece or plot of land
• a portion of space in which people dwell together
• a residence or dwelling
• position or standing in a social scale
• position or situation with reference to its occupant (a place for everything and everything in its place)
• a mathematical term (decimal place)

“Placeless,” which means without a fixed place or home, or not confined to place, not local, can be traced back to the 14th century. “Placemaking”, which has recently become a very important notion in planning, architecture and urban design, is mentioned only in a cross-reference to making place – ‘to make room or space for something.’

 “Placeness” is rare, and defines it as the quality of having or occupying a place (Oxford English Dictionary 1989). Maybe this website will help to change that.

Wikipedia has a rather different approach and distinguishes place categories of Geography, Society, Mathematics, Gambling and Arts:

• In Geography place refers to an area with definite or indefinite boundaries or a portion of space that has a name; the US Census defines place as any concentration of population

• For Society: place identity is a group of ideas concerning significance and meanings that particular places have for their inhabitants or users; place can refer to a person’s social position; sense of place is a phenomenon in which people strongly identify with a particular geographical area or location

• In Mathematics place refers to an equivalence class of absolute values of an integral domain or field or the position occupied by a digit in a numeral

• In Gambling place is a type of wager

• Under the category Arts Wikipedia lists five albums, a series of books on Iceland, a dance centre in London, and the unity of place (the latter is said to be one of three classical unities for drama derived from Aristotle’s Poetics)


Sign at an artist's house in Ellensburg, Washington State

Sign at an artist’s house in Ellensburg, Washington State that is elaborately decorated with various found objects such as high tension electrical insulators and reflectors from automobiles

Academic Definitions of Place
I will add to the following definitions as I find others that seem appropriate. Please send any that resonate with you and suggest different interpretations to I start here with four cautions about the difficulties of defining place.

Dolores Hayden (planner)
• Place is one of the trickiest words in English. It carries resonances of homestead, location, and position in social hierarchy. (The Power of Place, 1995 p 15)

David Harvey (political economic geographer)
• Place has a surfeit of meanings – words such as location, locale, neighbourhood, region, territory refer to “the generic qualities of place,” while words such as city, village, town and state which designate particular kinds of places, while others such as community have strong connotations of place. “Place has to be one of the most multi-layered and multipurpose keywords in our language.” (Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference 1996 pp 208-209)

Clifford Geertz (anthropologist)
• “Place makes a poor abstraction. Separated from its materializations, it has little meaning.” (Afterword in Feld and Basso, Senses of Place, 1996 p 259)

Tim Cresswell (Geographer)
• “No-one quite knows what they are talking about when they are talking about place…It is wrapped in common-sense.” (Place 2004 p 1)
• Place is “a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world” that allows us to grasp attachments and connections (Place 2004 p 11)

Ace is a chain of American hardware stores

Ace is a chain of American hardware stores

Edward Relph (Humanistic Geographer)
• Place is not just a formal concept awaiting definition but also a naive and variable expression of geographical experience (Place and Placelessness 1976  p 4)
• “A place is a centre of action and intention…The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines places as profound centres of human existence” (Place and Placelessness  p 42-43)
• “Places are fusions of human and natural order and are the significant centres of our immediate experiences of the world” (Place and Placelessness, p 141)

Yi-fu Tuan (Humanistic Geographer):
• “Place is a type of object. Places and objects define space;” they are centers of value. A neighborhood is at first a confusion of images to a new resident, it is “blurred space” before it becomes a place.” (Space and Place 1977 p 17)
• “Place can be defined in a variety of ways. Among them is this: place is whatever stable object catches our attention.” This applies to mountains, buildings, statues, town squares. (Space and Place 1977 p 161)
• “A territory of meanings” (I have to trace the source but it is perhaps the most compact definition of which I am aware)

David Canter (psychologist)
• the situations in which people live and work, converse with other, are alone, rest, learn, are active or still, but he also notes that the scale can range from a bed in a room to a region of Britain (The Psychology of Place 1977 p 1)

Jeff Malpas (philosopher)
• a complex unity, a gathering in which we find ourselves together with other persons and things, somewhere that is simultaneously bounded and distinctive yet in which we are opened to the world and the world is opened to us. (a paraphrase of ideas expressed in his Experience and Place 1999, see also Heidegger’s Topology 2006 p 221)

Don Altman and Setha Low (psychologists)
• The word ‘place’ focuses on the environmental settings to which people are emotionally and culturally attached. Place refers to a space that has been given meaning through personal, group or cultural processes (Place Attachment 1992 p 5)

Christian Norberg-Schulz (architect)
• A place is “a focus where we experience the meaningful events of our existence” (Existence, Space and Architecture 1971 p 19)
• “the spaces where life occurs are places…A place is a space which has a distinct character.” (Genius Loci 1980 p 5)
• “What, then, do we mean by the word ‘place’?…We mean a totality made up of concrete things having material substance, shape, texture and colour. Together these things determine an ‘environmental character’ which is the essence of place.” (Genius Loci 1980 p 6)

Ed Casey (philosopher)
• place is “the immediate ambiance of my lived body and its history, including the whole sedimented history of cultural and social influences and personal interests that compose my life history” (“Body, Self and Landscape” 2002 p 404)
• Casey cites, and uses as the foundation for his books about place, Aristotle’s remark that: “everything is somewhere and in place” and Archytas’ suggestion that place is prior to all things. Casey comments: “Place, by virtue of its unecompassability by anything other than itself, is at once the limit and the condition of all that exists.” (Getting Back into Place 1993 pp 14-15)

Roberto Dainotto (English literature)
• “Place, as much as we see its theorists claiming to the contrary, is fundamentally a negation of history.” It substitutes a historical view for a geographical and environmental one (Place in Literature 2000 p 2)

Anthony Giddens (sociologist)
•“Place is best conceptualized by the idea of ‘locale’ which refers to the physical settings of social activity as situated geographically.” (The Consequences of Modernity 1990 p 18)

David Harvey (political economic geographer)
• If place is the site of Being, then the views of modernity that stress Becoming entail “a spatial politics that renders place subservient to transformations of space.” (The Condition of Postmodernity 1989 p 257)
• “It is impossible to proceed far with a discussion of space and time without invoking the term “place”. Like time and space it has a wide range of metaphorical meanings, such as the place of men in society, our place in the cosmos.  (Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, 1996 pp 208-209)

Doreen Massey (political economic geographer)
• Massey challenges concepts of place that see it as referring to sites of nostalgia which opt out from progress, and are bounded, authentic, and timeless, and proposes that places are particular moments in intersecting social relations. (Space, Place and Gender 1994  p 4-5, 120)
• Places “are not so much bounded areas as open and porous networks of social relations;”  place identities are constructed through their interactions with other places and have multiple and contested identities because different groups have different social relations. (Space, Place and Gender 1994 p 121)
• “Place as a constellation of trajectories” is open, not bounded, ever changing. (World City 2007 p 4)
• “What is special about place is not some romance of a pre-given collective identity or the eternity of the hills. Rather, what is special about place is precisely that throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now…and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman.” (For Space 2005, Chapter 12)

Andrew Benjamin (Classicist)
• “If human being is defined by place, then it follows that place is precisely what exists in common. Place, in the context of polis, becomes the locus of commonality.” (Place, commonality, Judgment, p 5)

Marc Auge (anthropologist)
• “If a place can defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical or concerned with identity, will be a non-place.” (Non-Place, p. 77-78)

Billick and Price (ecologists)
• “We reserve ‘place’ to represent all of those idiosyncratic ecological features-including spatial location and time period- that define the ecological context of a field study” (The Ecology of Place p 4)