What is a sense of place?

So far I’ve written two posts discussing whether Columbia and Howard County have (or could have) a true sense of place, and I really haven’t defined what I mean by that term. In a comment 0bject (of Patapsco Holler fame) attempted to help me out by giving some factors that help create a sense of place:

Uniqueness & desirability — the latter of which is going to be different for different people. …

Natural, geological or ecological diversity, water, physical beauty including buildings & homes, transportation, etc. History, commerce, ethnicity & spirituality.

0bject also referred me to the sense of place article on Wikipedia, which has some other useful attempts at a definition:

Places said to have a strong sense of place have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place.

I agree that a sense of place is ultimately a function of the people who inhabit a place, as much as it is a function of the physical attributes of the place itself, with the two often mutually reinforcing. For example, the geographic compactness and built environment of Manhattan influences the way inhabitants interact with each other and express their personality, and that to some extent then influences the creation of physical spaces built to meet those inhabitants’ needs and desires.

The more salient point for Howard County though, and especially for Columbia, is that the human factors that go into a sense of place must be capable of being replicated from generation to generation, and from current residents to new residents. It does no good to say that Columbia’s sense of place grows out of its history as a different kind of community, if the felt experience of that history resides solely the founding cohort that will pass from the scene in the next generation. Columbia in that sense is now just a time, and no longer is a place.

10 thoughts on “What is a sense of place?

  1. 0bject

    Hi Frank,

    Lots of good, big stuff here. An important idea that Wikipedia and you both touch upon is this sense of a place being ‘deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors’.

    The big WE — what is our shared perception? But also, how does a place touch each of us individually? At the Howard County Conservancy, there is a regional champion Yellow Tulip Poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). To me, this is a big deal. To someone else, maybe not so much. But in some way it plays into the grandeur of the place — directly or indirectly.

    I’ve never written a blog before, but now I think I have to get started. I’ve run arts emailing lists in Baltimore City for 20 years. I’m grateful to you, Chris Bachmann and Jessie X for letting me comment on your blog sites. Now it’s time for me to reciprocate in kind.

    Very busy right now, but will try to get to this in coming weeks. I’ll start with ‘a sense of place’ as it relates to Howard County & environs.

    aka Richard 🙂

  2. Young at Heart

    I was talking to my spouse about this earlier today, and we decided that some of the things that we love about Columbia and that make it special are the many lovely walking/biking paths, the general beauty of the area, the many amenities (gyms, pools, skating rink, art center, tennis courts, etc.), the close-by village centers, the good schools, and the diversity of the population. I think these factors combine to give Columbia somewhat of a sense of place. If we actually had a downtown area, we would really have a more complete city with a stronger sense of place.

  3. hecker Post author

    Young at Heart: Thanks for your comment. I agree that walking trails and other things you mention can help in the quest to create a sense of place — not the whole story but part of the story. It’s part of my “better suburb” theme — which I still need to post about 🙂

  4. wildelakemike

    When Columbia was in its relative infancy, Rouse attempted to create a sense of place, albeit mostly for marketing purposes. I can remember going to the Exhibit Center on multiple occasions just to see the slide show describing how all the amenities available in Columbia would allow everyone to participate in the community. Nothing was impossible in Columbia. The so-called “Columbia concept” was being born.

    This “Columbia concept,” however one might want to define it, created the core to our sense of place.

    Unfortunately, what The Rouse Company gave, it then took away. The Columbia concept was minimized by a variety of events that occurred. Mostly, The Rouse Company deviated from its plan for Columbia when it reacquired the GE Appliance Park (now Gateway) in the late 1980’s. All the energy was sucked out of the downtown area. Instead, we got poorly conceived apartments and condos, rather than a real plan for the downtown.

    In addition, the vision of the villages changed. For example, River Hill has none of the economic diversity that the other villages have. I can remember Rouse executives canvassing Columbia to get signatures so that only higher-end housing be provided in River Hill.

    All that is history. And, paraphrasing enormously, a sense of place occurs while others are planning. The question being debated in the community right now – and the question that is that is at the core of the debate about downtown Columbia – is this: are we going to be just a better suburb? or are we going to adopt an urbanized Columbia center so that we can be the New City that was promised so long ago by Jim Rouse?

    1. hecker Post author

      wildelakemike: You ask “are we going to be just a better suburb? or are we going to adopt an urbanized Columbia center …?” I personally don’t see these as necessarily mutually exclusive, since I think that part of being a “better suburb” in the 21st century will include having a higher-density core.

  5. Columbia 20something

    I agree. My husband and I moved to Columbia because of the parks, bike paths, libraries, Merriweather, and shopping. We like how everything is “right here” and we don’t have to jump in our cars several times a day just to buy milk or drop off some library books. I love riding my bike to the farmer’s market or to one of the many lakes. I like the festivals and am super excited about the kinetic sculpture parade coming up. Columbia is convenient and has many fun activities, which makes it a very good place to live.

    But not great.

    To be great, convenience and periodic fun aren’t enough. There need to be unique traits that really make the town come alive. For example, Starbucks is a nice enough place. It has comfortable chairs and customizable beverage options. The music and ambiance are unoffensive. It’s an all right place to get a cup of coffee. But there’s nothing really novel or unique about Starbucks. You’ll find coffee shops like them all over the world. If you want to go to a place that is more than just a cafe, but is instead a destination, you will seek out a place that was laid out with both thought and creativity. This might mean mosaics hand-laid into the floor or art from local artists on the walls. There is a cafe in Tokyo in which the barista will chose a unique cup for you based on your personality. These are a few examples, but concepts like “uniformity” and “replicable” have no place in creating a destination. In the same way, Columbia needs to shift away from being simply a better suburb to being a unique destination and a unique home.

    1. hecker Post author

      Columbia 20something: Thanks for your comment, which is very much on point. Rather than reply to it here, I’ll point you to my next post where I have more to say on the subject.

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