Tag Archive for sense of place

Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes

I have summarised, for myself, my understandings of some of the things that key people have recently written about cities. These may only be partial understandings and are not meant to cover all that everyone has ever said on the subject. Nor is it a claim that any of the ideas are my own. Often they have come from a number of people writing in overlapping ways about particular aspects of cities. Where the ideas are more obviously being linked to a specific source this has been named, but the resulting document is not intended to be a fully-referenced academic paper. The exercise resulted from my own general interest in thinking about cities and is offered for the general interest of others.

The ideas have been grouped under loose interconnected headings: placemaking and placeshaping in cities; resilient cities; smart cities; data-rich cities; cities as planned systems; walkability of cities; benefits of density; what makes cities sustainably great; liveability and the issue of creative influence; how a city becomes a first-rank leader; cities, central government and innovation; governance in complex cities; cities and economics; good-enough cities, resourcefulness, adaptability and spontaneity; what the future might hold for cities.

My initial exploration resulted in a summary that was more than 400 pages of text with many click-through links. This has been edited down and further summarised so that the resulting document ( Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes  ) is around 30 pages long with just a few onward links and with a section on ways forward if others want to explore further.

This post continues my earlier thinkings on cities which can be found by scrolling down this same site. (… passing all sorts of disparate other stuff on the way…) or going to the postings put up on June 27th 2012 under the headings:

  • In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get where it wants to be?
  • Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?
  • The nature of cities: A way of thinking

I would be interested in other people’s reactions to any of this, via geoff@thewordsthething.org.uk

Writing about New York as Birmingham as New York

This writing arose as part of Birmingham Book Festival 2012. One organised event was for a small group (of writers/readers) to spend one Sunday touring Birmingham ‘as if it were New York’ – trying to see the familiar features, cultures, roads, areas in terms of features,cultures, roads, areas of New York: helped by a briefing before the walking tour started. Behind that was also the idea of the great Americam roadtrip that had given rise to a range of classic writings.

Each person in the group approached this in their own way. My own ‘methodology’ (which was not quite as clearly thought out as that might imply) was to:

  • Accept the idea that New York images/places could be transposed onto the geography of Birmingham; and willingly embrace the idea that the Sunday walk was a ‘ road trip’ tour of New York
  • Gather snatches of conversations, images, ideas from the day that might get woven into a fictional story of a day’s trip on foot round New York
  • Go back to the map of the (real) New York and replace the trip locations and images onto that geography
  • Invent the characters who might be on a road trip on foot round that city (Very loosely: 3 ‘On The Road’ type characters now in their 60s managing one last trip together)
  • Trying hard not to get too hung up on Americanisms vs English terminology – but the end result shouldn’t jar too much for an American reading it as a tale of New York
  • Getting some sense of (enjoyable?) storyline running through around 2000 words
  •  Extend the same material into a second story. This would probably have some text in common with the first story (because of the common source) but should be able to be read in its own right. As it was it turned out to be a sequel of sorts.

This enjoyable exercise gave rise to two (somewhat overlapping) pieces of writing. These are New York: One Final Road Trip and New York Journeyings: A Memorial




Vancouver: memories, images and realities – A fictional account

The background to what follows is a fictional account of a visitor’s encounter with some of Vancouver’s extensive public art and fascinating architecture. Later, back home, sifting through photographs, replaying memories and trying to get beyond the surfaces that person recorded the following which is put here for interest in the belief that sensemaking and storytelling are basic human attributes.

I loved Vancouver. The word that kept coming to me whilst I was there was ‘nice’. Within that overall blanket of ‘niceness’ I captured (an interesting concept in itself) a wide range of images. Now, back home (another interesting concept) I have gone through a process of elimination that involved sorting the pictures into three piles according to the degree of connectedness, for me, between the image and my feelings whilst in Vancouver (as far as I can recall them this long after the event). The ones in the ‘most connected’ pile were saved, together with the borderline cases from the middle group. The rest were put to one side. This gave me thirty photos, with which I repeated the process, justifying each choice to myself. Those thirty were spread out in front of me and, again trying to articulate to myself any rationale, I chose my top most relevant one, my second most relevant one and so on until I had just a handful in front of me. These weren’t necessarily the ‘best’ pictures of the lot, or even the most ‘interesting’ ones. They were the ones that triggered most reflections of my ideas and ramblings whilst over in Vancouver.


Body sculpture: This sculpture was in the lobby of the wonderful hotel I stayed in. The Listel. It was on Robson, the main downtown street so was handy for all the things I had already decided to do, but the main reason for picking it was that it billed itself as an Art Hotel and, true to its word, was full of original paintings and sculptures. Just walking round the corridors was a great experience.

This sculpture was one of several things that I went back to each morning. I would simply sit and look at it for ages, finding more and more things of interest each time. What kind of things occurred to me on those relaxed observations? Clearly it was a body-part: a torso without arms or feet, and missing the head. So, from one angle, it was a part of a crime scene … a thing that demanded its own history of how it ended up like that … and encouraged speculation of how a detective would work backwards from a discovery of such a body to work out the detailed chain of events that led up to its gruesome discovery by someone. Admittedly this representational, sculptural version wasn’t gruesome (no blood, no gore) but its discovery, tucked away in a corner of the hotel lobby, was still a shock, an unexpectedness, a fascination, a wish-to-know-more.

Tucked away in its corner the piece was, in one way, easy to overlook but, at the same time, was set up on a ledge so was itself doing the overseeing… a shadow peeking out over each new guest. It kept up its solitary vigil as the flow of transients came and went. It might as well have been some remnant of a former receptionist clinging on to the role from a ghostly perch on high. Or some attempt at capturing a Spirit of hotel-keeping, a lighter version of those more solid Greek and Roman antiquities, a reminder that coming and going was nothing in the faceless gaze of an everlasting deity.

The dominant thing about the piece was its transparency, the net effect of the latticework; and yet the whole thing had its own solidity – solid enough to cast a shadow. An ambiguity in itself: that stuff of such substance could be constructed out of openness. Watching the changing light play in and out of the mesh, there was form and shape and substance whilst retaining its sense of emptiness, of being and not-being at the same time: of being and nothingness. Existing yet not existing; real yet not real. The very emptiness of its net structure creates something new, something with its own existence – the diffraction patterns that shifted and swirled as the viewer shifted position. Something out of nothing.

The corner it overlooked was the small half-hidden part of the lobby that held the public internet terminal – itself a thing that only made sense as a portal to the invisible, without which it became merely a dusty desk and silent terminal. The web/net sculpture held a place of guardianship to the web/net escape-hatch used by the transients to reconnect with the realities they had left behind. Like the terminal the sculpture was a communication route – sans mouth, sans hands, but not quite sans everything. Far from dead; far from dumb; far from lifeless – but still a lifeless form, dead until interacted with, dumb until communicated with. There was a tinge of Zen about the whole thing.

We spent a long time communicating – me looking intently at the piece, and the piece (in its own, rather mysterious way) feeding thoughts back at me.

Red squatting man: Turn left from the hotel, zigzag down to the seawall, follow the walkway round the harbour and suddenly you might happen to come across a circle of men squatting on the grass. They seem animated, chatting across their circle. They have a full set of arms and legs – so no crime scene: this is everyday normality – men passing the time of day, telling each other stories that are more or less true, more or less elaborations on a reality in their heads, more or less absolute fictions.

They take you by surprise. You stumble upon them, but only if you take one path not another. You might glimpse them in the near-distance and be drawn into their circle. They might lure you nearer, tempt you to stay awhile, trick you into passing time with them that you had planned to spend elsewhere. ‘But why rush?’ they ask. ‘Why move on so hurriedly? Rest awhile, stranger. Linger with us.’

You might end up being transfixed there forever as one more member of the smiling silent circle.

In the photograph there is just one man looking off into the distance. He squats like a frog as if he might at any second spring off, yet there he remains, unmoving and unmovable. The shot misses the fact that he is one of a group of silent squatters, eyeing each other up with looks that are not expressionless but enigmatic. The collective has been reduced to a singularity and this changes everything. He (It looks like a He) is alone, looking out; resting or ready for a race? There is a feeling of boldness, of power, of benign tension.

In this particular shot, at that particular time (but shifting as the day goes on or the angle changes) there is a shadow (looming over the man; casting a shade for him to rest in or casting a shadow over his existence?) and a distant pathway and sign (an indication that others may come and go in the near distance but his gaze will not falter; he will remain intent on what is in his head).

I sat as one of the group in silent meditation. I felt their tangible presence. I shifted position and sat directly opposite this one man, staring into his look, daring him to change his expression. I lost myself momentarily and became one of them. I snapped back and became one of me.

One link to Vancouver that this image held out for me was the sense of the surprise of the everyday. There was a childlike excitement at seeing the first floatplane come in to land on the placid stretch of water. I wanted to tell everyone ‘Guess what I’ve just seen …’ but of course to them it was an everyday thing. Another link was as a representation of the strong community that had resettled from the west, coming across the Pacific: again a surprise to me intuitive Eurocentric fixed view of the world that the way to Vancouver was from the West. Beyond that was the way, common to other places, that this rooted community became the historical site of what was now a tourist, heritage part of the city – with the warning that the vibrancy of neighbourhoods can easily tip into nostalgic aspic: Circles of old men animatedly gossiping being replaced by casts circles of statues frozen in the act.

Totemic eyes: This picture was taken at one of the landmark places in Vancouver: the totem poles in Stanley Park. This itself threw up for me a host of things to think about. Stanley Park: An English park; a legacy from the British colonial governor Lord Stanley; with its Rose Garden and so on – as one stop on the tourist trolley bus route, as a place savoured by residents and tourists alike for the Sunday walk, the routine rituals of open-air exercise and relaxation. Yet, there as one of the focal points, harbouring in one of its leafy clearings, a collection of totem poles. Totems; iconic symbols of heritage but of otherness; markers of histories and territories; carriers of stories and myths intertwined so that one reality bolsters another. Reminders that the locality was a site of struggle with nature, a site of daily routine for survival as well as a not-so-long-ago site for community joys and sorrows.

The poles carried meanings within their original communities. Here, clustered together, huddling for strength or standing as proudly independent as they can of the surroundings they now find themselves in, the poles carry sets of cultural meanings that have been shifted in time. The meanings were always mediated versions but now also carry overlays of what the modern tourist viewer brings to it all. Meanings are whatever we ascribe to the context. Are the poles meant as education, or as a parading of history before photograph-hungry visitors (and remember – I felt compelled to get my own shot of them: and a shot that didn’t even wonder if the eyes were those of a beaver or a bear or whatever, just a shot attracted by the eyes because of the electric blue colouring). Whatever they are intended to be they are very popular, very iconic of Vancouver as it is now – whatever they may have been in the past or in other settings.

The eyes are the gateway to the soul. The eyes on the totems were transfixing as if the past wanted to hold me in its gaze and assess me as fit (or not) to stand on those traditional lands. There were eyes everywhere, culled from different places, different communities: relocated to stare out somewhat defiantly – challenging me to come to terms with a different history, a different way of interpreting the world, a different sense of humanity. I felt small in their presence.

This particular set of eyes I found to be the most powerful. Others seemed to look mockingly, or accusingly. These eyes seemed to hold some compassion. I found them hypnotic. With the sun on my back we looked into each other’s gaze for as long as one of us could bear it. The eyes dominated what I saw. It is only when I look at the picture that I see the background detail, the patterning of the wood, and so on.

Tower blocks: Actually that is probably a wrong title – very English, very denigrating. There is a whole set of popular and academic studies done on estates, high-rise living, ideologies and community. The phrase ‘tower blocks’ has negative connotations because of these. But these blocks were strangely attractive. Maybe the better title would be ‘Apartment blocks’. But, even so, it’s not about the blocks but about the spaces between them … the gaps in which one might catch a glimpse of something else, something beyond the sides and edges of the colourful facades. In the case of Vancouver there were the almost secret flashes of sea and sky and mountain beyond the reflecting angular geometry of its urban front.

It is about seeing the gaps (what is almost not there) rather than focusing on the obvious. It is about looking in hope, beyond the normal visibility: things partially screened, partly hidden, almost secret. Things that can only be seen at an angle.

I asked about prices, about affordability, and about who therefore might live in such places (with their securely purchased views of water, of hills …) and who might be relegated to other shabbier dwellings over on Eastside (and whether that means insecure, rented views of semidereliction). Is this image emblematic of Vancouver – the view that people take with them when they leave the city – or is it representative of the city to those who regard themselves as citizens?

The image has its own beauty – blocks of colour, modernist shapes, repeated angles. Shapes and segments, when one takes the longer view, when one sees in passing – but each segment, on closer inspection, when one stops to see, is a home. Each box is a site for daily decisions. People are structured together, boxed in but barely interacting, with each life customised into private individualism. Each apartment is a box within a block; each block is a square on a grid of streets; that arrange to form recognisable zones … and so on … and each on its own timescale. The apartments get changed round, redecorated, refurnished on a rough annual cycle, on street layouts that keep changing as cities reinvent their arteries, their flows, their internal logics to neighbourhoods that get described in guidebooks as emerging more slowly, over decades – neighbourhoods that can be experienced immediately as you move around the city but also which are measured out in centuries as the heritage of an unfolding, ever-expanding city like Vancouver.

I wandered round most of them: Gas Town, Yaletown, Granville, Davie, Chinatown, Downtown, even venturing out onto the beginnings of East Hastings. Areas that were all neatly delineated on the tourist map, all segregated onto their own page of the guidebook. Each having its own personality: the spirit of the area. Each seemingly having its own purpose in the daily workings of the city; its own meanings for the people who live and work there – and different ones for people like me, meandering through as tourists.

Were there always different ways of experiencing the same physical spaces: the lifeviews of residents and the passing views of visitors; the perceptions of settled communities and of newcomers; of First Nations and of latecomers; of City Hall officials and of street-dwellers; of police officers and of career villains? Worlds that overlap and collide and co-exist and coalesce into a shimmering vibrancy that is Vancouver.

Fence: I spent a long time watching the change of light and shadow on this background before eventually deciding to take one shot as a representative of the whole process that probably deserved more – a film maybe, to capture its richness – but had to settle for this single shutter-click. After all a film would only have been able to capture the one bit of transience out of the whole day, or what would have been recordable yesterday or the next day, in different weather. Each recording, however long or short, would have been a fragment of the totality; one of the millions of possible variations of the same reality. Whatever we record, write, think, do, attempt is a mere fragment of what might be written, thought, done, attempted. Life turns out to be merely one version of a myriad of potentials.

At the same time this image was uniquely the one I had before me at the time. It was all I had. I was being fascinated by this one not by any imagined others. I focused on the detail in front of me. The lines; the edges; the transitions from light to shade and back again; the patches of light in the shade and patches of shadow in the light; the hard fixed lines of the wooden slats interplaying with the fuzzier shifting lines of shadow; the straights and the arcs; the ambiguities of it all.

When I stopped watching I realised that I had spent more than an hour there: Amazing how long you can spend watching a line of light move across a background.

Steps?: The only reason why this kept getting through the selections was that I have absolutely no memory of taking it – yet I must have done, There it is on the memory of my camera, sandwiched between a shot of the Steam Clock on Water Street and a shot taken the next day of a strange little statue of Emily Carr.

I remember sitting in the Starbucks next to the steam clock, inside and warm whilst a knot of Japanese waited in the drizzle to take a photo of the clock as it went into its steam-driven Westminster chimes. A quarter of an hour later the sun was out (such is the changeability of Vancouver’s many microclimates) that I was able to get a shot of steam and clock without others cluttering up the scene.

I remember the walk over and down to the jetty and the bobbling little boat across to Granville Island. I wandered round the place and then got a bit disoriented trying to find a way back up to the bridge to start the short trek back to the hotel. It was then that I came across this statue of a woman, a donkey and a monkey (tucked on a corner just off Granville). The plaque explained all. I remember stopping, reading.

I remember Starbucks and the clock. I remember the bobbling boat and the loaded fruit stalls. I remember the weather, the seagulls, the flyover, the traffic. I remember everything: So why have I no memory of taking this shot?

I am not even sure what it is. It could be steps, or shelves, or balconies. It could be a picture of things high up, from below – or maybe that is some illusion. There are diagonals; there is repetition; there are lines of light, blocks of darkness, hints of colour and pattern to break the monotony. I can see all that but still have no memory of taking it. Strange.

I read somewhere recently that our idea of memory has changed. It used to be that memories were stored, each in its separate box. Pigeon holed, to be revisited as a whole unity. my image is of a huge warehouse full of cardboard evidence boxes all labelled and filed, and some old half-forgotten guardian as the only one who remembers the somewhat idiosyncratic indexing system. A ‘lost’ memory is then a box not put back in the right place with the possibility of it being stumbled upon surprisingly, having slipped down behind other boxes – open the lid and there is the whole memory readily back in place. The current view is more complicated: Each memory has to be reconstructed (from fragments stored in distributed form across the brain) each time it is called to mind. It is a wonder, on this model, that more memories aren’t reconstructed differently (But how would we know? Each memory would feel that it is the right one, having no other memory to compare it to – we could end up living a life based on thousands of badly-constructed false memories …) or that links get broken and it becomes impossible to put that memory together in that specific way (But the fragments are still there, itching to be constructed into something … maybe a sense of a memory that doesn’t fully appear – a deja-vu ..).

Whatever the cause I find it incredulous that I have the tangible evidence of having done something that my brain has no memory of me having done. Scary.

Looking at the set of pictures spread in front of me I am struck by several ideas. These images are significant things; things that are heavy with meaning for me. They each relate to some reality out there on the streets of Vancouver but here, back home, out of context, they are abstracted things. They seem things I have grabbed, to hold onto, to mull over, to make something of them, to pore over and maybe read more into them than they deserve as they begin to take on meanings of their own.

The pictures are symbols, totems, reference points to be gone back to over and over again (particularly if a person feels that they are losing their way). They become a mix of imaginations and remembrances, and when the time has passed they become assurances that things must surely have happened – because there is always a photo in the album.


Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?

Following on the thinking from previous posts:

If cities are important (If only because more than 60% of the UK population now live in cities), are they all important in the same ways? There are qualitative differences between London (as capital city, federation of a number of small boroughs, making a lot of ‘noise’ within national debates etc); and cities with a strong industrial heritage (Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry etc); maritime/seaboard cities (Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle); small ecclesiastical/academic cities (York, Durham, Cambridge, Oxford etc);  recently nominated cities … and so on. Cities have, variously, claimed status for themselves as a learning city, or a resilient city, or a connected city. From the lines of thought up to now I would also add Flourishing City as the status that many cities are aspiring to be, even if this not yet being claimed in those terms.

From the various lines of thought described in my previous post, a number of overlapping elements recur time and again as key factors. These can be listed and arranged in different ways to create ‘constellations’ of meaning. Other people may come up with their own slightly different set of aspects, and arrange things in somewhat different arrangements. Below is mine.  Although it is set out (far ease of reading?) as a list it is seen as far more intraconnected since the components can be constructed together in different ways. It is intended more as a flexible lens/framework through which cities might be considered rather than as a definitive checklist. (I would also extend this beyond cities, and suggest that it is possible to use the same kind of framework to look at Organisations or Networks or Communities or Neighbourhoods or Families etc.

Aspects of  a  flourishing place/organisation/network:
Sets out a moral purpose; there is meaning in what is done; promotes a compelling vision of where want to get to
Is aware of values/goals; uses agreed values as basis for decisions
Acts ethically; confronts wrongdoing; challenges bias and intolerance; deals with conflict and barriers
Can go out on a limb; able to express unpopular views
Sets challenging aspirations; driven to meet outcomes; results focused; maintains commitment/purpose
Asks why things aren’t done differently; approach involves querying and puzzling
Uses complex strategies without over-complicating things
Connects disparate things; seeing potential for linkages   (up/down/across)
Looks outwards as well as inwards; interested in broader context
Observes what is going on in practice; watching the realities
Fosters active engagement with people, ideas and events – in ways that are authentic
Seeks positive relationships/interactions; collaboration; linking up with others; manages relationships with peer agencies
Feels part of a wider network/community of others; connecting with others (family, friends, colleagues); being in touch with people
Sees that today’s right answer may be wrong for tomorrow; recognises need for change
Generates new ideas; can put ideas into practice; adapts responses as new circumstances emerge; acts like a creative brain
Shows an interest in things/in the world. Passionately curious re why things work the way they do; how can be improved; wants to know other people’s stories.  Relentlessly questioning; being curious; remarking on the unusual
Stays up-to-date; maintains currency in thinking/knowledge
Looks for information that can help improve things
Is open to new perspectives/viewpoints; sees changes emerging; prepares for change
Reflects on past experiences; Learns from experience; open to feedback
Learns from differences/ambiguities/gaps;  Encourages debate and discussion; promotes conversations-of-equals
Is flexible in how events are seen/interpreted; sensitive to other viewpoints
Experiments; enjoys ‘fiddling about’ to see what works
Operates in uncertainty; calculated risk-taking
Tries new things; rediscovering old interests; exploring/ formulating
Understands how people work; how to get best from   self/others; Seeks opportunities to raise skills of others; Creates culture in which people can thrive
Listens well; picks up clues
Meets commitments; keeps promises
Leads by example; takes bulk of responsibilities
Has adequate self-determination and assertiveness; has ‘presence’, presents self with confidence and assurance
Has a degree of ‘flow/mastery’; has vitality about what is done
Shows grit, stickability, self-discipline
Wants (and gives) clarity, precision, succinctness
Is good at decision-making; decisive despite uncertainties and pressure; thinks clearly; organised; manages multiple demands
Demonstrates resilience; coping skills. Embraces adversity with a track record of overcoming it; strong work ethic
Stays composed, positive, unflappable; relaxed, calmness; manages impulses, avoids over-reaction
Handles difficult situations well; looks for mutually beneficial outcomes
Is aware of own strengths/weaknesses; key strengths are used to good effect every day
Is aware of the world and how reacting to world events is influenced by collective feelings
Savours the moment; appreciating what matters
Shows optimism; spreads positive emotions; cheerful, smiles, thanks others in genuine ways
Is unselfconscious about doing unsolicited acts of kindness for others; readily volunteers
Takes on new challenges/different responsibilities
Offers advice, feedback, coaching to others
Makes sacrifices for the greater good 

This thinking is currently being developed further (particularly with the colleague Andrew Harrison) and additional thinking will be set out here and elsewhere in the near future. We hope that others will comment as one way of contributing to the thinking.


History of Castle Vale

Castle Vale is a modern housing area on the north-eastern edge of Birmingham (UK). It is unique in many ways and has gone through distinct sets of changes. The things that most people noticed on their first visit to the area, when it was first built as a housing estate, was the flat and open landscape and the very distinct boundaries which seemed to almost cut Castle Vale off from the rest of the city to make a little island of people. These features have recently been changed, and will continue to change into the future, but each change is dictated by past developments. To understand what an area is like now, it is important to understand its history. The history of the Castle Vale area can be traced backwards, layer by layer and then built up again as a sequential record of those things that made the place what it was at each stage of its development.

The history follows the changing fortunes of this one relatively small area of land from its beginnings as a swampy forest, through the feudal times of battling barons, through the growing industrialisation of Birmingham to the First World War, on through its life as an airfield, finally to the construction of the modern housing estate and the very recent improvements to that area. From time to time little excursions are taken into the wider history of the region but only in order to set the very local events within their wider setting and make them even more interesting than they already are.

The full history can be downloaded as a PDF here: History of Castle Vale

Place: Some initial thoughts

The term place has been defined and used in a number of different ways by a range of writers. Some geographic locations are judged to possess a ‘sense of place’, a characteristic that other locations may be judged as lacking. Within this view, place is a perception of the location held by people (rather than being solely a function of the location) and is associated with characteristics that contribute a uniqueness, a specialness, an attachment, a belonging and so on. On this basis, space is often taken to refer to structural aspects of a physical setting whilst place refers to the use of the space by interacting people. (An example is Eva Hornecker: Space and Place – setting the stage for social interaction. Department of informatics, University of Sussex).

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (Space and Place: The perspective of Experience) has outlined a spectrum of different interpretations. He added ideas of time and outlined how place, space and time interact through different understandings of them. He suggests that space can be associated with freedom and that place can be associated with safety. At the same time he suggests that place does not necessarily always have a positive set of associations; a sense of fear might also go with a sense of place.

His definition of place derives from the idea that a place comes into existence only if people give it meaning and differentiate it from wider ‘unspecial’ space. Once a locality is named, described, mapped, identified etc it becomes separated from other localities and takes on characteristics and values of its own. If these characteristics then get built upon/built up by social processes then the locality gains a stronger sense of place.

The view that space (as an environment of objects) merely represents a located set of opportunities whilst place arises from sets of mutually-held cultural understandings about behaviour and action, is also put forward by a range of other writers (eg Re-Place-ing Space, Steve Harrison and Paul Dourish, Xerox Paulo Alto Research Centre and Cambridge Lab). For them place is a location that has been invested with understandings about cultural expectations, behavioural appropriateness etc.. They are spaces that hold some form of value – in the way that a house may also be regarded as a home. A place overlays a space but has had something added, whether this be a social meaning, a set of conventions, or some cultural belief or understanding.

Residential differentiation, for many people in modern societies, creates such collective identities and sense of place. These help to reinforce and protect (from change/deviation) the locality’s key cultural heritages through transmission of cultural awarenesses and residential ties. There are links from ideas of place to ideas of community, although both are concepts open to variable interpretations (The Social Construction and Reconstruction of Community, G Bateson, PhD 1996, University of Central England – now Birmingham City University).

Some writers reverse the distinction above and see place as the geographical location which is transformed into space by people walking/talking across it. Others distinguish geometrical space from anthropological space – the first being given/existential and the second being constructed/produced in realities or in dreams etc.

Whichever ways round we wish to use the terms, the ‘sense of a place’ may represent a strong identity felt by residents, visitors, or people studying the locality. Such an identity goes well beyond the opinions of single individuals and is the outcome of collective social processes (which, admittedly, depend on the interactions of individuals). It can be added to by being written about, painted, photographed or captured in music – any of which may be in response to natural, geographical features of the local landscape or in response to human activity across that landscape.

Writing about places takes a number of forms. Where these go beyond mere factual descriptions, in which the reader is given a tour or is presented with a map/layout, the more ‘evocative’ writings about places invite the use of metaphor: sayings/stories/images that organise the ideas about a place. There is a belief that space is transformed into the place by the application of stories, beliefs, interpreted practices and so on. These are not discrete things: Stories, for example, act as one way in which relationships can be interpreted and reinforced or changed within a broader culture. The ways that places (localities or organisations) rely on stories is a fruitful area for analysis.

Whilst space and place have been described as distinct things, in reality they are much more interrelated. Space is not an abstract set of geometrical arrangements but a setting for people to act out their everyday lived experiences. Phenomenological approaches, such as those of Merleau-Ponty, (eg Phenomenology of Perception, New York Humanities Press, 2002) make use of the idea of situated space. Dourish sees social actions as embedded in settings that are cultural and historical as well as physical (P Dourish, Where the action is: the foundations of embodied interaction, MIT Press 2001). Hornecker points out that people cannot escape spatiality. Space surrounds us, we operate within it. Through this people appropriate space, interpret space and imbue it with meaning. Interacting with space brings psychological meaning for people.

The distinction between space and place may be further extended when considering cultural activity via social electronic media; although maybe this simply requires the space to be defined as some form of an electronic location and a sense of place developed through electronic social interactions of various kinds.

There are different views of the extent to which the people using spaces can be regarded as active, creative artists or as passive, consuming, users of space. Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendall, 1984, University of California Press, Berkeley) points out that although social research methods can study language, tradition, symbolism etc it has difficulty explaining how people accommodate these things in their everyday life practices. He sets out the tactics available for these people to reclaim a sense of autonomy in the face of commerce, culture and politics; and argues that the study of everyday life practices is one way of penetrating the obscurities that these things bring. Amongst the everyday practices are the inhabiting of spaces – walking in cities and so on. As people walk through cities they weave spaces together in particular subjective ways. These cannot always be satisfactorily captured objectively (eg through drawing maps to trace routes taken, as maps try to fix too rigidly the flow of life) since it is the experience of walking, of passing through spaces, that counts.

Understanding place thus implies attempting to understand how and why people interact with specific kinds of environment in particular kinds of ways. People may not come entirely ‘fresh’ to an environment. Childhood experiences of a primal landscape may be one key influencer of how they might respond, as may significant later experiences that carry strong emotional values for the person. Such experiences are often ones mediated through family, community, culture, nationality and so on. Where childhood experiences are strong influences, the particular landscape can form part of the structuring of the individual’s personality – acting as reference points against which other places may be later evaluated.

Place is thus associated with personal dimensions, psychological dimensions, cultural dimensions and so on. Yan Xu (Sense of Place and Sense of Identity; East St Louis Action Research Project, 1995, University of Illinois) sees sense of place as a factor that is able to make an environment psychologically comfortable or uncomfortable, and able to be analysed through variables such as legibility/readability; perceptions of and preferences for the visual environment; and the compatibility of the setting with the human purposes in action there.

Part of developing a sense of place is defining oneself in terms of a particular locality. (Topophilia: Yan Xu 1974). Understanding why people hold the views that they do has been a rich strand of exploration in sociology, human geography, anthropology and urban planning. Analysts of social action have often been additionally interested in the ways that place or setting might influence individual and collective actions.

Ervin Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959, Penguin, New York) uses a theatrical metaphor within which different modes of behaviour and interactions can occur ‘frontstage’ or ‘backstage’. Anthony Giddens (The Constitution of Society, 1984, Polity Press, Cambridge) used the notion of ‘locales’ which go well beyond being simply spaces to incorporate the ways in which such settings are routinely used to constitute meaning within interactions. William Whyte (City: Rediscovering the Centre, 1988, Doubleday, New York) provided detailed descriptions of how streets were used for social interactions within a changing city.

‘Placeless’ spaces are often associated with landscapes that have no special relationship with their specific location (eg ‘This hotel room could be in any city in the world and you wouldn’t be able to tell’). The link is often that such spaces are mass-produced to standardised formats, mass-designed or over-commercialised. It has been described as there being no sense of ‘There’ in that place.

Again Yan Xu, analysing people’s remembrances for significant places, identifies the potential for feelings of loss of place (a humiliating loss of a sense of past, present and even future), placelessness (the distress at not having or being able to attain a sense of place) and rootlessness (an alienation brought about through lack of continuity or an overwhelming sense of change in the place).

On another tack: If places are socially constructed through the social uses of localities, does this just happen or can it be made to happen, ie can places be ‘made’? Placemaking as a term began to be used in the 1960s/70s by people interested in the role of landscape in the design and development processes. These built on the work of people such as Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1963, Random House, New York) and William Whyte (The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 1980, Conservation Society, Washington DC), both of whom offered fresh ideas about designing cities for people to live in.

At the same time writers such as Henri Levebre (The Production of Space, 1974.) was looking at how cultural spaces were made, used and reproduced through continued practices. Social space came to be seen as being constructed around everyday lived spatial practices, conceived ideas of what is meant by terms such as space, and perceptions about what spaces represent for people. Places were spaces that could be remembered: could bring emotions, recollections and memories to mind. It became feasible to think more in terms of emergence, of produced possibilities. (Elizabeth Ellsworth,Pedagogies and Place: Design, 2005)

The architects and planners influenced by these writers were concerned with the ways that constructed forms might influence the daily experiences of people interacting with those plazas, buildings, waterfronts etc.. Architects and planners became concerned with producing spaces that act as places. One aim was to design places that connected into the rest of the locality through a sense of sameness yet retained a distinctiveness, a difference, about them.

Particular cases have been argued for engaging residents in placemaking eg within regeneration activities (an example is the 2010 publication by the Scottish Government: Partners in Regeneration – Participation in Placemaking) and for the place of public art in cultural placemaking through fostering social and psychological relationships between individuals, communities and localities.

At a time of proposed shifts towards a bigger society there have been proposals for more open-source approaches to placemaking, using digital/social media to get collective views on the development of cities and other places. The open calls for views, the crowdsourcing of attitudes, and the broad electronic exchange of information are all aspects of this.

This piece of place-based writing has intended to begin an exploration of some of the various approaches to ideas of place and space, how one may be related to (or built upon) the other, the emphases that might be available for residents, planners and writers/artists to use in relation to the determining of a sense of place for any locality, and how this might rely on the use of storytelling/interpretation-making. Hopefully some of this will be developed further.