Some thoughts on identity and place

‘There are places, just as there are people and objects, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery’ – Paul Nash

Introductions: some puzzles

The previous article on Identity focused on a personal exploration of the identity of individuals in a social context. This article explores some ideas around Identity and Place. This has two aspects: The possible impact of place on the identity of residents, and the potential for specific locations to have identities of their own.

On the first of these aspects it has been suggested that Place is one of a number of constituents of identity for residents of that location; and that there are interconnections between histories, geographies and social structures that play out as a form of identity.

This raises the puzzle: If place can be thought of as an influence on identities of the individuals who live there, that there are spatialised subjectivities, how does this happen?

On the second aspect (Can places have their own identities?), at a simple level, identity can be seen in terms of a set of place-related bureaucratic statistics. From this perspective, metrics and indicators might define the identity of a place. When a locality is allocated an identity in this way, there may be consequences for that place.

Beyond that, if (as suggested in the previous article) individual identity can be seen as constructed in on-going ways from fragments, coming into existence and being sustained through structured social practices of residents, can we see places in the same ways? Do localities develop and sustain identities that are whole entities constructed from kaleidoscopic aspects; and do places develop their identities through distinct stages?

The same puzzle arises, again: If this is so then how does it happen?

Place, itself, can be thought of in varied ways. A place can be bounded by lines on maps, even if the map is not the place. Birmingham (UK) has its mapped boundaries and divisions but can also be represented as a set of populations; a set of institutions with the City Council holding centre-place; a set of relationships and networks; and as one relative in the regional West Midlands family of places; or as a brand image.

An urban entity can also be, for some, more than a population, or a geographical size, or a collection of buildings, or a centre of production – it can be viewed as a place where various aspects of capitalism intersect in space. From this perspective, it is the process of gathering and dispersal of information and goods and people centred on some specific locus.

Whatever view one takes, a place like Birmingham can be referred to as a single, unique identity. It can also be characterised more as blocs of internal conflicts, or can just as easily be perceived as a complex set of fragmented sites of social-contested meanings.

Sometimes places may even be thought of as having multiple identities.

Much has been written about the ways global influences may be changing the nature of places, with trends towards globalisation threatening local identities and cultures, and threatening to eradicate differences between places.

Places might once have been identified largely in terms of single-communities but are increasingly being analysed in terms of superdiversities of population as higher volumes of people are increasingly mobile in very different ways and for very different purposes. Is this expanding the range of ways by which people locate themselves as members of place-based communities; and the ways the places promote their particular identity?

The identity of a place can become something narrowly-restricted as city-brand or, at the other extreme, can be open to so many interpretations as to be almost useless as an idea.

Within such complexities there will be those who seek to simplify: to create (and promote) a particular normalised identity associated with the place. This can be particularly true at the national level when, in the face of large-scale movements of peoples and cultures, there are calls for a fixed sense of national identity. Place-identity, then, becomes open to exploitation for political purposes

These aspects of identity and place are explored, predominantly in a UK context, in more detail below.

Influence of place on identities of residents

This has already been described as the coalescence, at the level of individual identifications, of geographies, histories, cultures, physical structures and social infrastructures.

In England this could be something as broad as regional identification (Northern; Southern; Midlands), or as subsets of these (Northern industrial town, Midland market town, Southern stockbroker dormitory suburb, North-East run-down seaside location), or as even finer detail (inner-city terraces, peripheral housing estate, ‘Millionaires Row’ of super-mansions, neighbourhood bijou gentrification.)

We are familiar with descriptions such as being a Yorkshire Lass; a Shropshire Lad; a Cornishman; the different self- and social-identities of residents of Welsh Valleys or Highland Glens, of the Shetland Isles compared to the Scilly Isles. It can refer to what makes someone Mancunian, Geordie, Brummie, Scouse or any other locality-based identification.

In my case it was being the product of a small Lancashire town with a declining history of cotton weaving – on the road between two larger towns, so referenced to these, neither here nor there, inward-looking whilst always having an eye on how to escape into the bigger world – captured in local dialect verse as being ‘between two hills so bleak and barren, lies dirty smoky little town of Darwen’. repeated endlessly by, and to, the people living there and shaping their identities.

This kind of thinking has often been summarised along the lines: You can take the boy out of that place but you can’t take the place’s influence out of the boy.

How does any sense of place get structured into the emerging identity of someone growing up there?

Does some of this come through the sensual experience of the landscape itself – seeing, smelling, touching nature – whether that be looming mountains, heather-covered moorlands, low-rolling farmlands, long views out to open seas, restricted views around the nooks and crannies of warrens of buildings crammed together, or the impact of daily encounters with bombed-out buildings? Such things might affect different people in different ways – fear, inhibition, exhilaration, foreboding, excitement, nostalgia. This takes us into the terrain of psychogeographies.

Maybe some of it comes not from the physicalities of the place but from the lifestyles shaped by those landscapes. One possible mechanism might be: An overall location is suited to particular forms of agricultural or industrial activity (or exploitation, depending on one’s view). National policies shape the possibilities for the specifics of local infrastructure building. Local physical layouts influence the ways people live, move and interact (Think of the relative effects of closed, almost claustrophobic relationships of a tiny isolated community; compared with the potential openness to the networks forged along well-worn trading routes). These, in turn, influence perceptual frameworks that are used, by residents, to partially determine beliefs about society and one’s role in it. This, in its turn, might affect the decisions people make, including decisions about political options, nationally and locally.

Another possible process could link residents’ identifications to the place’s overwhelming employment: cotton, mining, ship-building, forestry, car mass-production, rust-belt heavy manufacturing, grain-belt agribusiness, and so on. Sometimes this can get, literally, inscribed into the stunted bodies of underground workers, the emphysema and asbestosis, the industrial injuries – or simply in the physical outcomes of lives spent indoors or outdoors, in fresh air or foul, alienated from nature or integrated within it.

For some, location brings particular slices of culture: music of brass bands or fiddle players, of clog-dancing, of parades at Whitsun or on St Patrick’s Day, or of military march-pasts.

It can also be socially written into the narratives by which people live their lives – narratives sustained through Low Town potential allegiances to Working Men’s Clubs, Trades Unions, Labour Party politics – compared with the possible allegiances of networks of High Town professionals to things like theatre visits, Liberal Club membership, involvement in charitable organisations (If all of that is not too simplistic a caricature).

For the working majority this might be reflected in patterns of speech: dialect, locally specific vocabulary, and accent (that can change from one town to the next, identifiable to those sufficiently tuned in). It gets carried forward as tales told and retold: internalised and promoted in local narratives – tying people to place and place to people.

Such place-specificities were fairly common in the lives of older people of my parents’ generation (born in the 1900s), not unusual in people of next generation (born in the 1930s/40s) and rare in the generation born in the 1960s/70s. For today’s young media-influenced residents, identification may be more homogenised and more Americanised, rather than being driven by influences linked to their own particular locality.

Place may appear to be a declining factor as new powers are attributed to networked identity groups based on gender, on sexuality, on occupational interests. Even so, national differences are evident. Gender identity or sexual identity cultures are place responsive: To be female in some capitals of Middle Eastern countries is not the same as to be female in Manila, or in New York.

Through a variety of social practices layered onto and into the physical entities, Places become Spaces that exert influence on people. (Note 1)

For many people the next step up from the individual identity is their identification with a country of origin or a country of residence.

Whilst simple nationality can be seen as a set of contractual relationships between the individual and the State, citizenship extends this to include ideas around allegiances. This can lead people to claim composite national identities, as in such hyphenated identities as Irish-American or Russian-Ukrainian.

One of the more sophisticated writers on an individual’s identity in relation to nationality is Amin Maalouf: (‘On Identity’). For him identification is a matter of symbols and allegiances, producing many fragments that act as identifiers. Various partial aspects can be aggregated and rearranged, through a loose process of assemblage, but always add up to a coherent whole. For him, place does not produce a fragment of identity but is woven in as part of a totality.

This view of identity as a collection of allegiances works to specify the particularity of an individual. Identification links each person to larger numbers of others. The more ties, the more specific and particular the person’s identity becomes. No-one has quite the same combination of fragments: no-one is quite the same as any other person. Each person has a unique identity with place being an integral part of that.


Is it possible for places, in general, have unique identities of their own?

The second perspective in the introduction asked if it is possible to think of a place as having an identity that is somehow unique to itself.

For persons it is possible to think in terms of identity as constructed from fragments of understandings linked (loosely or more firmly) as chains of meaning that form constellations of perceptions. Does the same hold true for places?

In a doctorate study ‘The Social Construction and Reconstruction of Community’ (Note 2) ideas were put forward for how the communal identities of Castle Vale, a peripheral housing development in Birmingham, UK, could be variously constructed by residents of the area, by community professionals working there, and by policy-makers making decisions about the area – by differently linking fragments of understandings to form overlapping but separate understandings of the identity of the locality and how that related to ideas of ‘community’, and how such understandings were shaped by broader economic and political contexts at any one time and shifting over time.

In the previous article some weight was given to Erikson’s eight stages of individual development, variously characterised as building progressively through competence in things such as: hope & drive; autonomy & self-control; purpose & direction; competence & method; identity & role confusion; partnership & isolation; generativity & stagnation; integrity & despair.

Is it at all possible to consider a place – in its own right as a located entity – as going through anything equivalent to such stages? Do places, initially, get settled in hope of some secure future; go on to develop forms of self-organisation and self-governance; then formulate a sense of civic purpose, through which the place gets recognised as being competent at what it does (even if this is tempered by times of self-doubt); finally going it alone or in alliance with other places – generating confidence and civic wellbeing (or declining as a place of influence)?

It might stretch things a bit to think of a place’s development solely in terms of the complex aggregations of all the residents’ progressions through their own staged developments – the sum of all the individual identities, fragmented, jostling and edging forward together in ways that fit with contemporary society – the summary result being a place that (in stages) unfolds, matures and establishes itself.

Also, (without getting over-anthropomorphic about things) trying to strain the links between individuals’ identities and places’ identities, is it possible to think of that location as also having some ‘inherited’ aspects – some features that get handed on down through generations of developments within the place?

We will get onto cities as key examples in a moment but, for now, let us leap to using Birmingham as an exploration point for these two ideas.

Its historical, industrial revolution era, reputation was as The Workshop of the World: ‘Made in Birmingham’ being stamped on metal-ware as an indication of quality; and as The City of A Thousand Trades – an aggregation of fiercely independent craftspeople, each claiming to be expert. Is there a way that each of these ‘spirits of the city’ had been handed on into the Birmingham of the early C21st: leading to a collective mind-set that distrusts anything not invented in Birmingham; a reluctance to look at other places for good practices; and the proliferation of a thousand varieties of the same proposal as each protagonist wants to put their own stamp on things?

A recent piece of flash fiction as a contribution to the booklet ‘Change the Ending’ (Note 3) speculated that a present-day city, like Birmingham, could be an amalgam of multiple identities – a composite of traces of previous identities that still exert an influence – with current thinking harking back to Victorian founding fathers; mixed with the early C20th nonconformist attitudes that drove civic responsibilities; intermingled with later layers of managerialist concern with performance and measurements; whilst most recent strands of identity try to acknowledge these facets whilst working flexibly, collaboratively and open to complexities and change. All of this then gets bound together in a unified, workable version of the city’s identity.


Bureaucratic identification of localities

Are there bits of data that identify a place? Can the identity of small neighbourhood areas be represented in standardised sets of information?

The Index of Multiple Deprivation is one of the UK Government’s official data sets. It ranks all 32,884 small area neighbourhoods in England in order of their deprivation as indicated by combining data within seven composite domains with different weightings:

Income (22.5% of the total): proportion of adults out of work or in work on low income.

Employment (22.5%): Proportion of working age population excluded from labour market due to unemployment, sickness, disability or caring responsibilities.

Education, skills and training (13.5%): Lack of attainment and skills in children at age 11 and age 16; secondary school absences; young people staying on in education at age 16; young people under 21 entering higher education; working age adults with no or low qualifications; proportion of working age adults who cannot speak English well.

Health and disability (13.5%); risk of premature death; levels of illness and disability; rates of mood and anxiety disorders.

Crime (9.3%): Reported levels of violent crime, burglary, theft and criminal damage per 1000 population.

Barriers to local services (9.3%): Levels of homelessness and of household overcrowding; inability to afford entry to owner occupation or private rental market; road distance to key services eg primary school, general store, doctor’s surgery, post office.

Living environment (9.3%): Proportion of houses without central heating, houses in poor condition; air quality; road traffic accidents.

Calculating the aggregated figure for each neighbourhood ranks them on the scale of deprivation. This is, of course, a derived measure ??? made up, invented. It is, however, substantially used: standing as one set of identifications of localities, allowing a place to be compared and contrasted to other localities, underpinning claims for attention as areas eligible for regeneration support.

It is when the derived figures are turned into supposed meanings that places get given identities. Relative deprivation allows judgements to be made, labels applied, prejudices played out. ‘Deprived’ slides all-too-easily into ‘inadequate’ and on into ‘not of worth’ and so on. Such descriptors then feed into the narratives that officialdom uses to describe the place, and ultimately may get incorporated into the self-identifications of the residents who live there.


Countries as a place of identification

Going back to the second of our twin threads (the capacity of some places to develop identities of their own), we have hinted at how this might operate at the level of isolated community or purposeful small town and will shortly revisit this with a focus on the complexity of large cities. For the moment, it is time for a looser focus on ideas around nation states and identity.

The Nation State may have become relatively impotent in the face of a globalisation within which control of the economy is beyond state level. Nations may strive to set out their futures as different places but the greater influences of the World Bank; the International Monetary Funds; and the European Union can be forces for homogeneity.

At the same time, national identities are far from disappearing.

Within the UK, there are national caricatures – the aloof, reserved, class-conscious Englishman – but, although these are constructed out of some strands of past-realisms and perceptions, they are not identities as such.

There is the underlying geography of being an island nation; a part of Europe but cut off from it; a nation built on a history of exploration, trade and adventure.

For some, there is a perceived reduction in the status of the British identity with loss of world influence post-colonialism and post-empire, all of which can be seen as progress, or as something to be resisted or mourned as Great Britain sliding towards being Little England.

Such elements can be seen as threads of understanding that can start to weave together to get partial understandings of a British or an English national identity.

For many the world can no longer be seen in terms of fixed cultures; states; integrated cohesive worlds; and a need to identify with a single place. The old markers of nationality and territory no longer necessarily hold the power they once did.

Recently, for some nations, increased immigration has forced debates about openness; rejection; parallel lives; multiculturalism; interculturalism; and assimilation – questioning the continuing identity of the country as it changes to adapt to the contemporary world.

Since 2001, one key narrative has been around terrorism linked to particular militarist versions of Islam; personal faith and community loyalties; British Values (paraphrased as respect for the views of others, belief in democracy and the rule of law). All of which has internal ambiguities galore: respect for the views of others, except those not subscribing to the same values; belief in democracy, for as long as it delivers traditional outcomes; the rule of law, unless it is shown to be biased and corrupt; British Values often comes with the unspoken ‘Traditional’ preface ie such presumed values are being deployed defensively not progressively; labelled ‘British’ Values, except that they apply equally to Europe or America as liberal democratic values.

Not everyone will see the national identity in the same way. A country can feel alienating to sections of its people, creating a perception of it as a different place that the one usually described. Just check the experiences of First Nations in Canada or of indigenous peoples in Australia.

Nor do identities stay the same over time. Nations, like the smaller places within them, are changing. UK society (compared with life in that small, bleak cotton town of my childhood in 1950s) is now characterised more in terms of:

  • Deindustrialisation and shifts to service sectors
  • Consumerism; finance; advertising; public relations; imagery and narrative
  • Relative poverty (with residual absolute poverty)
  • Increase in extent and volume of inequalities
  • Mistrust of bloc-thinking and actions
  • Global influences through movement of finance, increased trade, movement of labour
  • Large-scale movements of highly-diverse sets of people across borders

As the world system of nations change, so separate national identities will themselves need to change and evolve.

There are identities as separate countries and there are identities as members of larger federations or alliances. At the European level, attempting to manage the tensions between a coherent European identity and the collective identities of its constituent nations, there are a number of current debates about national identity.

In France, there is a quiet battle over national identity: being secularly French (which was seen as something relaxed and tolerant but now shifting towards something else) has been set out in actions and debates around wearing the headscarf; the content of school meals; and there are ongoing concerns about a German identity, in the shadows of their own history and in the context of borders recently-opened to large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers.

Issues around national identities are unlikely to disappear overnight, and may even see some resurgences as world-orders shift around. At the same time people can still hold more locally-informed identifications; within which a strand of growing importance may be identifications with cities.


Cities: a special consideration

Thinking about cities has been somewhat overshadowed, until recently, by an academic and policy focus on the nation state, on separate identity groups, and on concepts such as cohesion, rights and beliefs.

This may be so, but the identities of cities take on importance as increasing numbers live in them. With the majority of world’s population due to be city-dwelling by the mid C21st, cities are worthy of special consideration.

Let us return to our main puzzle: Do cities have identities – inherited from their own histories (as academic/ecclesiastical city; as trading/maritime city; as industrial/manufacturing city; as New Town/planned city), shaped by the specific population size and diversity, and by the interplays of national and local politics?

The whole idea of identity presupposes that there is an entity: that there are insiders and outsiders; boundaries; distinctions; differences that make a difference. So, how do we define a particular city?

At a time of urban sprawl, a city can simply be the administrative boundaries determined as once distinct urban areas expand until they are separated only by a line on a map showing where one jurisdiction ends and the neighbouring one begins.

The administrative and bureaucratic versions of place identity doesn’t seem to be enough for most people. Personality-type identities are allocated to try to capture something of the spirit of the city.

Cities have always had themes attributed to them. For the Surrealists, Paris was a feminised site of desires and emotions – a world layered on top of the real world: sur-real.

More recent identifications have seen cities in particular ways: Paris (place for romance); New York (driving ambition); Cambridge (seat of learning); Amsterdam (a general sense of tolerance); Copenhagen (ease of transports and mobilities); and so on. These, however, feel like labels rather than identities. They don’t capture the ambiguities and complexities that can go with identification of cities.

Things are rarely as static as such labelling may suggest. Cities can be both real and imagined places whose identities get layered into a place that is always shifting, always tentative. There is both a fluid and a palimpsest quality to city identity.

Identity is more than statistics, location or past events. It is more than architecture and city-planning. A city is essentially a people-system, and its identity is therefore tied up with people. What role do citizens play in shaping a city’s identity, and vice versa?

At one level, without citizens cities would not be what they are. It may be that ghost towns, devoid of people, are still able to retain an identity – but this is largely derived from people who used to live there. A city, today, can be shaped by the legacies of those who used to live there, by the collective social practices of those who are current residents, and by looking forward to the potential of those recently arrived (through migration or through birth).

Cities are complex places, best thought of as systems of interacting parts, or as a sets of ecosystems in which each set of residents is open to the ecosystem of others. (Note4). They are best analysed neither simply at the level of the individual nor at the level of society.

Agent-based modelling has gone some way to exploring the interactions of people within such complex systems, and how macro-effects might emerge through such interactions. At the same time these methods still lack the finesse needed to get to the depths of such mechanisms in large, shifting, real-life cities.

What the city appears to be – its identity – is made up out of endless individual behaviours, routines and ambitions – operating through families, social networks, and neighbourhood agencies, but always within some wider socioeconomic and political framework. Human beings continually construct their social world, without having total freedom to do this in any way they choose.

People invest in the everyday culture of the city, shaping the place through their resourcefulness; rather than simply passively responding to some external powers. The city reflects such collective actions and values, and plays these back in ways that shape things to take on a degree of being partially fixed. Reflecting back the identity imparted to it, an impression of solidity emerges: The place becomes a reality to which residents must respond.

The city’s identity remains neither a fixed thing, nor something simply made from the simple numerical aggregation of equal individual influences. Political and economic influences do shape the opportunities for action, or lack of them, but not equally for everyone.

Cities are spaces where those with power get more opportunities to structure practices and cultures – to shape the identity of their place. Cities are, at the same time, places where those without great power can still determine some things. There are differential gearings of people and place. There can be surface identifications within cities and below-the-surface identifications within those same cities. Within these, layered and fluid, there may be an ever-emerging overall identity.

Cities shape their people; and the people shape their city.

This sounds more definite than is intended. There are likely to be ambiguities and complexities. Since the 1960s there has been serious doubt about the ability of social analyses, such as anthropology, to describe things once and for all, free of bias of history or culture. The interactions of people and places are far more contingent than such slick sentences allow.

Cities are, in today’s world, the major sites of transition where shifting, mixing, global tendencies meet local conditions. We have already mentioned the ebb and flow of diverse sets of people through cities. There have been large-scale changes in the employments that used to contribute to the identity of certain cities. The physical structures of the city starts changing through new patterns of house buying, the increase in new constructions. One recent trend has been the pricing-out of residents from areas. Another has been the privatisation of former public areas creating ambiguous privately-owned public spaces, with huge tracts of city-place now lying within private control.

Continuously changing, cities lose their immediate readability. There are weakenings of citizen memories and understandings. How can a city keep its identity if it is undergoing such change? Maybe there reaches a stage where the idea of identity gets replaced by the idea that there are numerous intercultural identities to the city. There may be multiple ways of reading the city.

With a variety of multidimensional processes making up a city, how can we even speak of a city identity?  Isn’t that idea simply out-of-date for today’s world?


Identity promotion: Place-branding

Cities, today, possibly have more in common with each other than they do with their nation state – hence the growth of a number of city-networks. It is also possible, given the speed of contemporary change, that residents of one city may have more in common with residents of other cities than they have links with the historical cultures of their own ancestors.

Cities may be alike in many ways but it is their differences that set them apart: that give them the appearance of having some unique identity; something that can be held up and promoted at times when they need to stand out in a competitive world that seems more uniform: something that can act as an identifier, as a brand.

People within the city, as visitors or residents or merely external observers, want to feel that there is some sense of particularisation. It may be that a city wants to promote some specific aspect of itself: being a cohesive city, a liveable city, a green city, a sustainable city, a learning city, a smart city, a walkable city, and so on.

Recognition of a city’s ambitions and assets can provide the basis of an identity that the city might use to provide sense and meaning; to influence neighbourhoods and lifestyles; to shape lives in ways that are different from other cities.

Branded identities are brought into play for a number of other purposes.

A number of cities have as one of their many ambitions a fostering a sense of place and sustenance of ‘community’ (more recently phrased in terms of community cohesion). It may be that some strong local identity is a prerequisite for that.

In order to compete in global arenas, cities often want to attract high-skill workers and innovative businesses. A clear local identity – promotable as a simple brand – underpins this.

Where cities want to attract visitors the branded identity is phrased as destination: a place to arrive at; to travel to – a place defined by its water or green spaces, its public art, its starchitect buildings, its iconic skyline, its contemporary galleries, or its shopping malls.

Cities are vital entities that differ in shape and function. As early as Kevin Lynch’s (1960) ‘The Image of the City’, a city was described as an art-form on a vast scale. It is useful, at this stage, to wonder to what degree any city as branded art-form is instantly recognisable. (Note 5)

Branding is taken up with enthusiasm, sometimes overlooking the pitfalls.

Cities can fail to recognise that they are part of wider networks and systems. The identity of each city may lie less within each individual city’s intelligence and more within the lived realities of residents’ social experiences; less within each isolated city and more within that city’s operation in the network of other cities and nations.

Brands are designed to be things with lasting endurance. As cities change, however, there is need to amend their branding – indeed, it may be more useful to design the city brand as having inbuilt flexibilities from the beginning.

Taking Birmingham., UK, once more as our example we have already recognised that it had former brandings as City of A Thousand Trades: The Workshop of the World when it was at its peak of place in industrial England.

As a legal incorporation the city has its motto: ‘Forward’ (other places have similarly aspirational terms such as ‘Progress’ or ‘Endeavour’). It has its city Coat of Arms, stressing the city being supported in its forward development by both arts and engineering.

In practice things have proved less straightforward. In its Victorian civic progress phase the city did, indeed, move forward through its liberal minded politicians – bringing gas, electricity, sanitation, thoroughfares, clearances of slums, building an art gallery and library – gaining itself a world-recognition for its forward-looking vision and actions. It became an early brand.

Later, in the immediate post-war spirit of remaking Britain as a better place for people, Birmingham once more got into large-scale urban change. The driver this time was not a politician but a city planner whose view of progress was to not let history stand in the way. What was the point of looking backwards when there was a future to move forward to?

In order to free up the flow of people and goods to the city centre, as the city of the future would require, he demolished the old (including buildings of historical interest) and replaced it with an inner ring road, subways for pedestrians, Brutalist curves of concrete and a modernist shopping centre. This rebranded the city as Europe’s most innovative, large-scale planner place-improvement.

These were genuinely best-intended plans at the time but have been condemned since as being only concerned with traffic flow and creating a concrete collar that strangles the city centre. Subways that were designed as a welcome way for pram-pushing parents to avoid negotiating the traffic became dirty and dangerous places to avoid.

There were similar issues with the 1960s city housing problem. To rehouse large numbers out of unsafe or unsatisfactory homes, the city embarked on a building programme of high-rise flats. Initially welcomed by planners and tenants alike as modern ‘homes in the sky’ they soon became condemned as derelictions requiring demolition. One small locality in the city had 34 tower blocks on its one square mile and came to epitomise the links between politics, economics, housebuilding, place-layout, residents’ attitudes etc. Tower blocks were emblematic of the area, badging it as progressive in the late 1960s and early 1970s but rebadging it as failing by the 1990s. (Note 6). Indeed, any article on the failures in building modernist utopias are almost certain to drag in a photograph of some iconic tower block to make the point.

These earlier developments led, eventually, to calls for the regeneration of areas of the city to put right what had been done or to accelerate development of areas seen as having been left behind. Highly-regarded good planning intentions were later seen as having been misplaced. What was praised as good community construction was later seen to have been misguided.

Because of such past experiences, it is possible that a legacy lives on in the current collective intelligence of the city in the form of a reluctance to repeat things with the same level of grand planning.

As the economic base shifted away from manufacturing and towards tourism, there were attempts to construct a brand based on the city’s assets (‘More canals than Venice’; ‘More parks than New York’) or the city’s central location relative to other visitor attractions such as London and Stratford-Upon-Avon (‘Birmingham: The Beating Heart of England’).

Most recently, there has been another wave of change to the identity of the city, based on architecture as a way of experiencing the city with the removal of the Modernist past and replacing it with future-facing iconic buildings: Selfridges store, the new Library of Birmingham, the light and airy Grand Central retail and railway station area.

One city: constant change; constant renewal; constant re-representations; constantly shifting identifications.


In Summary

From a couple of propositions around the influence of place on the identities of individuals, and places constructing and promoting their own identities, several lines of thought have been sketched out.

At any one time there are residents growing within differently interacting layers of place – home, street, small-area neighbourhood, village/town/city ??? all attempting to exert their own influence within broader social, economic and political processes.

Sets of residents, individually and collectively, respond to the place, changing it (or not): with the place (to varying degrees) changing people, and people (in unequal ways) changing the place.

Things are not static. Places, and their identities, are unfolding, shape-shifting, jiggling and jostling – asserting their own uniquenesses and similarities; their hopes and aspirations.

There is no single, linear shifting from one conception of the place to the next. There are memories, left-overs, legacies, traces built into structures, intelligences, ways of being – multiple fragmentary characteristics held (uncertainly) in place as a single, loose, baggy identity of place.

Cities are the sites for most of this and are worth a particular focus. Cities are complex, works of artistry and engineering, with working mottos and symbols that need to change as the city changes. The promoted identities of cities come with a degree of hesitancy alongside the boldness; a degree of tentativeness alongside the certainty of decision-making; a degree of contingency alongside the rigidity of driving forward progress.

What may feel like best at the time may turn out not to be so, but that shouldn’t prevent intelligent development taking place within some framework of what is of value, as that place goes from initial establishment, through self-determination, to some form of autonomy as it attempts to flourish or stave off decline.

Lines on maps may change; populations may change; relations between cities, nations and world alliances may shift over time – but, throughout such changes, it is worth holding onto the view that a place is a complex people-system within which people differentially shape the identity of a place and place differentially shapes the identity of people.



  1. Place: Some initial thoughts, Geoff Bateson
  2. The Social Construction and Reconstruction of Community : Geoff Bateson, 1996, University of Central England??(now renamed Birmingham City University)
  3. Writing in a Flash: Changing the ending, Geoff Bateson
  4. Gregory Bateson, 1972, Steps to an Ecology of Mind
  5. One starting point could be : Bolei Zhou et al: Recognising City Identity via attribute analysis of geo-tagged images.
  6. History of Castle Vale, Geoff Bateson

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