Sense of Place is a little bit like the elephant touched by various mice in the fable – lots of other concepts touch on pieces of it. Neighborhood identity, local pride, character, and vibe are all different terms and words you may hear people use when describing Sense of Place. What many people may not realize is what exactly they’re touching on, and that it can be actively constructed and nurtured.
Today, we want to give you a broad view of what Sense of Place is as a way of helping you figure out how it can fit into your work.
What is Sense of Place?
Sense of Place is a concept that describes the relationship between people and their setting, in this case their neighborhood. It is made up of the conscious thoughts that people have about a space like, “Wow, this has such a quirky and artsy vibe,” but also unconscious experiences. For example, you may not realize that a well-shaded area puts you more at rest because it’s cooler in the summer and trees decrease stress. But your body will record this information and incorporate it into its idea of that place.
Smells, architecture, green spaces, artwork, interactions with residents, and more all go into creating what it feels like to be somewhere, and how attached you become to that place. Attachment is important. Residents will always have a relationship with their neighborhood that’s emotional in nature. A strong sense of place creates a container for those feelings and provides a sense of rootedness. It can amplify belonging and commitment to flourishing.
Essentially, Sense of Place is the symbolic amalgamation of identity, community, and experiences. It holds together all of the pieces that bond people to a certain location and infuses those pieces with a cohesive meaning.
Sense of Place: Why it Matters
Developing Sense of Place is pivotal to the work you do. It’s hard to invest in a place that has little identity or boundaries. We want neighbors to feel like they’re living in a defined neighborhood, and one they feel positively about. This sense of connection and boundaries give people a reason to make change, and can make the scope feel less daunting. Think of the neighbor who is able to say, “We are Historic South Atlanta, and South Atlanta shows up for its people.” A statement like this one shows strong sense of place, which in turn can motivate neighbors to deepen relationships with their surroundings and one another.
That’s part of why we measure Sense of Place in our Flourishing Neighborhood Index. Change moves at the speed of trust. Trust takes relationships. But relationships involve at least two entities. If the neighborhood has no identity or feels nebulous, it’s much harder for stakeholders to connect with the neighborhood and even understand what change could look like.
Sense of place, because it’s essentially a relationship, is dynamic and ever-evolving. People come from a diverse array of backgrounds. When communities or areas undergo needed change, it is important that it is not only welcoming to new members but also helps current ones not feel out of touch. Sustained efforts to support various identities allow people to feel “at home.”
When residents understand the history, practices, and demographics of their neighborhood, they can build relationships. In short, the context in which people can socially thrive in their environment is crucial to impact.
Sense of Place: Now what?
Now that you have an idea of what Sense of Place is, you want to know what’s next to start boosting it. Here are a few ideas:
- We highly recommend looking for any urban planners or developers who are planning projects in your neighborhood. Connect with them and ask how their plans will amplify a strong sense of place.
- Identify the members or groups within your community who don’t quite have the “at home” feeling. Try to figure out what they feel like is missing. If they’ve had a tie to a neighborhood in the past that feels strong, see if you can figure out what’s different.
- Ask neighbors to describe the neighborhood. You’ll learn a lot about what their sense of the place is, particularly strengths that are shaping it.
- Curate spaces people wish to visit frequently. Ensure that these are accessible to your neighbors. When neighbors get to connect and gather, relationships deepen. Relationships between neighbors inherently translate to relationships to the place where those bonds formed.
We’re here to help you take the next steps in evaluating the Sense of Place in your area. One of the best ways to get started is to learn about the Flourishing Neighborhood Index. You can click here to do so!