We all know what a thriving community looks like, but it can be tough to nail down WHY we know it’s healthy or what to look for. One of the key pieces we look for when assessing a neighborhood’s health is “Sense of Place.”
Like the idea of flourishing, Sense of Place can feel like a nebulous concept when you first encounter it. No worries. We’ve broken down this critical element of community development for you. Read on to learn what it is, how to recognize it, and how to foster it.
What is Sense of Place
Understanding the Sense of Place amongst individuals can be difficult. Recognizing it seems even more incomprehensible. To recognize it, we must first discuss its absence: placelessness.
Placelessness is a space that removes the ability to have relationships with that place or location. Commercialized areas and businesses such as food chains, shopping malls, and gas stations are examples. They describe spaces that we simply walk through without meaningful attachments and experiences. In fact, the goal of many of these types of structures is to transcend place – to create an experience that is consistent all around the world. You can walk into a McDonald’s or an airport and for the large part your experience is largely divorced from its surroundings. This is a type of placelessness. And while it’s not always a bad thing, it can be a large barrier for a neighborhood working to cultivate its identity.
On the flip side, commercial areas in an area with a strong Sense of Place boost the feeling that the location has its own personality. These are areas that might be described as having an “artsy” or “quirky” or “sleek” feeling. The businesses strengthen a sense of identity, and that identity feels somewhat unique.
Sense of Place is not always attributed to positive feelings, but that’s the goal! Ultimately, it is a social indicator of the relationship between the residents, the personality, and the history of a particular setting. Developing a Sense of Place allows your Neighborhood to flourish by nurturing a feeling of attachment and hope for the well-being of a particular area.
How to Recognize a Strong Sense of Place
Imagine yourself in your neighborhood or community. You walk and drive along familiar streets, perhaps to the store, work, or school. You’re passing the same intersection, park trees, and local businesses during your routine journey. You see your neighbors, school children at your alma maters, and that famous mom-and-pop restaurant. There is an overwhelming sense of connectedness to the people, places, and things around you. You take in all its changes and new beginnings from its rich history. Everything it once was, everything it is, and everything it could be. For you, your community holds a sense of belonging. This is what a strong, positive sense of place feels like. It’s the combined feeling of familiarity, connectedness, and continuity in a boundaried space. Strong Sense of Place means that you sense a location’s identity, and hopefully feel warmly attached to it and its elements.
Another indicator of a is nostalgia. When a resident can look at their neighborhood and say, “it’s not what it used to be,” it is an expression of longing for a Sense of Place that has either deteriorated or changed. This is not to say it’s a static attribute. The authenticity is palpable and growth is progressive. All the characteristics may remain the same, and the feelings attached are familiar. Yet, the community evolves for the better. Sense of Place invites dynamic activity but maintains genuineness and that home-like feeling.
When you see neighborhood pride, nostalgia, or celebration of local character, it’s likely that they’re highlighting a strong Sense of Place in the community.
How to Strengthen Sense of Place
Having a strong Sense of Place can help to galvanize neighbors, volunteers, and other stakeholders to work together for that place’s benefit. That means cultivating an abiding and strong Sense of Place can be instrumental in having lasting impact. Here are a couple of approaches to bolstering Sense of Place.
What Planners Can Do
Urban Planners can be a powerful tool in boosting Sense of Place! Geographical, architectural, and environmental surroundings contribute to a feeling of local identity and belonging.
Public parks, buildings or architecture, and leisure spaces can bring about positive emotions. Urban Planners can create greenspaces that reflect the natural climate of the area or highlight unique flora and fauna. Commissioned art pieces can do the same. For example, the Atlanta Beltline features an installation of sculptures celebrating the 33 Oak species native to Georgia. Pieces such as these strengthen a sense of rootedness and celebrate the unique identity of place.
Planners can also make it possible for neighbors to connect with each other. Accessible, attractive, and safe public gathering spaces allow for people from all walks of life to congregate. These public spaces allow neighbors to intermingle with each other. Even the act of observing diverse groups of neighbors having fun can build solidarity. Families can create traditions of visiting public spaces for celebrations or games. All of these occurrences are powerful building blocks of Sense of Place.
Wise Urban Planners will take local history and legacy neighbors into account when laying new plans. Historic residents create Sense of Place and preserve it. Development that makes it easy for these residents to stay in their homes and influence what gets built will benefit from a longer, more robust local identity. Ultimately, everyone has a better chance of feeling happy, at home, and connected when legacy residents are allowed to stay.
These are just a few of the tools Urban Planners can use to build a Sense of Place into their plans. For the benefits of walkability, commercial districts populated by small businesses, and mixed-income housing, you’ll have to schedule a Flourishing Neighborhood Index preview.
What Neighbors Can Do
Neighbors have a lot of opportunities to create and protect a Sense of Place in their community. One way is to consider development in the context of the entire community, not only in terms of how it will benefit you or your in-group. Neighbors can immerse themselves in local history and notice what other neighbors have going on. They can familiarize themselves with neighborhood boundaries and diversity – the artists, the movement of people, and ecological patterns. Go beyond exploring the community and getting involved. Advocate for those who are missing this connection.
The consciousness of and involvement with the inner-community workings encourage meaningful conversations. Your experiences with neighbors and their understanding of a place will reveal key places where holistic development is needed. Learning and engagement with your environment have a positive impact on an individual’s Sense of Place.
Sense of Place describes the level of identity and connectivity between neighbors, their surroundings, and the structures in their environment. As part of our work, we want all neighborhoods to have a strong, positive personality that residents feel proud of.
The most resilient neighborhoods will have Sense of Place that is both stable in its attributes and flexible to incorporate healthy change. Neighbors can feel attached to a place in their own unique ways, all of which support the perception of character and community. Everyone should have their own personal “feels like home” moment.
Both structures and individuals are essential for building a healthy Sense of Place. In a best-case scenarios, neighbors and urban planners can work together to maximize the benefit and identity of each neighborhood.