Movie theater in Wyoming with vintage sign reading America

Is the World Flat? The Evolving American Landscape

“If a place is somewhere, palcelessness can be anywhere”.1Relph, Edward. 2009. “A Pragmatic Sense of Place.” Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter 20(3):24-31.

In my last post we explored sense of place and why it matters for our sense of belonging and why it might be at risk. In this post, I want to dive deeper into what authors have determined about placelessness through the decades of studying cities, suburbs, America, and place change.

Placeful or Placeless? Who says what?

We should all be able to envision a special place from our past or present. Maybe it’s the neighborhood where we grew up, maybe a small town where we vacationed, maybe it’s a particular city block of pubs you frequented in your 20s, each one unique.

These places likely don’t include a box store plaza and are probably starkly different from a commercial strip mall, or a new housing sub division. Iconic buildings, common vernacular houses, and vibrant streetscapes contribute greatly to place distinctiveness.

placeless suburban neighborhood in Oregon
“Placeless” suburban neighborhood in Oregon

Places such as that, strip malls etc, are places we are all familiar with, but maybe we feel little attachment to them, or perhaps they don’t remind us of any particular place.

I have memories of going to Cambridge, MA as a kid, with my dad. At the time, Harvard Square was full of street performers, magicians and jugglers, roller dancers, stilt walkers. And quirky shops. Over the years, the street performers were slowly discouraged and shops became more run of the mill, with national chain brands added to the mix.

Harvard Square Street Performers
https://www.flickr.com/photos/bostonusa/3439481780/

The place has changed a lot. It’s no longer the distinct place it was, full of anticipation for what might happen that day. It’s still a specific place – Harvard Square. Still well-known and highly visited. It still has the history and the school, and the iconic book store. The places that keep it feeling distinctive are shops and cafes that are unique and reflective of the place.

But as a place loses its unique characteristics, including performers, old buildings, unique shops, it starts to feel more placeless – like any other place.

Is the world flat?

The process of becoming less distinct is sometimes called flattening. Unfortunately, many scholars believe that places are an endangered species and we suffer from too little sense of place. Geographer Harm De Blij, in The Power of Place proposed that “the world, if not ‘flat’ already, is flattening” through globalization. He cautioned that flatness is becoming an assumption rather than one of many potential outcomes.

Edward Relph was writing about this phenomenon back in the 70s, calling placelessness a weakening of the identity of places to the point where they look alike and feel alike and offer the same bland possibilities for experience. He felt that by the 70’s, modern landscapes and the international style were making every place look the same.

He continues to write about the topic in his website, and sees more nuance in the argument today. See Place and Placelessness Revisted, 2016, and in 2022, Place and Placelessness (Research in Planning and Design).

Timothy Cresswell argues that our lives are more and more apt to take place “in spaces that could be anywhere – that look, feel, sound, and smell the same wherever”.

Commercial strips, movie cinemas, or hotels are often places that seem detached from the local environment. They encourage a placeless geography which tells us nothing about the particular place in which we are located.

The architectural homogeneity in the urban landscape is often called the “International Style” because it is specific to no one place and expected to work equally well everywhere.2Relph, Edward. 2009. “A Pragmatic Sense of Place.” Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter 20(3):24-31. This style can blur geographies and weaken the identity of places to the point where they look alike and feel alike.

modern building in Bucharest, Romania
International style, Bucharest, Romania, or anywhere else 2023

The drivers of a global landscape

I don’t want to disregard the great advancements for much of the world with improved medicine, rural education, transportation, and economic opportunities that a more connected world has facilitated. However, many blame increased mobility, technology, and a car-centered society for our placeless landscapes, and credit the loss of distinction worldwide to the spread of Western ideas through globalization and advanced media technology. 

During the 1950s through 1980s, an accelerated rate of change and homogenization was brought about by the large-scale adoption of the television, which has a unique power to break down distinctions between distant places and influence styles across broader locations. It is argued that globalization and an increasingly consumer society has brought with it increased exposure to world media and new technologies, but also fast fashion and fast foods – in short, global culture, and a “certain sameness” (Not Yet a Placeless Land, p115).

The way in which places are tied into global trends has led some to perceive an accelerating erosion of place.3Cresswell, Timothy. 2004. Place: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. https://amzn.to/419PnOF Some authors believe the home is finally yielding to the idea of placelessness. 4Riley, Robert. 1980. Speculation on the New American Landscape. Landscape 24(3):1-9 Does this affect our strength of memories? Does it lessen our attachment to places, and our willingness to fight for them?

Grey wooden houses on the beach Cap Cod MA
Typical shingle homes Cape Cod, MA

There is still hope for placefulness

Although homogenization of landscapes is evident across the globe, many places still exhibit individualized characteristics and cultural identity. Several scholars are quick to point out that landscapes have changed but diversity still exists

Placefulness and placelessness exist on a spectrum. Placeful means there is distinctiveness and aspects to a place that make it meaningful and memorable. Placeless is the weakening of the identity of places to the point where they look alike and feel alike, and are likely not enjoyable to spend time in. I think we would be hard pressed to say that any single place is completely void of any aspects that give distinction or make it worthy of some attachment or enjoyment.

Even Edward Relph, the father of place and placelessness studies has himself revisited his stance on the dichotomy of the two. He explained in 2016 that he now believes that place and placlessness are intertwined and the distinction between the two is weakening (since the 70s).

Places have adapted to a more mobile society and have been infused with ideas and things of varied origins. He also credits UNESCO and growing anti-modernists ideals that increased appreciation (once again) for historic buildings and landscapes.

Place and placelessness exist together on a continuum, in a state of tension. This allows for place at one end (where the expression of something specific and local is fostered) alongside placelessness (the general and mass produced where distinctiveness is suppressed). 

Relph, and JB Jackson, both make a certain case for placelessness. It would be easy to think that places would be so much better if they were all unique and had their own special qualities. Yet, without an aspect of placelessness (or sameness) we would have no familiarity to orient ourselves in a new place, no way to feel settled, no frame of reference.

However, Relph contrasts that to a placeless world where travel is pointless and there is nothing special anywhere. Place and placelessness are interconnected so that almost all places contain aspects of both. And we need this for balance.

Localized placefulness in the American West

In the 1980s, Thomas and Geraldine Vale (he Professor Emeritus, Dpt of Geography, University of Wisconsin – Madison, and she a retired public school teacher of English and Geography) photographed the east-west transect of US Highway 40 (Atlantic City to San Fran), (based on George Stewart (1953) U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America) and the north-south US 89 that runs border to border from Arizona to Montana. Much of this was Re-photography, the act of taking photos at a specific site over time to show evidence of change. (and check out this page on the topic).

The Vales admitted that they looked for the landscape change that Americans expect to hear about – the increased commercial strips, paved-over farmlands, and abundance of freeways. They acknowledged that these elements are there, but that they are far less dominant and more widely dispersed than expected. They were quick to point out the well cared for houses and first-settlement farm buildings. In their opinion, the photo sites overall revealed “lack of great change.”

The Vales hypothesized that Americans by and large, live on the edge of urban growth areas (high growth zones) and therefore, have a skewed vision of how abundant growth truly is in the US. In reality, seeing it all in context, at least in 1983, it was full of small towns, farms, and pastures. The transformation of open land into highway and commercial strip is actually a localized phenomenon and not seen across America as a whole. In other words, they still saw distinctive places and regional character.

They contradicted expectations that pervasive change has led to a sense of sameness in the landscape. They claimed that landscapes of the 1950s may have had a similarly uniform appearance to that which characterizes the houses of American suburbia today – again at least in the 1980s. They offered that in the original day of George Stewart’s publication (1953) that they rephotographed, elm lined streets in small American towns may have appeared as monotonous at times, as do the fast food restaurants of today’s interstates. (See Geography of Nowhere for interesting perspectives on America’s commercial strips, but i acknowledge his disturbing and problematic language/bias).

Back to the future

Standardization, in their opinion, has not obliterated the unique. Instead, they characterize the American landscape of their day (the 1980s) and Stewart’s day (the 1950s) as a study in diversity. 

Though they found that the rural aspects were still there, they admitted that the futures of the small towns and family farms seem threatened. Even in Vale and Vale’s conclusion that the American landscape has not been dramatically transformed by commercial development eating away at the rural scene, they argued for preserving diversity of landscape to satisfy our emotional needs.

More recently, William Wyckoff’s 2006 rephotography study on Montana highways discovered noticeably uneven development across small towns. Some communities were by then completely modernized, while others still appeared as they did in the 1920s.

For a 2010 Ph.D dissertation in geography, James E. Wells retraced and re-photographed the Vale’s 1989 journey up US Route 89. He cited tourism as the greatest impetus of change to the small towns of the Rocky Mountain West and acknowledged that if the town didn’t want to rely on relatively low paying service sector jobs, they saw little change. Towns that catered to travelers and tourism showed an increase in box store landscapes, while often keeping some of the unique storefronts transformed for amenity sector uses.

Landscapes are different, but less so

Several scholars agree that places are still different from each other, although, the differences are much less than they once were. In Not Yet a Placeless land, Zelinsky (2011) posed an interesting paradox when he inventoried the most numerous categories of American places: the “predictable, repetitive entities – neighborhoods and clusters, apartment complexes, strip malls, shopping centers, downtowns, and so on” (p269). 

He stated that these elements now resemble one another so closely that they are distinguished only by name. 

However, while the predictable places are larger in number, the unpredictable places are also increasing year after year. These include a greater diversity of focus: gay and lesbian neighborhoods, fire work stands, local festivals, etc. He offered “a qualified, but decisive, no!” to whether America is becoming placeless. 

Clown mouth door. Luna Amusement park St. Kilda Beach, Melbourne Australia
Clown mouthed door at Luna Amusement park St. Kilda Beach, Melbourne Australia

Zelinsky maintained that distinctive cities are not going to become anonymous anytime within the foreseeable future. His perspective differs drastically from others because he believes this country is becoming ever more placeful as the number and variety of unpredictable places continues to grow.

A paradox of same but different

Unfortunately, Zelinksy also argued that America has become homogenous –therefore, “more uniform and more diverse at the same time.” The places have retained their identity, reflecting placefulness – while at the same time, the country has experienced a “constant homogenization spatially in terms of society, culture, economy, and, most visibly, the built landscape.” He argued that those who claim to see placelessness are in fact referring to the repetition of the same manmade features with the predictability of pattern. This he referred to as homogenization rather than placelessness.

Relph (2009) argued that the 21st century will present social and environmental challenges at a global scale. However, the individual effects will be locally diverse. He reasoned that each place will keep some aspects of placefulness. On a continuum, and at a small scale, we will continue to see locally expressed diversity. This way, the landscape changes, but diversity still exists, which is a key component to fostering a sense of place and enhancing quality of life.

crab traps on the docks Rockport ME
Rockport, ME

Where do you think your current neighborhood or town fits? What about that place you were prompted to imagine at the top of post?

  • 1
    Relph, Edward. 2009. “A Pragmatic Sense of Place.” Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter 20(3):24-31.
  • 2
    Relph, Edward. 2009. “A Pragmatic Sense of Place.” Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter 20(3):24-31. 
  • 3
    Cresswell, Timothy. 2004. Place: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. https://amzn.to/419PnOF
  • 4
    Riley, Robert. 1980. Speculation on the New American Landscape. Landscape 24(3):1-9

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