Why Place Matters: Placelessness and Place Attachment

Do you feel out of place? Do you feel like places are becoming less distinct? – like places are placeless? Do commercial centers and restaurants, perhaps even houses, feel the same wherever you are?

Some scholars believe that distinct places are less common today, but others disagree. Before we dive into where they see differences, let’s talk about what we mean by “place” and why places matter.

Cape Cod MA, houses and boats on the water of Bass River
The “Placeful” village of Onset, MA

What do we mean by “place”

I’m sure you intuitively have a sense of what place refers to. You go to places. You live in a place. You like some places more than others. “‘Place as a concept is highly abstract, but places in particular are concrete, palpable, intimately meaningful”. (Why Place Matters).

Several disciplines commonly use the concept of place:

  • Urban Planners
  • Geographers
  • Artists
  • Architects
  • City Activists and Organizers

Urban planners and designers often speak of Placemaking, the process by which groups of people reimagine and reinvent public spaces to improve their community in some way. 

Geographers can be quite literal about it – place, location, space, time, area. But it’s also used in humanistic geography with connection to sense of place, spirit of place, and placefulness (or its opposite, placelessness). (full disclosure, I’m a geographer and fit more into this camp).

Social and critical geographers might refer to place in relation to feeling in place and out of place, exclusion and inclusion. Who belongs in a place? Who is welcome and how did that come to pass? 

Sense of place and placemaking are terms often used in the creative sector for public art and public space-making. I do love buildings and am an advocate for preservation, but that is not at all the only way to build place .

Community builders often use Placefulness and placemaking for initiatives that promote walkable, bikeable, sustainable, or active civic communities. Art projects can add to sense of place.  Pocket parks and parklets  have infused busy streets and crowded restaurants with the social space people are looking for.

See how place character can be fostered

(also see http://geoplaces.weebly.com/place-blog for examples of consciously building place character)

a placeless town with suburban houses
Anyplace USA, this one happens to be in WA

Sense of Place matters for each of us

The term “Sense of place” refers to the subjective and emotional attachment people have to place, born from individual experience or personal memory. Architect Christopher Alexander called a similar concept “the quality without a name”, or “something like the idea of wholeness”.

Sense of place is not just a form of nostalgia for bygone streetscapes.

For many, attachment to place is as important as close relationships with people.  Places are often what differentiate the experiences of our lives. They are part of our memories and identity.

Main street brick historic row buildings, Pennsylvania. a distinct main street
A placeful downtown in Pennsylvania

Edward Relph in Place and Placelessness explains that places represent “cornerstones of human existence and individual identity”.  He argues that distinctive places, that we feel attached to, are necessary for a reasonable quality of life.

Places give order and security to our sense of being.  Places are where cultures root themselves and so are crucial to our understanding of who we are and where we fit into the world, geographically and socially.  Sense of place is something we cannot afford to do without.

“In a frenetically mobile and … globalizing world, we stand powerfully in need of such stable and coherent places in our lives, to ground us and orient us, …” (McClay and McAllistar Why Place Matters)

Those neighborhoods that have always been the same, maybe they are the ones we think back on from childhood, they often have the strongest sense of place. Longtime residents. Mature tree canopies. Older houses that look distinct from recent decades of new development done on a larger scale. These all can create a strong attachment for people. We might be able to image the place as the one in which we grew up. It might be an urban setting, or even in the suburbs – which many people consider placeless.


Not all places are equal. Some places seem to us to be more fully “places” than others. When attachment is missing, we have placeless landscapes. Has increased media, mobility, and a car-centered society resulted in a placeless landscape? These culprits often receive the blame. Many credit the loss of distinction worldwide to the spread of Western ideas through globalization and advanced media technology, internet, TVs, and the reliance on cars. 

ubiquitous new urban construction
“Placeless” modern apartments (Olympia, WA)

A blurring of geographies weakens the identity of places to the point where they look alike and feel alike so that many people “may no longer seem to ‘know their place’” (Relph 1Relph, Edward. 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion). 

This sensation is most obvious in the big box store sections of cities, where a national design priority makes known anchor-store stripmalls all look the same. We could be in any town, in any state in America, and we will likely “feel at home” in these malls, as if it were the one closest to our house. But it might not be pleasant.

Only certain towns that hold high standards in historic preservation or town character require such malls to keep certain zoning guidelines, for example, in regard to street frontage, sign size or color, or scale of the buildings.

Sign to shopping center

Oftentimes, a development takes on the name of the very thing it displaces.

What is at stake ?

What is lost when we design placeless landscapes is genius loci – the spirit that imbues places with meaning, leaving behind “exchangeable environments” which lack distinction. The outcome is a diminished sense of place and attachment to place, a less distinguishable landscape, one that does not reflect local culture or memory, one that makes you feel as though you could be shopping, eating, or driving, anywhere.

a church that is part of a parking garage and urban building
An urban church above a parking garage (Victoria, BC, Canada)

Do people have fewer meaningful experiences in placeless landscapes?

Gordon Cullen (The Concise Townscape) argued that a placeless world may maintain life, but makes for a very unsatisfying existence, which could lead to a world in which we feel out of place. Scholars have written about the risk of a diminished sense of place since the 60s (perhaps before that) and we can only assume it has progressed even more quickly in the last few decades.

Joshua Meyrowtiz argued in No Sense of Place that “Our world may suddenly seem senseless to many people because for the first time in modern history, it is relatively placeless”. And this was in the 80s! Geographer Pierce Lewis argued that lacking sense of place will lead to a lack of personal responsibility to place.2Lewis, Pierce F. 1979. Defining a Sense of Place. The Southern Quarterly 17:24-46.

As the world moves towards increased placelessness, it can shift towards rootlessness, or disorientation. Geographer Harm De Blij, in The Power of Place argued that diversities of place play a key role in shaping humanity’s mosaic. Unfortunately, the importance of such diversity tends to be dismissed in much of our urban and commercial strip development.

What is our opportunity?

Spirit of place, which is distinct from sense of place, generally refers to a quality, or unique environmental ambiance that yields a distinctive identity.  Because Spirit of place is focused on character rather than personal memory, it can be designed, diminished, enhanced, and fostered.  As a place is “built up and lived in, spirit of place grows” and a place gradually acquires its own identity.3Relph, Edward. 2009. A Pragmatic Sense of Place. Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, 20(3): 24-31

We would have to argue then that sense of place will grow too, as memories and experiences are built up. This way, even an initially placeless neighborhood can gradually acquire its own identity for those who live in it.

Cultural theorist, Dr. Sarah Elisa Kelly describes “place-fullness” as an attachment to place that we can build up through our mindful attention to its details, including nature, and our experience with it. (another example focuses sounds and smells of the natural environment to connect with place, or the power that wildlife has).

These examples imply that through the enhancement of spirit of place (character), comes the increased opportunity for sense of place (attachment). It’s not imperative to focus on the distinctions in the words to revel in places, spaces, and art that draws those strong feelings.

The best way to accomplish a sense or spirit of place is not only through preservation, and not by manipulating the future through excessive planning, but by looking at places where a genuine genius loci is alive to discover the environment in which it thrives, and try to find out why

Do you know somewhere with great spirit of place? What qualities have combined to develop it?

What places do you think are worth exploring? See Part two of this conversation: Is the World Flat?

  • 1
    Relph, Edward. 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion
  • 2
    Lewis, Pierce F. 1979. Defining a Sense of Place. The Southern Quarterly 17:24-46.
  • 3
    Relph, Edward. 2009. A Pragmatic Sense of Place. Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, 20(3): 24-31

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