Finding a sense of place

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Charley snapped this photo when she was in NYC just a couple of weeks ago. She claims to have felt a “sense of place” when she was at this scene.

We often tango with the question of “sense of place,” and what it really means. It’s a topic which we confront invariably in our day to day work, and as a landscape design firm in Portland, OR, it’s something which we seek to define, understand, and to potentially rewrite– in a sense. After all, a “sense of place” is different for everyone, and it’s really a bit of a dynamic entity.

There’s no one correct usage of the term. We can say that “sense of place” is some singular attribute (or attributes) that some geographic spaces have and some which do not. We can say that it may not even have anything to do with geography at all, but with a certain feeling or a recognition that we carry within ourselves. In either case, what results is a nebulous but compelling sensation of attachment, belonging, ambiguous nostalgia–a kind of rightness. A formless, shapeless feeling, yes, but essential.

A “sense of place” is also, we believe, history in passage, sweeping into the next moment, then the next. Landscape is an important vehicle that guides, records, and naturally becomes a part of that passage. Spaces develop and grow unto themselves in the courses of nature: anthropological expansion, climate patterns, topographic shifts. These are what can make places unique and what endows them with history. We believe landscape is an ancient tapestry onto which stories are woven–stories which never quite disappear either. A “sense of place” is a sense of existence, of all the things that once existed, are existing now, and will exist. It can be a sense of being, of finding your piece in the story and employing your position in an ideally infinite history.

It’s interesting to see the transformations taking place today in modernist landscape architecture that seem to work towards planting a sense of place where it may not have existed before. Take this article, for example, on contemporary landscape “interventions.” Renowned modernist spaces, characterized by their austere sparseness and hard lines, are being redesigned and renovated to essentially supply a better sense of place, where people can relax and linger. While there is some debate over the legitimacy of these redesigns and whether or not they threaten an important part of the country’s architectural history, these projects and transformations reveal a contemporary agenda that attempts to answer and reinscribe (in our eyes, at least) the question of “sense of place.” Thomas Balsley says in the article, “Many of the spaces were impressive, very modernist, but not very human…[y]ou didn’t feel like you were part of the story.”

What’s your definition of “sense of place”?

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2 comments

  1. mauriceabarry

    Very thorough summary. I especially like the idea of designing our surroundings to ensure that we are all included in the story. Too often the landscape either reflects a simple, austere dehumanized view or, especially around places of work, a completely functionalist view. It’s so nice when the designers find elegant ways of working the lives of the people into the design.

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