What is a sense of place?

1 minute read

So far I’ve written two posts discussing whether Columbia and Howard County have (or could have) a true sense of place, and I really haven’t defined what I mean by that term. In a comment 0bject (of Patapsco Holler fame) attempted to help me out by giving some factors that help create a sense of place:

Uniqueness & desirability — the latter of which is going to be different for different people. ... Natural, geological or ecological diversity, water, physical beauty including buildings & homes, transportation, etc. History, commerce, ethnicity & spirituality.

0bject also referred me to the sense of place article on Wikipedia, which has some other useful attempts at a definition:

Places said to have a strong sense of place have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual's perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place.

I agree that a sense of place is ultimately a function of the people who inhabit a place, as much as it is a function of the physical attributes of the place itself, with the two often mutually reinforcing. For example, the geographic compactness and built environment of Manhattan influences the way inhabitants interact with each other and express their personality, and that to some extent then influences the creation of physical spaces built to meet those inhabitants’ needs and desires.

The more salient point for Howard County though, and especially for Columbia, is that the human factors that go into a sense of place must be capable of being replicated from generation to generation, and from current residents to new residents. It does no good to say that Columbia’s sense of place grows out of its history as a different kind of community, if the felt experience of that history resides solely the founding cohort that will pass from the scene in the next generation. Columbia in that sense is now just a time, and no longer is a place.