Q1. What is "sense of place" and what does it have to do with ecological media?


Fountain in courtyard of La Encantada
The fountain in the 1780s courtyard
of La Encantada, a hacienda in
Alamos, Sonora.

"Sense of place" is one of those terms cited often but rarely defined. So let's start there:

A big definition, but a pretty good one, really, from Geography Dictionary:

Either the intrinsic character of a place, or the meaning people give to it, but, more often, a mixture of both. Some places are distinctive through their physical appearance, like the Old Man of Hoy; others are distinctive, but have value attached to them, like the white cliffs of Dover.

Less striking places have meaning and value attached to them because they are "home," and it is argued that attachment to a place increases with the distinctiveness of that place. Planners use this argument by consciously creating or preserving memorable and singular structures to make a space distinctively different. The Cardiff Bay Development scheme has done this, first by preserving the best of the old buildings, and even relocating one — the Norwegian church. All this is done to encourage in the residents an attachment to that place.

A final element is our own experience of that place; if you had been desperately unhappy in central London, it might be that the sight of Trafalgar Square would reawaken a sense of misery in you.

Cultural geographer J.B. Jackson, in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, writes:

It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity.

Even if we know (or think we know, though I happen to agree) that place gives us our identity, it's still difficult to define sense of place, as John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute says in a 2003 Miami Herald article by Scott Andron:

Sense of place is like the Supreme Court definition of pornography: You know it when you see it. It's a very old concept that we have lost over the last 50 or 60 years: It's something unique or particular to your location.

A final word on sense of place? Perhaps that of Aldo Leopold and, humbly in his shadow, my own from my essay "The Sum of All Species," published recently in Mid-American Review:

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’” writes Leopold in Round River. “If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Yet we must also acknowledge that humans are likewise a critical cog of the system. Though we more often act as a clog, the legitimate community comprises the landscape natural and built, the living and dying species of plants and animals and man, and more. That must be what is meant by sense of place. If we truly seek a sense of place, not just an acknowledgement of a locale’s unique identity, but an understanding and appreciation of the place and its elements — and I wager that we must — then all of the parts are required. It’s not only a matter of who was here first — the standard argument — but also how we are to evolve as a human species. How, instead of living through subtraction, we can exist by addition. Not the multiplication of our own species, but the survival of all species.

Next:   Sense of Place as Indicator