For human beings, places are meaningful and meaning creating. According to urban planner Timothy Beatley, “Meaningful places are essential for meaningful lives.” Without a sense of place we would live within undifferentiated and thereby meaningless space. Cultural Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote, “Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning.” Our sense of home, of homeland, of our place and role in the world, all help to give us a sense of rootedness and identity in the world. They help to nurture us and provide us a safe haven when we are in need of it. When we have a sense of place in the world, we know where we come from and where we are going. As such, we feel “in-place” in the world.
Sense of place is an embodied experience, not an abstract concept. Our home and the street we live on may feel meaningful and alive because we have an intimate relationship and experience with it. According to Jaime Lerner, the visionary three-time mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, and a founding father of the modern green city movement,
“People, they are not living in the city just for survival. You have to love the city. They have to have this relationship that has to do with identity, with a sense of belonging… There are some (ghettos) that don’t have (great bus service or nice schools), and the people are happy. Why? Because their father lived there; and their grandfather lived there. There’s a sense of belonging to a place”
Sense of place therefore starts with caring, with a sense of meaningful connection. In Lerner’s terms, “you have to know your village and you have to love it.” Without this, one cannot fully develop a sense of “complicity with people,” a capacity to “understand what are (people’s) problems, what are their dreams.” Yet how often as planners do we forget this? How often does a demarcation for a neighborhood become an abstract concept rather than an immediate and felt reality?