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The Concept of Place

The concept of place - places and their importance to human life and experiences

“Place and sense of place do not lend themselves to scientific analysis for they are inextricably bound up with all the hopes, frustrations, and confusions of life...” (Relph) 1
Place is “what takes place ceaselessly” Pred, 1984  2

The quotes above show us quite a lot about what place is and why it is a difficult concept to define.  Places can be defined in many ways and it would be easy to reduce places to simply descriptions of what they contain and look like.  However, as Relph says, places “do not lend themselves to scientific analysis” as they can touch a part of humans that is difficult to pin down and model.

When we have EXPERIENCES in a place, they suddenly have a much GREATER meaning to our lives.  Human lives are full of “hopes, frustrations and confusions” that are often difficult to define and explain, which also means our sense of places can be hard to define too.

The other issue we have with defining places is, as Pred states, that paces are constantly changing.  The fact that places change over time can change their meaning for us as human beings.

Places then, are hugely important to humans and the experiences we have within them make then important to human life and experiences.  We have a deep human need for links with significant places in our lives.  This need is the reason why many of us have problems or issues with placelessness (places that lack a "sense of place" and have no special relationship to the places in which they are located—they could be anywhere) and places that lack a sense of identity or individuality.

This follows on from the idea of Topophilia- a concept developed by Yi-Fu Tuan3 to describe the bond between people and place arguing that it is through human perception and experience that we get to know places.  You could think of a life experience (a sibling being born, a first kiss, learning to ride a bike etc.) – where did it take place? Did it make that place special?

Yi-Fu Tuan also argued that our experience and understanding of the environment and our attachment to it expands with age.4 He states that babies experiences are only crude, they “lie(s) prone, or
it is upright.  Upright it has top and bottom, front and back, right and left”
. As we get older these experiences broaden and we perceive places differently.  This all ties in with the concepts of Attachment, Home and Identity.

Attachment, Home and Identity
The photograph below shows the most vulnerable of people our children.  They have a very accute sense of attachment.  Babies have a very narrow experience of life and are reliant on their parents.  Their sense of attachment is incredibly strong and anything that splits that bond is upsetting. 

Babies have a narrow sense of place
Babies also have a narrow zone of proximal development; they can learn very little for themselves and requires others to help in many ways. 
As we get older our experience of life and our zone of proximal development increase, we can learn and experience more things for ourselves.  We become more mobile, crawling then walking, our parents allows us more responsibility.
These factors massively affect our SENSE of place. As we age places that are taboo or out of reach become available.  This changes the way we experience them.  When were you first allowed to go to the centre of your local town?  How did this change your experience of that place?
The meaning we give to places is known as SENSE OF PLACE.  The feelings we generate over time for places mean that they can become part of our own IDENTITY. These places can also help to form our identity. Which places do you identify with as part of your identity?

Identity
Our identity is formed by many factors, including family and friends.  One factor that comes into identity is place, however.  At a local level, issues brought up by local newspapers and social media groups, being part of a local charity of club and your neighbours can have an influence on how you view yourself and your identity.  Here we can consider identity at a number of scales;
1. Localism - This is the preference for your area in close proximity to you.  It involves affection for or emotional ownership of a particular place.  This can be reflected in NIMBYism – Not In MY Back Yard, where people do not want changes or developments occurring in the region where they live.  It can be viewed both positively and negatively.  Do you have any strong affection for where you live?
2. Regionalism – This is the consciousness of, and loyalty to, a distinct region with a population that shares similarities.  This can manifest itself in claims for independence from larger bodies such as the nation state.  Great examples of such separatism include the Basque country in North West Spain, Catalonia and the Island of Corsica. An alternative to separatism is devolution, where powers are moved into the regions from a central government, this has happened in the UK.
3. Nationalism – This is loyalty and devotion to a nation.  It can be engineered by governments and media and is often described as patriotism.
4. Globalism – this is where people view themselves as truly global citizens and realise that their actions and lives are governed by forces at a planetary scale.

Localism to globalism

Identity in the UK– How we identify ourselves is interesting.  A YouGov survey from 2018 identified that the older people are the more likely they are to declare pride in being English.

British Identity Graph
Across nations, an older survey from the BBC revealed the patterns on the maps below.  London was the hotspot for people who identified themselves as just British.  In England, the local authorities in which higher proportions of people simply ticked English as their national identity tend to be on the coasts, particularly on the eastern side of the country. Scottish-only identity is strongest in the central belt. More than 70% of people describe themselves that way in West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire.
British identity mapped
Source 8

Place identity influencing art or art influencing place identity?
A good example of identity and art is the Angel of the North is a famous sculpture which located in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England. It is visible from the A1, the major North-South road access into Tyne and Wear.  Whenever I return to my adopted home town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne from the south I pass the Angel on my way.  At this point, I know I have only 15 minutes to my home, it is a major marker point on my journey and I look forward to seeing the Angel.

The Angel of the North

David Wilson Clarke / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5) at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fly-Angel.jpg

The Angel was completed in 1998 and designed by Anthony Gormley, built on a prominent hill at Low Eighton to the South of Gateshead.  The site is important to the artwork, it is visible from a long distance and overlooks a valley. 
The Angel is a steel sculpture at an imposing 20 metres tall, with wings measuring 54 metres across.5 The wings do not stand straight sideways but are angled 3.5 degrees forward to create "a sense of embrace".6 This is important as the statue is viewed as a welcome to the Newcastle-Gateshead region.
According to Gormley, the significance of an angel was three-fold:
1. to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries;
2. to grasp the transition from an industrial to an information age (this links in with the idea of CHANGING PLACES)
3. to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.5
The transition from industrial to the information age is interesting as Newcastle Gateshead are attempting to forge a new post-industrial future with digital industries and biomedical sciences at the forefront, whilst the Angel is constructed on an old coal mining site representing the past.
Construction work began on the project in 1994 at a cost of £800,000.5 Most of the project funding was provided by the National Lottery. The sculpture was built at Hartlepool Steel Fabrications Ltd using COR-TEN weather-resistant steel.

CONTROVERSY
Many places are controversial, because some of the factors that create them or events that occur within them force differing points of view.  The Angel aroused some controversy in British newspapers, at first, including a "Gateshead stop the statue" campaign, including being referred to as the “Angel of Death”. 7 However, since its construction it has been considered a landmark for North East England and has often been used in film and television to represent Tyneside, as are other local landmarks such as the Tyne Bridge and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
Overall, the Angel attempted to represent the past of this part of the North East of England, and also as it rusts, decays and is replaced by other things, represents the future of the region too.  The identity of the place influenced the art.  However, the statue now represents part of the region, so art is influencing place identity!  You could consider this in the diagram below;

Place and society cycle

NEXT TOPIC - Place Theories

SOURCES
1 - Seamon, David & Sowers, Jacob. (2008). Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph. 10.4135/9781446213742.n5. accessed at https://www.academia.edu/10820364/PLACE_AND_PLACELESSNESS_1976_Edward_Relph_2008_
2 - Allan Pred (1984) Place as Historically Contingent Process: Structuration and the Time- Geography of Becoming Places, Annals of the Association of American Geographers,Vol. 74, No. 2 (Jun., 1984), pp. 279-297
3 - Yi-fu Tuan (1974) Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Colombia University Press. Accessed on 25th April 2020 at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=u783BAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

4 - Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, E. Arnold, 1977.  Accessed 25 April 2020 at https://www.academia.edu/19846369/Yi_Fu_Tuan_Space_and_Place

5 – Gateshead Council (2011), The History of the Angel of the North, accessed 26th April 2020 at https://www.gateshead.gov.uk/article/5303/The-history-of-the-Angel-of-the-North

6- James Woodward (2013), The Angel of the North, accessed on the 26th April 2020 at http://thebigartexchange.com/blog/2013/7/7/the-angel-of-the-north

7 – Andy Beckett (1996), The Angel with a Dirty Face, The Independent Newspaper.  Accessed 26th April 2020 at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-angel-with-a-dirty-face-1330855.html
8 - Mark Easton (2013), How British is British? BBC NEWS  - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24302914  
9 – YouGov (2018), Young people are less proud of being English than their elders accessed at  https://yougov.co.uk/news/2018/06/18/young-people-are-less-proud-being-english-their-el/

 

POSTED 22nd May 2020 by Rob Gamesby

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