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Place Theories


Places are spaces with meaning. They can change over time and space, and also with how different people view them in different ways. According to Skinner et al there are 3 main approaches to the study of place;

1. The descriptive approach – this is the idea that the world is a set of places and each place can be studied and is distinct1. This would generally involve describing the physical aspects of an area and their characteristics. For Grey’s monument in Newcastle, it is a large 40m tall column of sandstone on top of a base with a statue of Earl Grey at 54.97°N and 1.6°W.

2. The social constructionist approach- this regards place as a product or construct of a particular set of social processes occurring at a particular time. It is social processes that help to create places. A football stadium does not have the same place factors when it is full and when it is empty for example.

Trafalgar Square in London was built to memorialise Lord Horatio Nelson's victory against Napoleon's navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.2 It can therefore be viewed as a place that celebrates empire and colonialism. Grey’s Monument in the centre of Newcastle celebrates Lord Grays creation of the Great Reform Act in 1838 (designed to make voting fairer and get rid of “rotten boroughs” )3

3. The Phenomenological approach- this is different in that it is not interested in the unique characteristics of a place or why it was constructed. Instead it is interested in how an individual person experiences place, recognizing a highly personal relationship between place and person. It comes from phenomenology in psychology and is the psychological study of subjective experiences towards place. This follows on from the idea of Topophilia- a concept developed by Yi-Fu Tuan4 to describe the bond between people and place arguing that it is through human perception and experience that we get to know places.   

In reality, when studying places we consider a mix of these 3 approaches. We often start with a description of where a place is, followed by a consideration of what processes have made that place the way that it is. Finally, we would consider how we and other people feel about the place and our/their connections to it.

Jon Anderson thinks we should consider Places by looking at the “Traces” that exist within them.5 He states that “Traces are marks, residues or remnants left in place by cultural life. Traces are most commonly considered as material in nature (material traces may include “things” such as buildings, signs, statues, graffiti, i.e. discernable marks on physical surroundings), but they can also be non material (non-material traces might include , for example, activities, events, perfromances or emotions). We therefore see visible traces in places but we can also sense them in other ways…


You must also consider the fact that places are regularly changing, both in the minds of people and physically over time. Individual actions and government policies can change places significantly, from gentrifying urban areas to wholesale regeneration that takes place in urban areas (such as the London Docklands Development Corporation) and changes in our rural areas.

Some changes are planned in and deliberate, for example, placemaking. This is the deliberate shaping of an environment to improve a community’s quality of life and facilitate social interaction. It may also involve media branding of that place – such as the creation of heritage and cultural quarters in cities.

Did you know? The statue of Earl Grey which stands on top of the 130-feet column was created by Edward Hodge Baily, who was also responsible for the statue of Admiral Nelson in Trafalgar Square!

Trafalgar Square as a CHANGING PLACE


Consider the following text, how well does Trafalgar Square fit the theories of place (descriptive, social constructivist and phenomenological) and as a changing place?

Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, Central London, and is a space with many place factors. Trafalgar Square in London was built to memorialise Lord Horatio Nelson's victory against Napoleon's navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (when the British navy tasted victory in the Napoleonic Wars with France and Spain off the coast of Cape Trafalgar, Spain).2 It can therefore be viewed as a place that celebrates empire and colonialism.


Photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Trafalgar Square measures 110mX110m and is a reasonably flat site. Nelson's Column is in the centre of the square, flanked by fountains designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1937 and 1939. 6 The column is guarded by four lion statues. A number of commemorative statues and sculptures occupy the square, but the Fourth Plinth, left empty since 1840, has been host to contemporary art since 1999.

It has held many art works including Antony Gormley’s “One and Other” where 2,400 selected members of the public each spent one hour on the plinth. Surrounding the square are the National Gallery on the north side and St Martin-in-the-Fields Church to the east.

To the south west is The Mall leading towards Buckingham Palace via Admiralty Arch, while Whitehall is to the south and the Strand to the east.

The square has been used for community gatherings and political demonstrations, including Bloody Sunday, the first Aldermaston March in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, anti-war protests, and campaigns against climate change.


Demonstration in Trafalgar Square by Andy F CC by (

The Square is controversial. Nelson’s column is designed to show off British military power and empire. The statue of sir Henry Havelock is also controversial. Havelock was a British General most associated with Britain’s colonialization of India. He was leader there during the siege of Kanpur as part of the wider Indian Mutiny of 1857. 240 British men and 375 British women and children were brutally murdered and dismembered by Indian mutineers. In retribution, almost all Indian inhabitants of Kanpur, innocent and guilty, were tortured and killed under Sir Henry Havelock’s leadership.

NEXT TOPIC - Insider and outsider perspectives on place


1 – Skinner et al (2016) AQA A level geography. Hodder Education. P338

2 – Apeksha Panchal (2007) why was Trafalgar Square built? The Times of India accessed 26th April 2020 at

3 – The National archives (date not provided), The Great Reform Act. Accessed 26th April 2020 at

4 - Yi-fu Tuan (1974) Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Colombia University Press. Accessed on 25th April 2020 at

5 – John Anderson (2010), Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces. Routledge Press. P5.

6 - Barker, Michael (2005). Sir Edwin Lutyens. Osprey Publishing.



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