The Importance of Place
The creation of ‘placeness’ is an integral element of built environment design processes when attempting to re-negotiate the character of sites. Places are perceived to include psychological, social and human activities rooted within a physical setting, or put another way, placeness is the collection of symbolic meanings and the collective or individual attachment with a spatial setting. We attribute meaning to landscapes and consequently become attached to the meanings. Establishing ‘placeness’ is integral to the process of achieving genuine sustainable communities; it is the foundation on which the components essential for functioning communities can be set. Without an emotional connection there is no sense of ownership. As a consequence, people will feel disinclined to look after property and the parcels of land between buildings and structures. It is therefore necessary that the marriage of sustainable principles and the notion of place are harmonious.
To begin to make sense of the critical nature of place it’s useful to consider Martin Heidegger’s perspective on the subject of dwelling. As the only philosopher to make specific references to architecture, Heidegger’s take on the ‘meaning’ of place have influenced the ‘understanding’ of built environment professions and design pedagogy in general. Heidegger is a controversial figure (material for future article) and for some this invalidates his work. However, many of his insights in his seminal work ‘Building, dwelling, thinking’ when relating to place also have an identifiable and contemporary resonant connections with many of the issues attached to environmental urbanism. Arguably, Heidegger’s reference to a bridge in formulating his proposition is the most useful and recognisable theme relating to place and landscape. “The bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape lying behind them. It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighbourhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.” (Heidegger, 1971).
Emotional responses to the urban landscape are complex, but in order to create a broader dialogue and connect with urban dwellers the places we inhabit need to connect visually and emotionally.
This refers to the role of a bridge as a piece of human construction in the transformation of space into place. The place of the bridge’s construction is now understood differently because of its being. It is also necessary for the materials used in the construction of the bridge to be local as Heidegger challenged the perception of the earth as a commodity. To Heidegger the ability to dwell is dependent on the individual’s need to build or make, this could be in the form of a ritual as banal as setting out the dinner table. Topographic connections between the earth and materials such as clay, wood, steel and sand (materials from the earth) are intrinsic to his notions of dwelling and place. Materials are the tangible substances of place. Space is rearranged into place by the activity of building. The bridge spanning Heidegger’s stream is a material construct: without materiality place within the context of the urban landscape does not materialise.
The Norwegian architect and educator Christian Norberg-Schulz, drew and expanded on Heidegger’s reasoning and other works such as Husserl’s ‘The idea of phenomenology’. He argued in his conceptualisation of ‘placeness’, that people can find meaning in the physical elements of spaces and places. Norberg-Schulz reasons that the dogmatic and mixed messages of modernism, combined with its universalising nature, are incompatible with creating a unique physical character and the essence of place. Broadly, he proposes that designers and architects should ‘concretise’ the physical characteristics of place by identifying and contextualising notions such as materiality, texture and sensory experience in the design process and are are considered as fundamental to creating the character of place. By re-examining the four elements of dwelling in correlation within a structural template of typology, topology and morphology, Norberg-Schulz attempts to organize a structure of ‘being’. This framework for ‘being’ is maintained and visualized in the form of architecture. As such, the typology of a grouping of buildings representing a place will have conventional recognisable motifs such as doors, windows and roofs: material constructs. When transposed from one place to another the motifs act to bring character and space together, therefore challenging the perception of recognizable boundaries between places. The link between buildings, neighbourhoods, cities and the landscape become more identifiable, connected by the concretised elements of place.
Materials used for building have traditionally been acquired locally and have consequently created unique regional identities and a sense of place. Utilising local materials is an integral feature of the establishment of the narrative of placeness, but also a benchmark for sustainable practice. The embodied energy (total of all energy required to produce the materials) cost of local materials is lower than imported alternatives, they are more recognisable and, as a result, help to create a sense of connection to the places they are employed. Paradoxically, many buildings can be constructed from materials that are at face value representative of the local region, but supplied from other regions. Effectively, the materiality of place within contemporary developments, has its origins in locations situated hundreds or thousands of miles away. This raises the question of genuine sustainable environmental development and a potential barrier to genuine place based sustainable design practice. It is also argued that this practice in part reflects the homogenising nature of globalisation, and consequently the dilution of place-based objectives. The application of sustainable landscaping materials however, is often limited and constrained owing in part to unenlightened attitudes and cost. The absence of authentic local sustainable products and the importation of cheaper quarried products such as Chinese granite for example, with the associated ethical concerns regarding labour conditions within the quarries.
To construct a comparatively straightforward identifying structure that presents the enigma associated with ‘placeness’ is a formidable objective. Although there have been numerous forums/conferences/seminars established to acknowledge and discuss place as an integral aspect of sustainable public spaces, they tend to draw from familiar conceptual foundations. Typically, from the phenomenological end of the conceptual spectrum. Whilst in our view this is a useful ‘baby step’ in the process of identifying the intangible’s associated with place making, a wider ranging and pragmatic engagement in it’s constitution is a necessary measure. Therefore, we propose that the phenomena of places are presented in a manner that can be related to by local communities, in other words a streamlining of some of the fundamental conceptual foundations. In the spirit of the writings of Norberg-Schulz, the philosophy of phenomenology and a clear rating system, we propose four developmental themes:
Connectedness Public Value Regional Thinking Creativity
How people connect to places is a subconscious occurrence, unknowingly they can contribute to improving mental health or conversely in the case of placelessness, depress the spirit. Identifying markers that create a sense of connectedness is a moot issue as the subjective preferences and experiences of the actor plays a pivotal role in what a place is perceived to mean. Non the less, within the structure of our proposed evaluation system, connectivity will be determined by how individual buildings connect with their immediate surroundings or groups of buildings and public spaces interconnect with wider municipalities. This will be gauged by recognizing entities such as the use of natural forms such as trees, wild flowers, available water-courses and geological features that are indigenous to the area. Design details and motifs that create the sense of connectedness to neighbouring architectural forms and public spaces will be rated highly in the system. If such details and forms are constructed from local materials (non concrete) and reference local topography and landscape this will be rated higher. The use of light and textures that engender and contribute towards creative and stimulating spaces within building clusters, communal spaces and the wider municipality will be similarly highly regarded.
If the ethos of connectivity is thoughtfully applied it is arguably more likely that public spaces will be more uplifting for their inhabitants. However, although there is connectivity between the four themes of ‘placeness’, the successful application of notional connectivity will result in the public value of places, ‘Public Value’ is a more idiosyncratic thematic conception in the ‘placeness’ component. To clarify this point - public spaces that have value are not determined by consumer-oriented activities in the mode of many ‘sustainable’ developments. Developers have quickly understood the limitations on time that people have to spend in public spaces and have subsequently provided benches, areas for performers and food outlets as a way of prompting consumer-oriented leisure activity. Accordingly, public amenities and a highly articulated physical environment are used to support the browsing and buying behaviour of recreational shopping. Whilst it is unrealistic to expect public areas to be vibrant communal areas in the absence of commercial activity, we therefore favour ventures that advance local commercial initiatives.
Creativity is a vital aspect of place making. Creative places are energetic and dynamic zones of culturally galvanising spaces where people, ideas and organizations come face to face. They can potentially nurture entrepreneurship, generate new products and jobs and act as magnets for investment. As cultural industry incubators, creative places make valuable contributions to the national economy. Therefore, our system will value initiatives that evolve from the work of artists, designers and associated stakeholders, where in addition to commercial benefits to communities there is added value in regards to associated aesthetics, cultural resonance and the character of places.
Flourishing places should not be seen as dynamic oases dotted within towns, cities or regions, they should be connected with the wider regions in which they exist. Thinking regionally is the philosophical foundation of our philosophy, the ethereal basis for the notional identity of the urban landscape. The successful realisation of regional thinking will be brought about by connectedness – how the physical entities of urban centres connect to bind urban form with natural forms and the surrounding landscape. Evidence of regional thinking in the context of the ‘system’ will be gauged in terms of assessing the capacity of the ‘arteries’ of place to inspire regional thinking within new developments, both regionally and globally.