Unpacking the Concept of Place

Place is a theoretically loaded term. Theoretical perspectives on place and place making cut across disciplines of urban planning, urban design and urban sociology bringing together various strands of scholarly thinking. In this blog I discuss urban theorists who have reflected on the many meanings of the concept.

Urban Scholars on Place

Place is often understood as “a small urban space that is cherished by the people who inhabit it” (Friedmann 2009: 5). Scholars like Lefebvre (1996), Friedmann (2010), and Cresswell (2004) have operationalized the concept of place which otherwise is difficult to understand given the everyday and myriad usage of the word. These scholars have identified the essential criteria that define places and distinguish them from non-places. For instance, places are typically small scale, characterized by daily interactions, mostly dense interactions, and “reiterative social practices” (Cresswell, 2004), intimate, carry a sense of belonging and attachment, in short a place may be geographically bounded territory but has a strong connection with human sentiments, in other words shared meanings and values attached by the people who live and belong there.

Examples of Place

Sites like neighborhoods, lanes and localities — the smallest social spheres of the city — qualify as places strictly going by this definition. Places such as neighbourhoods are often celebrated, seen as providing cosmopolitan diversity and opportunities for marginalized populations to assert their agency in city making (Sassen, 2016:1). The significant psychological links between people and the places they inhabit and experience based on which people mentally abstract information from the material world have been discussed in a wide range of scholarly work like that of urban theorists (Lynch, 1960; Appleyard, 1973; William Whyte, 1980,1988) and environmental and social psychologists (Canter,1977; Holahan, 1982; Golledge, 1987).

Neo liberal Urbanization and impacts on Place

Scholars have also examined how current processes of neoliberal urbanization have serious implications on places that are often fabricated and converted into themed landscapes or spectacles of consumption (Soja, 1992; Sorkin, 1992).Friedman (2010) laments that the urbanization processes in the cities of Asia in recent times are characterized by“the branding of cities and the advanced infrastructure required by global capital” (ibid: 149). In the context of cities in India the loss of place is connected to the larger economic and political regime that India embarked on in 1991 characterized by economic liberalization and new modes of governance. Empirically the loss of place because of new mega urban developments and the consequent search for new processes of place making play out in myriad ways in different geographical contexts. Some of these place-making processes in the context of cities like Kolkata and Gurgaon in India have been discussed in recent scholarly work (Goldstein, 2015; Srivastava, 2014).

Sociological Understanding of Place

As an urban sociologist, my understanding of place lays more emphasis on the idea of place understood as having a sense of attachment, belonging, identity and pride among a group of people who may or may not be living there at present. Place as sense of place is often understood as identification with place in natural or constructed settings (Tuan, 1977; Bosselman, 2008); or as Gieryn (2000: 467) describes place saturates social life and through which social life happens. The virtual world enabled by the widespread usage of the Internet and mobile phones has made such connections easier and also helped in reimagining of the idea of place. This perspective on place, also known as the non-place framework, could actually be located much before the Internet hit our everyday lives. Urban theorist Melvin Webber in two influential works “The Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm” (1964) and “Order in Diversity: Community Without Propinquity” (1963) suggested that new channels of communication would render territorial place less important to maintain social communities. Social communities would be based more on accessibility through new means of communication which we now encounter as the Internet and satellite communication rather than physical propinquity. For later scholars like Amin and Thrift (2002), the presence of new technology like the Internet and the cell phone has actually made the idea of place a thing of the past.

Place in the age of Virtual Realities

People are more connected with each other on Twitter and Facebook, in terms of sharing ideas, ideologies and aspirations living in far off places, than ever before which he refers to as the “distantiated world,” with “flows of people, images, information and money moving within and across national borders” (Amin and Thrift, 2002:51).In a more recent study on mobile food trucks in an American city, Wessel (2012) examines the complexity of customers, vendors, food, urban space, mobility, time and electronic communication as having the potential to reshape urban social processes. In such a scenario, “how important is the idea of place”? Place, not only as geographical habitat but as a repository of culture providing a sense of identity, pride, attachment, having shared meanings and memories, among the people who perhaps once lived in a common geographical territory, or were born there or continue to live there and would like to uphold the particularities of that place in the face of rapid homogenization that the place is currently subjected to.

(for more read my book Culture, Place, Branding and Activism)

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Author & Academic. Essentially a thinker figuring out how to give direction & shape through written word. PhD. in Sociology & M.Phil. in Planning & Development.