Place and Meaning: A Critical Discussion

Essential Questions

  1. Who is a dweller?
  2. What is PLACE, as opposed to SPACE?
  3. Where Is PLACE?
  4. How do we recognize, or facilitate PLACE?
  5. Why is the concept of PLACE important?
  6. What is PLACE making?

1. Who is a dweller?

A dweller knows, feels and remembers a place intimately. Dwellers are people who inhabit an area regularly (residents, workers, visitors).

2. What is place?

Place could be defined as space, and its physical components, imbued with the meanings and experiences of people. Place is space + meaning (for dwellers).

Places form the centres of meaning in our spaces/landscapes/environments.

Places are thus focuses of intention.

People create places for themselves. They do so through both physical and mental experience: we ‘sense’ the place, giving an environment meaning through our physical and mental involvement with it.

The essence of PLACE is inter subjective: strong, communal places are ‘sensed’ in similar ways by the ‘insiders’ or ‘dwellers’ of that culture.

PLACE is thus the shared cultural and natural values and spaces of a group of dwellers.

The essential QUALITY of PLACE is sensed by the following interactive components:

a. The space/s (location)
b. The character of elements within the space/s
c. Time
d. An individual’s experience/involvement
e. A communal experience

Thus a means to identify or facilitate SENSE of PLACE must touch all of these.

AUTHENTIC PLACES are those which are full of local and cultural meaning. Thus, an evaluation of PLACE cannot be true unless it consults the ‘insiders’ or the ‘dwellers’ of the PLACE.

A space without activity, and the intentions of people, will not have strong or positive PLACE qualities.

Weak sense of PLACE (Placelessness?) occurs when there is little or no AUTHENTIC meaning in a space, or when it is unfitting for the positive experience of people.

3. Where is place?

Places, especially public ones, can never be objectively touched: they are both objective and subjective (for example, a singular concrete/physical location but subjectively experienced).

We can really only get a SENSE of THE PLACE: since its’ identity changes according to the meaning and experiences which people ascribe to it.

4. How do we recognise, or facilitate place?

The depth of sensing a PLACE varies: an ‘insider’ (street vendor, shop owner) has more ways of authentically ‘sensing’ the meanings of a place – even unconsciously – through time association, ritual use, relation to and knowledge of other ‘insiders’ and through a general multi-faceted experience of the place.

Such people can, through instinct, and based on practical experience, ‘feel and sense’ the cultural meaning of a place – whether good or bad.

The ‘outsider’ (urban designer, tourist), has less chance of understanding the true cultural meaning of a place. This is due to practical reasons: less time, less local understanding, fewer ways of having experienced and used the place.

The prudent outsider however, through specific experience and learned focus, may sometimes see things with a clearer context than the insider (for example: ‘the number of verandas on buildings in this place is higher than in other areas’: does this contribute to this place’s quality of liveability?) The outsiders should be wary of projecting their values, class and education on the interpretation of a place and its meaning.

5. Why bother with sense of place?

Without the intention of PLACE, our environment is a realm of spaces, not necessarily connected to the desires and experiences of people.

Urban design which does not aim to consciously facilitate the creation of PLACES – by their users is an empty set of techniques and processes.

The danger of urban design is that one could try to make places on behalf of people: this is an impossibility, if place meaning lies in the experiences of people.

The profound attachment to places which people develop (whether a bedroom, a favourite cafe, or the neighbourhood) requires time and development.

‘Instant’ places always seem to be close to Disneyland.

Thus Urban Design must facilitate long-term use and experience, and out of this, people may be able to structure their lives in a meaningful way.

6. What is place making?

Placemaking is a philosophy and a process to facilitate and create place.

Placemaking is a collaborative craft which co-creates spaces that are meaningful.


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