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|This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (October 2009)|
The term sense of place has been defined and used in many different ways by many different people. To some, it is a characteristic that some geographic places have and some do not, while to others it is a feeling or perception held by people (not by the place itself). It is often used in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging. Others, such as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, have pointed to senses of place that are not inherently "positive," such as fear. Some students and educators engage in "place-based education" in order to improve their "sense(s) of place," as well as to use various aspects of place as educational tools in general. The term is used in urban and rural studies in relation to place-making and place-attachment of communities to their environment or homeland.
To understand sense of place, the geographic concept of space needs first to be defined. Geographic space is the space that encircle the planet or in orbit ones body, through which biological life moves. It is differentiated from "outer space" and "inner space" (inside the mind). One definition of place, proposed by Tuan, is that a place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. Any time a location is identified or given a name, it is separated from the undefined space that surrounds it. Some places, however, have been given stronger meanings, names or definitions by society than others. These are the places that are said to have a strong "Sense of Place."
Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or animals. Places said to have a strong "sense of place" have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual's perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place. The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the place being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music, and more recently, through modes of codification aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing places felt to be of value (such as the "World Heritage Site" designations used around the world, the British "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" controls and the American "National Historic Landmark" designation).
Places that lack a "sense of place" are sometimes referred to as "placeless" or "inauthentic." Placeless landscapes are those that have no special relationship to the places in which they are located—they could be anywhere. Roadside strip shopping malls, gas/petrol stations and convenience stores, fast food chains, and chain department stores are often cited as examples of placeless landscape elements. Even some historic sites or districts that have been heavily commercialized (commodious) for tourism and new housing estates are sometimes defined as having lost their sense of place. A classic description of such placeless places is Gertrude Stein's "there is no there there".
Understanding how sense of place develops and changes is relevant to understanding how people interact with their environment in general and considering how this interaction may become more sustainable. For these reasons, human geographers and social psychologists have studied how a sense of place develops, including the importance of comparisons between places, learning from elders and observing natural disasters and other events. Of particular note is the importance of childhood experiences. Environmental psychologists have quantified links between exposure to natural environments in childhood and environmental preferences later in life. Learning about surrounding environments during childhood is strongly influenced by the direct experience of playing, as well as through the role of family, culture, and community. The special bond which develops between children and their childhood environments has been called a ‘primal landscape’ by human geographers. This childhood landscape forms part of people’s identity and constitutes a key point of comparison for considering subsequent places later in life. As people move around as adults, they tend to consider new places in relation to this baseline landscape experienced during childhood.Sense of place is used as a model for community based psychosocial support programs