GEOG 597i
Critical Geospatial Thinking and Applications

The Personality of Places and a Sense of Place

Places, like human beings, have unique attributes and characteristics that give them identifiable personalities. Moreover, like people, places age and change over time. For example, cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Tucson are now very different than they were in the 19th century. Therefore, places are constantly changing in response to a multiplicity of environmental and human influences. Because places are in a constant state of change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse, they greatly influence the lives of those who live in or near them.

Places are the settings in which people experience life, develop relationships, and form their own unique identities. Human personalities do not form in a vacuum. Instead, they are a product of biology, family structure and orientation, and the nature of the places in which individuals live.

In addition to the concrete space in which a place is situated, there are also places that are products of human hearts and minds. In fact, it is common to hear elderly people describe the places where they lived, loved, and worked many years ago, even though these places (as they once were) are no longer part of the modern landscape. Nevertheless, they continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those who once knew them well.

People are often emotionally tied to specific places. Consider the emotional attachment of most Americans to the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, or the powerful emotional and cultural symbolism associated with the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Places do not usually elicit the same reactions from everyone who visits or studies them. Whereas some people think of bucolic settings as ideal, others see them as primitive and uncivilized. Conversely, many see great beauty in skylines of great cities, while others consider them to be blights on the landscape. The places that we love, are not always loved, or even admired, by others.

Places are often involved in conflict, resistance, and change. In some places, people are resilient and open to change, while in others, people are tradition-bound, and resist even the mildest cultural, social, economic or political changes. Moreover, such resistance sometime results in conflict, violence, and even war.

Although places are unique expressions of human occupancy in time and space, most are also interdependent.  This is because each individual place tends to fill a specialized role relative to the greater region in which it exists. Some places primarily focus on primary sector activities including agriculture, mining, logging, and commercial fishing, while others serve as centers of commerce, processing, government, and/or manufacturing. All of these places must regularly interact with each other to survive. To fully understand the character of a given place, geographers must be able to identify these interdependencies while at the same time keeping in mind the distinctive qualities that give specific places their unique personalities (Knox and Marston, 2008: pp. 2-7).

Check Your Understanding

One-Minute Essay

What do geographers mean when they talk about a sense of place?

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ANSWER: Places are unique expressions of human occupancy in time and space, and most are also interdependent. This is because individual places tend to fill specialized roles relative to a greater region. All places must regularly interact with other places in order to survive. To understand the nature of a place, one must be able to identify their independent reasons for being, while at the same time keeping in mind the distinctive qualities that give each place a unique spatial signature or personality.