Thinking about place

There is a mountain of literature on the nature or definitions of space, place and locale. In this course we are particularly interested in place and local action. This is one of the premises for DESIS – the shift between macro and micro – or in our case – national, state, city, neighbourhood.

Tim Creswell (2004) in this book Place an Introduction claims that ‘Place is everywhere. This makes it different from other terms in geography like ‘territory’, which announces itself as a specialized term, or ‘landscape’ which is not a word that permeates throughout our everyday encounters’ (p.2). So if place is everywhere, and as Edward Casey (1998) argues, we are never not in place, how can we design with place in mind? Can it ever be absent? Can we treat it as just a given in a design project? Or do we need to give it full recognition as one of the variables in a design process that we cannot avoid. If this is the case, and place is everywhere, but all places are specific – we cannot take a position that place’s everywhereness means that place is always the same.

In thinking about this Tim Creswell (2004, p. 7) reflects on John Agnew’s (1987) three fundamental aspects of place as understood as a ‘meaningful location’. These three aspects are:

  1. Location – this means that all places exist in a geospatial coordinate – Pittsburgh is here, London is over there. This is the most common use of place in everyday location.
  2. Locale – this is the material setting for social relations – ‘the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individual’ (p.7). This could be a room, a street, a community – it could be real or imaginary and it has some relationship to our capacity to consume meaning.
  3. A sense of place – is the ‘subjective and emotional attachment people have to place’ (p.7) . An easy way to think of this, is in relation to our construction of ideas of home – our place, my place.

In the Lure of the Local Lucy Lippard (1997) explores this idea of affective attachment to particular places or locales and how this then influences our connections, memories and practices whilst there.

In contrast to all this, Marc Auge (1995) argues for the phenomenon of ‘non-places’. These are the locations that we spend time through, pass by or pass through that have no connection to. For example – an airport, the medium strip on a highway or the path between the carpark and the studio. Of course each of these are places, in the sense that they do exist in space, but they personal connection. It is for this reason that we see many place making projects being undertaken by a range of design, planning and communication specialists, who are charged with the challenge of transforming a non-place into a real place – or at least a locale that has some meaning for those that perform there. We see this in shopping malls, airports or public land in our communities that has yet to have use.


If one of the premises of design for social innovation is that it is something that happens locally, and is for the people who live in such locales – how can we embrace the various practices that make a place, a place? Could we assume that in locales where there is disconnection from social wellbeing that the phenomenon of non-place is occurring? That the transformation to a place would be linked to the transformation of individuals into a community who is committed to shared well being? Is this to big an ambition? Would/could/do small steps count?

This is the premise of place-based social design. Where designers embraces the affordances of place realisation, to enable people to transform a location into a locale with meaning. I would argue that you cannot design a place. You can design the material properties and contexts for a location and a locale, but like experience – you can not design it. You can only design for the possibility of place, or experience, to occur. It is the people who reside or inhabit the space, that make it place. Just as it is the person who engages with a designed entity that can have the experience.