Place as a Verb

Perhaps we talk about place, and placemaking, in a backwards sort of way.

As I continue to consider how the places in which we learn shape our capacities as leaders, empowering us to take more control over our lives and the futures of our communities, I have begun to wonder if we talk about place in a backwards sort of way. Rather than talking about place and placemaking as verbs, as I’d argue we should be, it seems more often than not we refer to these things primarily as nouns.

Where we should be talking about place as a combination of the relationships we form, the experiences we create and the meanings developed as a result, I have found that the prevailing dialog often begins and ends with discussions about brick and mortar buildings, attractions and ill-conceived spaces as the epitome of place and the solution to placemaking.

But place and placemaking as terms are so much more complex than the nouns we often use to describe them.

More than simply buildings that house collections of things from our past or ones which offer a stage for ephemeral performances, places are often highly intangible. Trying to define places neatly in terms of what we can touch or see fails to recognize their importance in shaping—and being shaped by—both our culture and societal norms every day.

While spaces that scream “gather here” and corporate communication threads outlining placemaking best practices to improve our communities are often provided as solutions to some very specific problems we face, I would argue that these represent only a small portion of what place actually entails. This is unfortunate, as the conversations we typically have about place mis-inform citizens into thinking that public squares, art galleries and street lined trees are the textbook definition of place.

When we talk about place we need to first concern ourselves with people and consider their diverse cultures. Recognizing the depth of relationships and experiences individuals and groups have with one another, and the meaning they collectively generate as a result, is essential to understand how they identify with the spaces they occupy before breaking ground on the next great public works project and labeling it as a place. Perhaps this is where the root of the problem begins— that place is far too often confused to be the same thing as space, and that the former without any genuine meaning attached to it is simply the later.

As an unfinished though just stating to form, I am curious of how our dialog about space, place, placemaking and us as people has developed over time. Does the way in which we speak about the spaces we occupy, and our creation of place through relationships, experiences and the generation of meaning, influence our abilities to shape and change our sense of place to benefit us, our communities and the broader society?