by W. Arthur Mehrhoff
A few years ago I drove by our former house in St. Cloud, Minnesota while I was in the area speaking at the Minnesota Rural Summit conference on the importance of placemaking in rural community development. I recalled how my wife Sheryl and I had hunted for real estate nearly twenty five years ago when we first moved to central Minnesota, all the memories (both good and bad) we accumulated during our tenure, and the unique residential landscape we had created in this often hostile climate. But the house and landscape no longer looked like they were being cared for very well, and I felt a strong twinge of sadness as I returned home to Columbia, Missouri. As my grandmother might have said, the place just didn’t look the same.
We often talk about a sense of place, but what do we really mean by this? It’s what social scientists might call a primary term, a fundamental building block of the theory and practice of place-making. But as my memories (from real estate to home and back again to real estate) and current feelings about our former Minnesota place indicate, sense of place doesn’t always lend itself to scientific analysis and measurement. We need some additional tools and approaches if we want to truly understand and create meaningful places to enhance Missouri life.
While we certainly don’t want to return to “the good old days” in which people spent their entire lives dwelling in their ancestral village under the watchful eye of close relatives and neighbors (often one and the same people), most of us today will honestly admit to some dis-ease about the rapid, widespread disappearance of familiar hometown landscapes and landmarks. Extensive clinical evidence even indicates that when individuals lose too many meaningful environmental markers, they lose touch with reality. Dr. Abraham Maslow’s sensory deprivation experiments at Brandeis University indicated that normal human personality functioning depends upon awareness of a background of sensory items that provide some orientation. It appears that our elders were right: we do need to know our place.
Cultural geographer Edward Relph’s famous book Place and Placelessness (1976) is Ground Zero for understanding the concept of place. For Relph, the essence of a sense of place is its ability to give strong spatial focus to our typically vague and ill-defined human intentions, experience, and behavior. Like psychologist Abraham Maslow, Relph argued that a strong sense of place is necessary for individuals and society to function at their best. He also introduced the key principle of insider vs. outsider to the concept of place, such as the different perceptions of place like we had to our house in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, and also explained how that difference affected human understanding of and behavior toward the concept of place. Equally important, Relph helped place-makers understand how they could achieve a degree of being a community insider through careful observation, conversation and participation.
So if you are interested in The Art of Placemaking, this blog is the place for you.
For contact information http://maa.missouri.edu/people/mehrhoff/.