Power Of Place Research Paper

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The ‘power of place’ refers to the spatial form of landscapes, towns, and buildings as an important aspect of social and political life. The phrase is used in various contexts: analyzing social life in existing places, advocating the preservation of historic places, and formulating goals for the design of new places. As a phrase, ‘power of place’ combines the meanings of location, locale, and ‘sense of place’ (Agnew and Duncan 1989). It involves an approach to aesthetics drawn from work dealing with ‘local distinctiveness’ (Clifford and King 1990) in architecture, landscape architecture, cultural geography, and environmental psychology, with an approach to politics drawn from work on space in the social sciences (Hayden 1995). Its practical applications in urban planning include preservation and urban design.



1. Definitions Of Place And Power

‘Place’ is one of the trickiest words in the English language. It carries the resonance of homestead, location, and open space in the city as well as a position in a social hierarchy. The authors of books on architecture, photography, cultural geography, poetry, and travel rely on ‘sense of place’ as an aesthetic concept but often settle for ‘town character,’ ‘local distinctiveness,’ or ‘the personality of a location’ as a way of defining it. In the nineteenth century and earlier, place also carried a sense of the right of a person to own a piece of land or to be a part of a social world, and in this older sense, place carries more political history with it. Phrases like ‘knowing one’s place’ or ‘a woman’s place’ still carry some territorial meanings and imply political power relationships.

1.1 Place And Social Life

People experience places in ways that are critical to their well-being or distress. An individual’s sense of place is both a biological response to the surrounding physical environment and a cultural creation. From childhood, humans come to know places through engaging all five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Research on perception shows the simultaneous engagement of several senses in orientation and wayfinding. Children show an interest in landmarks at three or earlier, and by age five or six can read aerial maps with great accuracy and confidence, as an example of the human ability to perceive and remember places (Tuan 1977).

As social relationships are intertwined with spatial perception, the subject of human attachments to places, as well as the ability to conceptualize places, is a fascinating one that defies simplistic research models in any field. Environmental psychologists define ‘place attachment’ as having social, material, and ideological dimensions (Altman and Low 1992). Some sociological studies of urban renewal, especially those which study the process of mourning for a lost neighborhood, have utilized attachment theory as well (Marris 1986). Many sociologists speak of ‘locale’ as part of fieldwork; anthropologists deal with the design of settlements and living space as part of the material culture of any group. Studies in the cognitive mapping of places often reveal the social dimensions of knowledge of the city. If place does provide an overload of possible meanings and methods of inquiry for the researcher, philosophers have argued that place’s very same assault on all ways of knowing (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) make it powerful as a way of structuring social attachments and as a container of memory. Thus the concept of lieux de memoire (sites of memory, or places of memory) popularized by Pierre Nora in France, and expanded as processes of remembrance (Hayden 1998).

1.2 Place As Cultural Landscape

Cultural landscape studies, as geographer Carl Sauer and the ‘Berkeley School’ developed them from the 1940s on, focused on the evolution of places and included the ‘combination of natural and man-made elements that comprises, at any given time, the essential character of a place.’ Cultural landscape studies emphasized the connection of natural environments and built interventions. Yet cultural landscape methods for studying places, and people’s shaping of them, tended to stress the physical and not the political dimensions of places, leaning to the study of rural, pre-industrial landscapes, vernacular house types, and patterns of cultivation, considering ecology but avoiding issues of political contestation. Among the noted essayists of this type was John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1997).

1.3 Places And Power Struggles

As the landscape is more densely inhabited, economic and social forces affecting it are more complex, change is rapid, layers proliferate, and often abrupt spatial discontinuities result. The shaping of urban places involves gaining political access to territory as well as owning, planning, designing, constructing, using, and demolishing various kinds of built space. One can’t simply turn to work on location in economic geography (or any other kind of quantitative analysis) because there the human experience of place is an essential topic that is often lost. Rather, the cultural landscape model has been more firmly connected to urban sociology, anthropology, and political science, retaining the physical analysis necessary to convey the shape of urban places, while adding more focused analysis of social and economic contestation (Duncan and Ley 1993, Groth and Bressi 1997). Historians are also claiming this subject matter: ‘The story of how different peoples have lived and used the natural world will become one of the most basic and fundamental narratives in all of history, without which no understanding of the past could be complete’ (Cronon 1992).

It has often proved easier to study either the natural or the built components of an urban cultural landscape than to wrestle with the combination of the two, fusing analyses of place and power. For many environmental historians, the deployment of land and natural resources has been a central preoccupation. Urban historians have focused more on power struggles; architectural historians on styles and patterns of building. The phrase, ‘power of place,’ suggests that all three areas are intertwined in some of the spatial struggles of urban development. The aesthetic qualities of architecture or of the built environment cannot be divorced from those of the natural environment without strange dislocations of experience: expensive houses swathed in smog; skyscrapers built on unstable soils, freeways blocking river fronts.

1.4 Avoidance Of ‘Place’

In the last decades of the twentieth century, social scientists frequently avoided ‘place’ as a concept, and thus sidetracked the sensory, aesthetic, and environmental components of the urbanized world, in favor of more quantifiable research with fewer epistemological problems (Agnew and Duncan 1989). Melvin Webber used ‘non-place urban realm’ to refer to the decline of face-to-face activities and the rise of telephone and television. Some analysts have extended this by arguing for the importance of an increasingly ‘placeless world’ (Relph 1976) or ‘non-places’ (Auge 1995) dominated by ‘organization space’ (Easterling 1999). Others prefer to retain the concept of place, and critique unpleasant, unlivable places (Hayden 1995). A paved-over neighborhood, restructured as freeway lanes, parking lots, and mall, should still be considered a place, if only to explain why the new space lacks the pedestrian scale, lively texture and local meanings of the older place.

2. Connections Between Place And Space

Sociologists’ analyses of the ‘production of space’ provide a framework that can be used to relate the ‘power of place’ to the political economy. Lefebvre (1991) argues that every society in history has shaped a distinctive social space that meets its intertwined requirements for economic production and social reproduction. In terms of production, this would be close to cultural geography in identifying spaces or landscapes shaped for mining, manufacturing, commerce, or real estate speculation. Most original is his analysis of the space of social reproduction, which ranges over different scales, including the space in and around the body (biological reproduction), the space of housing (the reproduction of the labor force), and the public space of the city (the reproduction of social relations). Here he links the physical to the social in decisive ways. Cultural critics praised Lefebvre: he ‘called for a new kind of spatial imagination capable of confronting the past in a new way and reading its less tangible secrets off the template of its spatial structures—body, cosmos, city’ (Jameson 1991). His analysis also fueled the ‘non-place’ debate: a quality of late capitalist space is the creation of many identical units—similar but not ‘placeless’ places—by the large commercial real estate market which has become, in itself, a distinguishing feature of the global economy.

The cultural costs in terms of identity, history, and meaning have also been weighed, and here the phrase ‘power of place’ is used again. In a world increasingly given over to global corporations and their large, box-like buildings unrelated to local landscapes, the importance of local places as icons of resistance increases. Place-based social movements may resist demolition, preserve historic places, or demand place-sensitive urban design and architecture.

3. Place-Based Social Movements

One of the consistent ways to limit the economic and political rights of groups has been to constrain social life through limiting access to places. The interplay between the social and the spatial is constant. The women’s rights movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a struggle against spatial segregation based on gender. Women were not allowed to walk freely in public, obtain education, or vote. So too, the civil rights movement of the 1960s emphasized overcoming spatial segregation. Jim Crow laws restricted the African American community: streets, neighborhoods, schools, colleges, hotels, stores, fire stations, swimming pools, and cemeteries were all segregated. To understand the intersecting struggles of race, class, and gender, the spatial dimensions of traditional ‘woman’s sphere’ would have to be studied in combination with the spatial limits imposed by race or class. In the twentieth century, urban renewal often attempted to target poor neighborhoods and those inhabited by people of color. Resistance to demolition was a place-based campaign.

3.1 The Power Of Place, Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, The Power of Place, a non-profit corporation, was founded by urban historian and architect Dolores Hayden. Operating from 1984–91, it documented and interpreted the political dimensions of place as historical experience, with a special concern for gender, class, and ethnicity. One premise of this project was that architects, planners, and artists, as well as specialists in preservation, have an important role to play in making the entire city more comprehensible, and its history more visible, in the minds of citizens. The group traced an itinerary of work places in downtown connected to the growth of the city: citrus farms, flower farms, oil wells, garment factories, and other economic activities between 1780 and 1940. On this itinerary, buildings were preserved and interpreted, and new public art and open space designs were created (Hayden 1995). Similar projects were organized in London by a group called Common Ground (Clifford and King 1990) and continue to be developed in many other American cities.

3.2 Civil Rights Museums

It is possible to identify historic urban places which have special significance to certain populations fighting spatial segregation of different kinds: a church where major civil rights meetings were held; a local newspaper that crusaded for fair housing; the first place in a city where women tried to vote; the first place where new immigrants were allowed to own land; the first integrated primary school. The Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, New York is one such museum. There are also sites of assassinations, lynchings, massacres, and riots. The motel where Martin Luther King was shot, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, is now a national civil rights museum, but every city and town has similar landmarks where territorial struggles have been waged.

3.3 The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Another kind of museum to exploit the power of place is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Ordinary dwellings contain the physical evidence necessary to analyze the material conditions of ordinary workers’ lives in earlier times. Standing inside a tenement apartment—perhaps four hundred square feet of living space for an entire family, minimal plumbing, only one or two exterior windows—leaves a visitor gasping for air and looking for light. The claustrophobic experiences of immigrants living for decades in crowded, unhealthy space are conveyed by the building in a way that a text or a chart can never match. Because a tenement was typical of hundreds of thousands of tenements all over the city, its implications for the historic urban landscape are broad. One building tells the bitter story of thousands of developers and millions of tenants. When this museum was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the late 1990s, it signaled new prestige for social history museums everywhere.

3.4 Parades And The Power Of Place

Festivals and parades also help to define the power of place by staking out routes in the urban cultural landscape. They intermix vernacular arts traditions (in their costumes, floats, music, dance, and performance) with spatial history (sites where parades begin, march, and end). African American jazz funerals marching through the streets of New Orleans, Chinese New Year parades, saint’s day processions in Irish American or Italian American Catholic communities, and graveyard ceremonies for the Day of the Dead in Mexican American communities are just a few examples. Political parades have been representing communities and their causes for a long time, from workers with the tools of their trades to suffragettes. Since the 1960s, civil rights marches in Southern cities, women’s marches to ‘Take Back the Night,’ and Gay and Lesbian Pride Parades in major cities have also been part of campaigns to achieve greater political representation.

4. The Power Of Place—Applications In Urban Design

Some recent books proclaim the imminent end of urban public places. Advances in computer technology have affected many parts of daily life and often dispersed neighborhood activities. ‘Disneyfication’ fills theme parks and casinos with entertainments built to resemble older towns. Shopping malls take up historicist built forms as well. The global migration of capital, and the resultant production of ‘organization space’ emphasizes freeway interchanges or airports as locational determinants, eroding the importance of older central cities. Virtual reality promises to simulate more and more spatial experiences.

Nevertheless, human beings still situate their lives and work in material spaces of different scales. There are many signs that places are more important, and more contested, than ever. Numerous older cities and towns have been protected by a growing movement for historic preservation. New town design is frequently done in accordance with the architectural movement promoting pedestrian scale and known as the ‘New Urbanism.’ Similarly, planners involved with campaigns for ‘smart growth’ have been heartened to hear that most Americans ranked urban and suburban sprawl (‘placelessness’) as an important political issue in 2000.

Studies exploring the ‘power of place’ are rapidly increasing in academic research, although the authors are scattered in half a dozen fields—history, geography, architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, art history, anthropology, sociology, and others. In the 1980s, ‘place’ was not quantitative enough for the mainstream of social science, or narrowly aesthetic enough for the mainstream of art history and design. At the start of the twenty-first century, scholarly work on the broad cultural and political importance of places is part of many interdisciplinary programs such as cultural studies or American studies, as well as all of the separate disciplines. Work on the ‘power of place’ also has much to offer citizens and local public officials. Scholars and practitioners take discussion of ‘the power of place’ and other public arts to public forums in cities and towns (Imagining America 2000). Understanding the creation of places as a social and political process can lead to new projects to extend public meaning in the urban cultural landscape.


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  2. Altman I, Low S (eds.) 1992 Place Attachment. Plenum Publishing, New York
  3. Auge M 1995 Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Verso, London
  4. Conzen M (ed.) 1990 The Making of the American Landscape. Unwin Hyman, Boston, MA
  5. Clifford S, King A 1990 Local Distinctiveness. Common Ground, London
  6. Cronon W 1992 A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. Journal of American History 78: 1347–76
  7. Duncan J, Ley D (eds.) 1993 Place Culture Representation. Routledge, London
  8. Easterling K 1999 Organization Space. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  9. Groth P, Bressi T (eds.) 1997 Understanding Ordinary Landscapes. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  10. Hayden D 1995 The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  11. Hayden D 1998 Landscapes of loss and remembrance: The case of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. In: Winter J, Sivan E (eds.) War and Remembrance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  12. Hayden D, Dubrow G, Flynn C 1984 The Power of Place: Los Angeles. The Power of Place, Los Angeles
  13. Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life 2000 http://www.ia.umich.edu/
  14. Jackson J B 1997 Landscape in Sight: Looking at America. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  15. Jameson F 1991 Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, Durham, NC
  16. Lefebvre H 1991 The Production of Space. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  17. Marris P H 1986 Loss and Change. 2nd edn. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
  18. Relph E 1976 Place and Placelessness. Pion, London
  19. Tuan Y-F 1977 Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN


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