by Gary Esolen –
To build a better society we have to create better places. So start with the basics…what is a place?
If we are the PLACES consulting people, we ought to be able to say what a place is. But as soon as we begin we commence chasing our own tail. A place is a location (from the Latin for place). It is anarea (from the Latin for an open field). Position comes by several steps from the Latin ponere, to put or place, which derives in turn from posinere, which is connected to the modern word site. Inevitably it all comes back to the experience of being-in-a-place. As Augustine says of time, I know what it is unless I am asked to define it. The first knowledge of place is the experience of place.
It is possible to think of the abstract term, space, as somehow primary, while the more specific place is
seen as derivative. Indeed, in the post-Cartesian world such thinking has become habitual. Abstraction rules, in our mode of thinking. Even the pre-eminent geographer Yi Fu Tuan, noting in the introduction to his book Space and Place that space is the more abstract term (and therefore, in our modern framing, primary), says that “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” So space is pure position, a dot on a grid, a place is the more familiar stuff that fills it up (and comes later).
Place is Primary
But as Tuan himself reminds us in a different context, we all begin as infants, and it is difficult to imagine the newborn baby experiencing its first out-of-the-womb place, hopefully the warm and milky embrace of its loving mother, as an “undifferentiated space” which will somehow be transformed to a place by longer acquaintance. It is the entirely singular and differentiated experience which comes first, and the more abstract concept is derived from it. Indeed, in some cultural communities the abstraction of space from place is incomplete or unimportant. Place is a primary experience, so much so that when something happens we say it took place, that is became real, and when we have difficulty remembering who someone is we say we can’t place that person. To be is to be embedded in place.
Remaining for a moment with our newborn, the place he or she occupies at first is rich in sensory experiences.
We are anchored in Places sensation but not in specifically visual sensation, which will later become a primary tool for the perception of place. Matters of touch—soft, hard, warm, cool, wet, dry—and of taste—sweet, sour, salty, bitter—are matters of survival. In our casual thinking we imagine our senses to be receptors of what the external world sends us (sound waves, the feel of hard or soft surfaces, reflected light), and that is true enough. But it is through interacting with the world around us, the place we find ourselves, that our senses, acting together and in unity with other neural functions, begin to construct an experience of the world, the place, where we are.
Our ability to see or picture the objects in our visual field has to be learned. By reaching for things, moving toward them or away from them or having them move toward or away from us, we construct a perception of dimension. If you fit out an adult with normal eyesight with special glasses that turn the visual field upside down, soon enough the perceiver will adjust and things will again look right side up. The data that correct the visual field come from other senses. Remove the glasses, things will look upside down again, but only for a little while. Our senses perceive information that comes to us from outside, but working together, and in concert with our sense of balance, the experience of gravity, our propriocentric perceptions, and other developing neural activity, our senses reach out and grasp the world rather than waiting to passively receive it.
Most of us have had the experience of waking in a strange environment, and in the first
moments of consciousness assembling the unfamiliar and confusing visual signals into a perception of a place that turns out to be utterly wrong. As we become more fully awake, we instantly revise the perception and construct a perception of place which will hold up to continued examination, but the false place we briefly inhabited was momentarily quite convincing—a window here, an door there, where on clearer perception there is neither. Given incomplete sensory data we fill in the blanks. The primary experience of place is not an external given but synthesized from sensory information by neural processes.
Those neural processes include our emotions, and the experience of place is an interpersonal experience. The experience that underlies our ability to grasp the place where we exist is an interpersonal experience. Brain development in the human child depends on a rich and active human environment. We learn to experience, including the primary experience of place, by interacting with others. Place is a social event.
Creating Great Places Means Addressing the Whole
Our thoughts, our perceptions, our emotions, our very being are grounded in experience embedded in place. So understanding places is a humanist enterprise, all tangled up in hopes, fears, and memories. We can collect all sorts of data about places: about employment and earnings and various rules (such as zoning) and traffic counts. But all the data taken together do not give us the place.
A place takes its character from the imprint of human presence. Sometimes that imprint literally marks the land, sometimes it overlays the land with buildings or structures, sometimes it only remains in common memory or resides in habits or cultural traditions. A palimpsest is a parchment which has borne writing and then been rubbed out to receive another imprint of text. An inhabited place is like a palimpsest over which the marks of human presence have been repeatedly written and imperfectly rubbed out, so that it bears the accretion of layer after layer of meaning. When a place first becomes inhabited, its landscape may dominate its character, but as the marks of human presence accumulate they merge with the natural qualities of the place and become inseparable from it, as an orchard becomes part of the valley, the crumbling stone fence part of the hillside. The natural and the cultural character of a place become as one, root and branch. And the accretion of character in a place is a social event.