Archives of Headwaters XII

Jennifer E. Cross

Department of Sociology, Colorado State University

What is Sense of Place?


Patricia Nelson Limerick

Dr. Limerick is one of most noted, and most controversial, of the American West's "new historians." Her first book, Legacy of Conquest: The unbroken past of the American West, challenged the century of thinking about western history — and national history to some extent — that had prevailed since Frederick Jackson Turner had published his "frontier thesis" in 1893. She just recently brought out another book, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West.

Dr. Limerick teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she has also been a guiding light in the Center of the American West. She worked with the Center on the Atlas of the New West, and is now at work on the Center's Handbook for the New West.

She was present at the creation of the Headwaters Project, participating in the first Headwaters Conference in 1990.


Community Viz demo with Randy Russell

Senses of Place
How we shape, and are shaped by, where we live

Can geographic information systems, sophisticated computer programs for everyone from developers to planners to community activists, and the planning process in general really help us create Stegner's “society to match our scenery” here in the beautiful valleys of the Headwaters region?

People interested in intelligent community development will consider that question at a Friday afternoon session of Headwaters XII — following a public demonstration of Community Viz, perhaps the most sophisticated planning program available today.

Over the years Headwaters has taught us a lot about how we imprint our culture and values on place. We've learned from presenters like Devon Pena that "Eurocentric Mapping" dislocated early Hispanic traditions of a shared sense of property and the surroundings. We've learned that Brigham Young brought a strong Jeffersonian tradition to defining town sites and irrigation projects, and laid them out with an imprint left on this land. John Wesley Powell cautioned us about importing eastern continental values to this arid place and our methods of settling it, and Nathan Meeker paid the price for trying to impose those values on the native inhabitants and a heavy-handed redefinition of their horse racing grounds. And we all struggle with an "Atlas of Place" that defines where we are, who we are, what we inhabit, and how we capture and share that in making decisions about change.

Our sense of "Mapping" and property rights is one of the defining things that now shape these valleys and our future in them. We make "Land Use" decisions daily and weekly, as part of a local governmental process that we've crafted in our own culture and society and refined over time. That process is now filling our valleys, crowding our roads, and causes us to confront our values as we weigh individual rights versus community rights at every turn and decision-making point

I think it's fair to say we do that fairly well on a case-by-case basis in increments. It's also fair to say we don't do that well looking at cumulative long-term impacts on the larger place, or incorporating community values into that decision making.

So we craft new tools to do that, and we'll be exploring one that is very powerful at this year's gathering. The Orton Family Foundation has developed some software called Community Viz, which will be demonstrated Friday afternoon. It allows local communities and watersheds to map their place together, assemble all of the G.I.S. data from their own research and neighboring government land agencies, and use that as an interactive tool to look at any impacts from a proposed project or policy decision. It's the future analysis tool and it's here.

Is it an "Atlas of Place" that we can use together? Only if we make it so, and consider together what can't be mapped well but has to be part of the decision-making process. It isn't that we can't map "sacred places" or values, shifts, trends, or our important senses of place, opportunities and preservation. But perhaps we lack the skill and political will to do that well while the technology will do an excellent job on the quantifiable things that also drive those decision-making processes.

That's the discussion Friday afternoon, and it should be rich!

— By Randy Russell, a planner for Garfield County and organizer of this Headwaters session. Townsend Anderson, of the Orton Family Foundation, and a frequent Headwaters attendee, will do the demonstration of Community Viz at 3:00 Friday, Nov. 2.


The Headwaters Trib

A newsletter for the communities of the Headwaters Region

Senses of Place
How we shape, and are shaped by, where we live

Note carefully the conference title: “Senses of Place,” not “Sense of Place.”

So what's the difference? “Sense of place” tends to be one of those Humpty-Dumpty phrases that means exactly what the user wants it to mean — and whether it is a realtor trying to sell you a piece of property, or a New Ager wanting you to establish a hotline with Mother Earth, someone invoking “sense of place” probably wants to invoke something warm and fuzzy in you.

Asking you to consider “Senses of Place,” on the other hand, is a more descriptive and hopefully more useful exercise, about the complex interactions between people and geography, nature and human nature, perception and whatever passes for reality.

“Place” must probably be considered an unabashedly anthropomorphic concept. A piece of geography only becomes a “place” when a human or group of humans have established some kind of a conscious and meaningful (to them) relationship with it. Wallace Stegner said that “no place is a place until it has had a poet.” Wendell Berry and others might want to modify that with an observation that different people work out their poetry in different ways — some with a pen, some with a plow.

At last year's Headwaters, Jennifer Cross described five types of relationships that people develop with places:

  • Biographical — when the person or group has a personal history with the place, long enough for experiences and memories there to become part of an individual or community identity.

  • Spiritual — when a relationship develops, sometimes immediately, that is “more of a soul connection than an emotional, cognitive, or material connection to the place.”

  • Ideological — when the relationship is “founded on conscious values and beliefs about how humans should relate to physical places. For some, this comes in the form of religious teachings.”

  • Commodified — when the relationship is “based on the comparison of a person's image of the ideal community with the physical attributes of a community — often “to things or commodities like upscale restaurants and boutiques, and the natural environment, rather than to... relationships with other people.”

  • Dependent — when the relationship is “the result of having either no choice or severe limitations on choice,” as when spouses and children have to follow breadwinners to where the work is.

It is also important to think of the “senses of place” that precede us into the geography that we are going to make “our place.” What does it mean, for example, to think of one's “place” as “a piece of property” — a place separated from the whole by the concept of personal ownership, defined by abstract lines on an abstracted image of the place, and legally considered a place where one can exercise relatively free rein in what one does? This certainly pre-imposes a certain sensibility on all of the places occupied by today's dominant culture. Geographer Phil Crossley will look at how the way we choose to “map” empowers some ideas and disenfranchises others.

It is worth remembering that not all cultures have entered the region with that “sense of place” preceding them. Sage Remington of the Souther Utes and Aaron Abeyta of the San Luis valley will participate in a cross-cultural discussion to look at how other non-Anglo cultures have “shaped and been shaped by” Headwaters geography.

Cultural beliefs also often impose an “imported” sense of what a place ought to be, irrespective of what it actually might be. We say, for example, that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the same way, to an entire people possessed of the belief that “farmers are God's chosen people,” every place is going to look (sooner or later, by God) like a farm.

When Brigham Young, for example, looked over the strip of high desert lying between the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake and said, “This is the place,” the place he was seeing wasn't the desert but the desert blooming as a thousand irrigated farms, and that happened — after great transformative efforts, now mostly overridden by a growing city.

This “shaping” is often more subtle. Biologist Kevin Alexander will look at how we changed fish species in the mountain valleys for economic reasons. Historian Laura McCall will explore how “looking good” is more based on economics than aesthetics, and political scientist Frank Coleman will look at the general commodification of “scenery.” Writer Ed Quillen will look at how towns grew or died based on decisions about where railroads would run.

At the other extreme from those whose initial sense of a place results in the place becoming something other than what it was, there are those whose initial sense of a piece of geography is a preconceived vision of “the way things should be,” and who immediately vow to do all that they can to see that the place never changes at all from that time forward, as though the place were a picture made complete by the arrival of its most recent viewer.

Most of us lack the overweening vision, purity and chutzpah to come into a place as either full-blown “Users” or “Savers,” as Gary Snyder characterized the extreme types. Nevertheless, we each come with a load of cultural baggage that delineates our sense of what we want to do or think we can do there, while at the same time we see things in our place-to-be that we want to keep.

And as we settle in, in our unsettling way, the rest of the community of life in the place — the host of plants and animals and humans already there — shifts, moves over, moves around, gets sick from the stress, gets well in some revised way, and generally tries to adapt to our presence. And we adapt too — give up fighting for this crop or this breed of cow or against that “weed” or pest; we let the spruce reclaim the land where grass won't grow; in general, we see, and allow ourselves to be shaped by, whatever remains of what was going on in the place when we arrived.

And so the geography becomes a place, our place. The freedom that is supposed accompany ownership of property becomes modified in discovering the responsibilities that go with stewardship of place. Out of the shared spaces emerge “sacred places” — places making us realize it would be better to change the way we live than to change the place. Anyone who stays long enough can become a poet of a place; it's just being patient enough to take the dictation.

How to better articulate our evolved senses of the places we know, in order to hold them up before the new waves of “unsettlers” coming with their preconceived senses of what these places should be — that's our purpose at the 12th Headwaters Conference. See you in November!

— George Sibley, Coordinator