Part of my job as a writer is to describe the memorable experience that a particular city, town, or attraction imparts. But what gives a destination a “sense of place?”
We all know that some places are truly more memorable that others – reflecting back on a tender moment in a ancient religious building (or a well-designed modern one for that matter), or even a park or vista that seems perfectly placed, we feel something. The French call it je ne sais quoi (something you just can’t put your finger on), the Dutch often say it is gezellig (technically means cozy, but they say the word is untranslatable).
One book attempts to hone in on the set of attributes that give a place a– well, a sense of place. A personality. A reason for loving, living, reflecting on. The book is called The Nature of Place: A Search for Authenticity by Avi Friedman. Inside, the author explores these various aspects by starting off reflecting on one aspect of a particular destination, and then exploring other similar places that do (or don’t) offer this kind of experience.
A great example is the chapter where the author looks forward to exploring the old city of York, England. I remember York fondly, and certainly do think it has a unique feeling and personality.
The author talks about the winding streets of inner York, then glides into a discussion about the advantages and values of having squares or gathering areas in cities, pointing to other cities in Italy and Spain where this concept has been done so well.
The chapters aren’t about the destinations, themselves; they’re about the things in destinations that we love, and often find it hard to describe why.
Many of the abstracts in this book – restaurants, town squares, playgrounds – fall under what the author references as “third places:”
In The Great Good Place, sociology Ray Oldenburg refers to sites that are not associated with dwelling or work as third places. These are locations where we can walk away from daily habits, regimented routines, and even our own usual self…. Third places are levellers. Patrons’ wealth, social status, or even educational background are of secondary importance.
Can you think of a third place in your hometown or nearby that has a strong, unequivocal cultural identity?
What about a favourite place in a foreign destination that is a third place?
Sense of Place in Surprising Spaces
I loved how this book challenges the sense of space. The author takes a bit of an off-the-beaten path tour of Tijuana, often known more for tequila worms than a sense of place. Wandering a tired, poor corridor, he writes:
Despite the poverty, I felt that the place had a soul, an uncommon sense of place, perhaps drawn from the manifest absence of means.
So it isn’t necessarily buildings or defined squares that gives a destination that memorable, inviting persona.
Some of the other destinations the author visits:
- Fargo, North Dakota, reflecting on how a place in harmony with the environment is also often in harmony with those that enjoy it.
- Hong Kong, where the author explores what affect overcrowding has on sense of place.
- London, where the author finds a place’s humility alongside such a bustling environment.
The Spirit of Assisi
The book ends in the Umbrian countryside, in a small Italian town called Assisi. I’m actually going to Assisi this spring, so I was very curious to see what the author had to say. I think his experience in Assisi is a fitting place to end this discussion on a sense of place….
Of all the place we have visited, there are those that live on in us long after the voyage has ended. Something in them inexplicably affects us, spiritually. Our mental state at that moment may have caused it, yet something in the location, be it mountaintop or a church, served as a backdrop, a trigger perhaps, for its occurrence. Called sacred, such spots have a unique sense of place worth deciphering.
Interested in learning more? Click here to pick up a copy of The Nature of Place on Amazon.