Environmental & Architectural
Reflections on Place and Placelessness
Edward C. Relph
teaches geography at Scarborough College, the University of Toronto. Besides
Place and Placelessness, his books include Rational Landscapes and
Humanistic Geography (London: Croom Helm, 1981) and The Modern Urban
Landscape (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1987). © 1996, 2003 Edward C.
The conception of Place and Placelessness was largely a product of chance. I was studying the symbolic landscapes of the Canadian Shield because its lakes and forests are supposedly central to Canadian identity. As the research progressed, I encountered numerous references to the importance of place and sense of place but was unable to find any substantial definition of these ideas. I therefore began to develop my own.
At about this time, I was also caught up in an academic debate about methodologies in geography, much of it revolving around the supposed benefits of quantitative techniques. For my purposes, these methods were trivial and limited in scope. I had, however, come upon phenomenology as a philosophical method that acknowledged the importance of meanings and symbols. It made sense to apply phenomenology to place (although in retrospect I did not do this as rigorously as I should have), and my attempts at definition expanded. The symbolic landscapes of the Canadian Shield receded into the background and then disappeared into a file drawer.
In time, I realized that the newer landscapes I encountered in my travels revealed as much evidence of uniformity as they did of diversity. I also realized that a comprehensive account of place should consider the reasons for this increasing homogenization. The result was the argument of Place and Placelessness, which takes the form of a straightforward presentation of opposites, though these can be stated in various ways‑-place vs. placelessness, phenomenology vs. positivism, vernacular vs. modernist, diversity vs. uniformity, authentic vs. unauthentic.
My recollection is that this argument was not intended to be a defense of the good qualities of places against the trivializing incursions of placelessness, though it seems to have been often interpreted this way. Instead my aim was to describe some important features of the geography of the late-20th century that had been overlooked in the rush to apply statistical measures to everything. I also wished to point out that these geographic features related to some deeply significant aspects of human existence.
AMBIGUITIES OF PLACE & PLACELESSNESS
In the book, my sympathies were perhaps on the side of places, but I know I enjoyed the elaboration of some of the extreme instances of placelessness, and they were certainly easier to photograph.
This argument by opposites now appears to me to have been unduly simple. I realize that place and sense of place, which I then represented as mostly positive, have some very ugly aspects. They can, for instance, be the basis for exclusionary practices, for parochialism, and for xenophobia. There is ample evidence of this in such things as NIMBY attitudes, gated communities, and, more dramatically, the political fragmentation and ethnic cleansing that beset parts of Europe and Africa and that are sometimes justified by appeals to place identity.
On the other side of the argument, I have come to realize that, while placelessness suppresses local meanings, it also has cosmopolitan and liberal aspects that help to facilitate shared understanding, tolerance and the acceptance of difference.
Twenty years ago the main threat to place identity seemed to be from imposed uniformity. Since then the corporate forces that once promoted sameness have discovered that distinctive place identities help to sell houses, holidays and other products. These identities do not, however, have to draw on the intrinsic qualities of a location, except perhaps some sanitized and distorted versions of local history.
In 1993 I almost attended a conference in Las Vegas where some precise ways to make place distinctiveness were to be discussed. I regret missing it because this would have been an excellent chance to explore an attitude that I find puzzling in the very city where this attitude has been made most visible. Along the main strip there are landscape fragments of ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, Easter Island, Oz, medieval England, Japan, the Mississippi River; there is a real Hindu shrine in the grounds of Caesar's Palace and a fabricated tropical paradise at the Mirage (with some real and some fake palm trees, fake bird songs and a fake volcano).
THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE 1990S
Clifford Geertz suggests that one of the key questions for modern culture is "What happens when reality is shipped abroad?" Las Vegas offers one answer. It is a paradoxically distinctive and very popular place made up of fragments obviously copied from elsewhere. It is a metaphor for the geography of the 1990s, a geography in which place identity is readily available for export and reassembly.
In the borderless world of electronic information and with the unprecedented scale of recent global population movements for both migration and tourism, it has become clear that conventional ideas about sense of place, location and context no longer apply. It is as though almost everywhere has been uprooted, along with customs, culture and landscapes, and these are now available for topological transformation and relocation anywhere.
In contrast to these complexities, the placelessness associated with modernism was largely straightforward. And for all its standardization, modernism at its inception was a confident attempt to redress problems of injustice and to use new technologies for the benefit of everyone. The results may be placeless but they are also explicit and honest. In contrast, post-modern place invention and manipulation seem to be exercises in duplicity. They are superficial acts of plagiarism that reveal a lack of confidence, a lack of originality, and uncertainty of any purpose except the one of making money.
PRACTICING THE ACT OF IMAGINATION
When I wrote Place and Placelessness, I expected that things would become clearer as I got older. In fact, they mostly have become murkier. I don't think this is just because I am now more perceptive or critical or crotchety than I was 20 years ago. Social, political and geographical processes really have become more complicated and difficult to understand.
To make matters worse, this shift has happened at precisely the time that methods for understanding these processes have been brought into doubt. The status of former privileged discourses, including science and phenomenology, has weakened, and a multitude of different voices now clamor to be heard.
As we try to find a procedure to adjudicate these competing claims and to make some sense of the confusions of post-modern place identity, there is yet another huge paradox to be considered. Global processes such as climatic change, persistent and intensifying poverty and unemployment associated with the world economy, ethnic conflicts, and the continuing human inclinations for cruelty and war‑-all impact the lives of individuals in specific places.
Efforts to confront these problems by acting locally are necessarily fragmented and weak; they also have the appearance of furthering narrow self-interests. On the other hand, policies and practices that are not based in specific actions in particular places are likely to be ideologically oppressive, undemocratic, imposed and placeless.
At the moment there seems to be no obvious way to resolve this paradox. From the perspective of my small patch of academic turf, I can only suggest that the positive aspects of both place and placelessness somehow have to be combined, and perhaps from this integration some proposals for careful and sustainable ways of living can develop.
The first stage to accomplish this aim might be to practice the act of imagination that enables us to relate the immediacies of our lives in particular places to larger environmental and social issues. After that I know no alternative to the hard discipline of keeping my eyes and mind as open as possible‑-being what the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler calls "an honest witness to my time and place."
This is what I believe I tried to do in Place and Placelessness. It is what I continue to attempt.