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Reflections on Place and Placelessness

Edward C. Relph

Ted 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. Relph.
    This essay was one of five contributed to a special issue of EAP celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Relph's book. See "selected articles" by Boschetti, Million, Paterson,  and Seamon. 

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.


    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).


    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.


    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.