On Rethinking Place

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Hi there! My name is Blaine and I’m one of Motley’s co-founders. When I explain Motley as a placemaking and development firm, I’m often faced with some follow-up questions. How does someone “make place?” Isn’t that just being somewhere? And why does it matter anyway?

Place is an inherently slippery idea, one that’s challenging to define because it is so familiar. Urban historian Dolores Hayden describes place as “one of the trickiest words in the English language, a suitcase so overfilled one can never shut the lid.”

Place is “somewhere,” right? A tangible, geographic location, sure. More than land, trees, buildings, streetscapes, or the physical territory of a neighborhood, place is a meaningful location, animated by human occupancy and engagement. As people live in places, change them, name them, imagine them, leave and return to them, inspire them with meaning and value, and hold them in memory, we develop a sense of place. A sense of place captures the deeply experiential process between a person and their setting.

Who we are relates to where we are.

“As people fashion places, so, too, do they fashion themselves.”

We know places sensuously, through sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. We go out and experiences place and in turn, place experiences take up residence in us, becoming part of our deep structure of meaning and identity. When we are away from beloved places, a familiar smell or sound can suddenly take us there. Our bodies greet the familiar, we respond to the particularity of light, the shape of hills, the feel of the pavement beneath our feet, or the smell when we drive by the bakery.

As places get under our skin, they become these holding places of individual and collective meaning. Whether place meanings happen gradually, over long experience, or suddenly, through an intense or defining encounter, whether experiences in place are positive, negative, or a little bit of both, they leave people forever marked.

Places are dynamic and relational - just like us as humans. Viewing place relationally shifts our often flat, static understandings of local environments to a more nuanced view of place as always on the move. People flow in and out, the physical and built environment changes constantly. When we understand place as dynamic and fluid, rather than fixed, we can better see both the multidimensionality of place and the multiplicity of people’s experiences of and relationships to any one particular place. Just as there is no singular “place,” neither is there a single sense of place or person.

Place matters because you matter. That’s why we started this thing and we couldn’t do it without you.

In your corner,

Blaine