How to Build a Sense of Place, Part One

Download PDF

A key goal of many modern developments is to inculcate a ‘sense of place’ so that the development has an interesting character. In order to do this it’s useful to examine how we experience a place, patient and how we can derive from this practical measures to build a sense of place. Six methods to build a sense of place are derived, gastritis with photos of Oxford and elsewhere to demonstrate the suggestions in action.


A ‘place’ is composed of a multiplicity of objects, such as buildings and landmarks, and the spaces defined by the edges of those objects.

Every object is seen from a perspective. Since even a minute change of position or gaze gives a somewhat different perspective there are countless possible ways to view an object, only one of which we can sensorily perceive at one time.

Every object we see we experience as three dimensional, and in order to be able to do this, every perception of an object from a given perspective necessarily implies a simultaneous mental perception that there are other perspectives that are not currently in sight. If I see a clock, for example, then a condition of my experience of it as three dimensional is that there is a reverse side to the object that I cannot currently see but whose existence is nonetheless necessarily implied.

Every perception of an object, then, includes what the founder of phenomenology, the philosopher Edmund Husserl, terms a ‘halo’ of other perspectives that are invisible from the viewer’s current position. If we wish to know more about the object then a common reaction is to try to see it from another perspective. Every perspective, then, can prompt the attempt to view one of the ‘halo’ perspectives, but no one perspective can be said to be part of the object’s ‘essence’, as any perspective can be replaced by another without us losing the ability to recognise the object. Moving around to attain a greater number of perspectives cannot, therefore, lead the viewer any closer to the object’s ‘essence’, any more than moving around helps someone to jump on their own shadow. This idea is stated visually by Picasso’s Cubist works, for example in this picture of various perspectives of a violin. Simultaneously witnessing so many different perspectives on the violin still prompts the ‘halo’ perceptions of conventional views of the violin. The picture therefore gets us no closer to the essence of a violin.

Knowledge Built Into Perception

We initially respond to the sight of a new object by trying to fit it into existing ideas and experiences, an idea the following image provides evidence for.

Duck or rabbit?

This image is typically initially read as either a duck or a rabbit, before the viewer ‘flips’ successively between ‘duck’ and ‘rabbit’ readings, before the instability of either reading leads to a deliberate abstraction to a reading of the picture as ‘a set of lines that can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit’. Had either of the rabbit or duck interpretations been found satisfactory then it is unlikely that such an abstractive move would have occurred, and this provides evidence that built into our perception is not only a tendency to try to find patterns but also a tendency to see things as familiar objects, and it is only when this is unsatisfactory that we seek other explanations.

This holds true even for the highly refined perception of visual artists, according to the art historian E.H. Gombrich. In seeking to explain why different cultures have represented the world in such strikingly different styles, Gombrich concluded that “The familiar will always remain the likely starting point for the rendering of the unfamiliar; an existing representation will always exert its spell over the artist even while he strives to record the truth… For so much certainty emerges from a study of portrayal of art: you cannot create a faithful image out of nothing. You must have learned the trick if only from other pictures you have seen”, he wrote in Art & Illusion. The reason why a Western landscape artist and his Chinese counterpart might paint radically different landscapes at the same spot, and each claim that theirs represents reality as they see it, he thought, is that each has been trained to find different things important. If a landscape can be resolved into these familiar motifs then that interpretation is likely to ‘leap out’ at the painter as he surveys the scene. That interpretation is then seen as the natural way of looking at the scene.

Prior knowledge is thus built into the moment of perception of objects. (Indeed, there’s a technical argument called ‘the myth of the given’ that would mean it must be so if our perception can serve as the basis for knowledge about the world.) That this is so has significant implications for our study. For something to be immediately recognisable as a familiar object means that the viewer has a significant number of memories and associations about that object. Any one of these might enter our stream of consciousness, thereby displacing another thought, and in turn triggering another, related thought. Each successive thought may give us another way to think about the object, and thus give a fuller sense of the meaning of the object. However, the series of thoughts that may be triggered by an object may be infinite and it is impossible to hold every thought of the series in mind at the same time, just as we cannot see an object from every perspective simultaneously. Thus we not only have ‘halo’ perspectives, but a ‘halo’ of mental associations that are built into our perception of an object.

The Sense of Place

There is, of course, much more to be said about a sense of place than this brief study that has been so confined to visual perception. However, drawing a conclusion from the foregoing, I propose that a sense of place is partly generated by viewing particular familiar objects that trigger ‘halo’ reactions both due to their three-dimensionality and their wealth of mental associations. The ‘halo’ perceptions of both types provide a nebulous, ever-shifting set of meanings that cannot be pinned down, and yet these ‘halo’ perceptions are generated through being at a location that can very easily be pinned down.

It is the interplay between the physicality of the objects and the ethereality of the thoughts that generates the sense of place, I propose, and for this reason the sense of place cannot be experienced outside of that place. Someone may have exactly the same stream of ‘halo’ thoughts about a place (recalling the words of the Gettysburg Address at that battlefield and also at home, for example) but having ‘halo’ thoughts in absentia cannot replicate the experience, since the object would be merely an object of reflection rather than both an object of perception and of reflection.

Initial Recommendations for Increasing the Sense of Place

Before drawing out ideas for how to increase the sense of place, it is important to note that every settlement is likely to have a ‘sense of place’ to some degree, simply in virtue of it being a collection of physical objects and in virtue of it being someone’s hometown, and thus having served as the location for many of that person’s experiences. This is worth bearing in mind, since residents of even the most depressing-seeming areas may strongly resist radical changes to buildings and streets that are intertwined with their personal histories. There is no thing that cannot have profound sentimental value. With that said, I suggest that the foregoing analysis can be used to improve both the ‘halo’ associated ideas and the physical structure of the place.

1. Brand ‘haloes’, not essences

Starting with ‘halo’ ideas, I suggest that branding that attempts to communicate the ‘essence’ of a place is likely to fail to describe ‘the sense of the place.’  This is because this approach requires a central idea with enough centrifugal force to make the various aspects of the area revolve around that conceptual centre. However, the ‘halo’ ideas that are associated with a place are centripetal, in that any association of a place may become the centre of someone’s attention (and by doing so displace the previous centre of attention) before being displaced itself by another association that place has. It would therefore be better for civic branding to concentrate on enhancing the popular associations of particular aspects of the place rather than on an overarching, unifying theme. For example, positive associations about, say, various aspects of the cafe culture of Paris may be triggered by a visit to a Parisian cafe, and such ‘halo’ thoughts can enhance the cafe patron’s enjoyment of Paris as a whole.

Sufficient positive associations about sufficient aspects of the city may make a city far more charming than a single message about the city’s brand, however often this message is repeated. No matter how good the single message is, it is very difficult for anyone to concentrate on a single thought for a sustained length of time without other thoughts ‘butting in’, and often these intrusive thoughts are slightly or closely associated with the object of concentration. By providing a wealth of positive associations rather than one message we move with, rather than against, the grain of the way the mind works. Furthermore, given sufficient associations every stream of thoughts about the place will be somewhat different; this both avoids the feeling that we’re being coerced into thinking in a certain way (which of course could induce rejection) and decreases the chances of the place quickly seeming stale.

Generating sufficient positive associations may take a long time, but there are no shortcuts. Even an ‘invented place’ such as Disneyland (which absolutely had a sense of place to my eleven-year-old self) relies heavily on the wealth of positive associations built up through many hours of exposure to Disney cartoons and films. It’s surely not an accident that perhaps the most successful ‘invented places’ are run by Disney and by Universal Studios. Many threads bound together are stronger than a single thread of equal thickness.


Since the mental associations of different places vary so greatly, I’ll now pass on to recommendations for physical planning that may be more general.

2. Heighten the experience of being there through setting challenges to visual cognition

Our brains play a vital role in vision. It is impossible, for example, to look in a mirror and catch our own eyes move, because our vision shuts down momentarily during each eye movement to prevent motion blur; our brains fill in the gaps to present us with an unbroken view of the world in a phenomenon known as saccadic masking. Our brains constantly render a 3D environment with the help of input from our eyes. It may take a modern computer a significant length of time to render a tree in 3D; our brains can render that and many other objects too quickly for us to notice. The principle that the following proposals share is that the experience of objects can be made richer through setting various challenges to visual cognition, thus making the environment stimulating. It is important not to make the challenges of too great a difficulty in order to avoid bewildering viewers, but the following techniques spring to mind.

A) Figure/Ground Framing

© Chris Haile

The duck/rabbit optical illusion typically generates some ‘flipping’ between the two animal interpretations, and a consequent desire for stability. This reaction can be exploited in the built environment through use of framing devices that tempt the viewer to flip between seeing different one part of the scene as the subject (or figure) and another as the background. When viewing the above photo, for example, the viewer may either take as the subject either the black door and its frame, or the bright scene beyond. Taking either interpretation relegates the other to the background, yet the scene encourages a flipping between interpretations. This instability can, however, easily be transcended; not, this time, through abstracting from the scene, but simply by walking through the black door and removing it from view. By building so as to create de facto frames, it’s possible to provide both significant cognitive challenges and a satisfying way to resolve them. I suggest that such a feature would increase the sense of place.

© Chris Haile

© Chris Haile

This effect does not necessarily require anything out of the ordinary; even walking through shop doorways can provide this framing effect, although the tendency for the frontages of many shops to be made of glass in the interests of transparency obviously militates against this.

B) Stacked Planes

© Chris Haile

As argued, the perception of objects as three-dimensional implies the existence of other perspectives which have to be accounted for. By presenting a series of different objects regressing towards the background, the three-dimensional nature of each object is emphasised, and the challenge of processing not only the implied ‘halo’ perspectives of each object but the spatial relationship between the objects of different sizes and at different distances is a significant one. In the above example, processing a war monument, a tree, a low, Tudor-style commercial building and a tall, mediaeval church is challenging even without considering the heavy historical freight of all but the tree. I suggest that exploiting gradients by stacking planes within the same field of view (i.e. the area visible from one position without turning your head) can be an effective way to increase the sense of place, although stacking significantly more than four planes within the same field of view risks becoming contrived if organised, or bewildering if not.

C) Approaching from the Corners


Another way to utilise perspective is to arrange buildings of particular importance so that they are approached from one of its corners. The simultaneous presentation of two sides of the building emphasises its three-dimensionality, and thus increases the significance of our brains processing it correctly, creating a more intense experience. Examples of important buildings being approached from one of their corners include the Parthenon, as seen from the gateway to the Acropolis, the Propylaea, and Florence’s city hall, Palazzo Vecchio, as seen from the main road from the Cathedral, Via Calzaiuoli.


Lest the Florence example seem like a coincidence, here’s exactly the same technique used in Perugia: turn the corner from the facade of the Cathedral and you witness this view of the city hall:

© Dvdbramhall @

D) Implied Objects

© Chris Haile

The visible perspectives of an object may not only imply the other sides of that object; depending on the way it is arranged it may imply the existence of other, currently unseen objects. Where a street view is terminated by a building set at an angle, the positional importance and angle of that building suggests that there is something of interest that the building is facing. This technique, a ‘deflected vista’ in the words of Gordon Cullen, prompts guessing as to what scene may be around the corner, and perhaps an investigation of what’s there. In this photo, for example, the Christchurch College bell-tower is set at an angle, implying that there is something of significance either directly before it or directly behind it.

E) Utilising Shadows

© Chris Haile

This suggestion may also enhance suggestions 2.C and 2.D. Shadows falling across an object create a modelling effect that accentuates its three-dimensionality. Where a building is approached from a corner then in many circumstances one visible side will be in shadow and one will be in light at certain times of the day. Meanwhile, the way the shadow falls may imply objects that cannot be seen from the current field of view, as we see below.

© Chris Haile

Part Two will concentrate on the social aspects of places.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *