How does place shape who we are?

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by Francesca Perry

Sometimes it’s hard to put our finger on it, but part of us knows that where we live, the places in which we spend our time, play a part in shaping who we are. A particular Winston Churchill quote is oft-cited — ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’ — and the point it makes of buildings can equally be made of cities, neighbourhoods or places.

As we shape our local area through physical changes and social activities, so we collectively define its identity; in turn, as stage sets for life, hubs for community and activity, these places piece together our own individual, and communal, identities. But what role does, or can, this people-place relationship play? Can engaging with the identity of place help it — or us?

While people’s relationship to place is in many ways practical, it is also very much emotional. In 2017, surveys undertaken by scientists at the University of Surrey for the National Trust revealed that ‘meaningful places’ played a key role in shaping people’s identity, across all ages; 67% of younger people said their meaningful place has shaped who they are.

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That our surroundings can shape our feelings, behaviours, and even sense of identity, has long been reflected upon, but became formally recognised with the rise of the field of environmental psychology in the 1970s. Since then, the interrelation between place and society has been explored by many writers and thinkers.

‘Because there is constant interaction between society and the urban fabric, we cannot tinker with our cities without making some adjustment to society as well — or vice versa,’ wrote Joseph Rykwert in The Seduction of Place (2000). ‘Any description of a city’s shape that can be gathered from a citizen’s comments,’ he continued, ‘represents a constant and intimate dialectic between the citizen and the physical forms he or she inhabits; this may influence [the city’s] image as radically as its economic or political life.’

As such, so those physical places shape us. In a Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), Rebecca Solnit wrote of the places in which one’s life is lived: ‘They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and in the end what possesses you.’

Hastings pier, before it was successfully rebuilt through a local community-led initiative

Beyond simply a place’s physical form, it is what happens in it — the experiences inhabitants share, whether negative or positive — that start shaping communal forms of identity. Of course, identity — whether personal, collective, or linked to place — is not a clear cut and fixed thing: it morphs, shifts, evolves, much like the places in which we live. But within this flux lies certain characteristics, histories or memories, that continually inform the evolving identity.

What has happened in a place can shape, directly or indirectly, how people see it, feel about it, and create narratives around it; this can range from the collective pride felt from the success of a local football team or a well-known historical event happening nearby, through to communal grief experienced after a local tragedy. Such memories and stories are as much a part of the identity of a place as the bricks and mortar.

Local tributes following the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington, 2017

Place identity in recent decades has been harnessed as a marketing tool, packaged and promoted as a means to generating profit. But the reason this takes place comes back to a truth that is far more innocent: engaging with the identity of a place — whether that be its physical attributes or social history — can help ground people to feel more at home. Cities are forever in flux, and their populations largely transitory; we seek out stories and markers of identity to anchor ourselves and create a comforting form of place attachment that in turn nurtures our own identity. Instead of promoting the identity of a place for profit, we can do so for social, and community, good. And the first step towards this is inclusive conversation.

In Loughborough Junction, south London, co-design studio make:good brought people in the area together to talk about the neighbourhood’s unique history, character, assets and needs, translating this into co-designed proposals for public realm improvements; improvements that would in themselves celebrate local identity. Conversations across the whole spectrum of the area’s inhabitants revealed that what people saw as defining the identity of the neighbourhood was its diversity and sense of community. By harnessing this into the improvements being made, people were less worried that the local identity could be lost to the changes.

Discussion and design workshops with the community, including over 100 local children, led to the creation of colourful lamp post banners and bridge decorations which celebrated the local area through stories of its history, as well as patterns referencing its assets, its past and the cultural heritage of its inhabitants.

make:good Loughborough Junction community workshop

As places change, and despite that change, engaging with memories from a diverse range of people can help embed a sense of place identity even for people who are new to the area. Engaging with stories of a place — discovering more about it — strengthens our attachment to it. And then, we go on to participate in making new local stories ourselves.

The original version of this article was published on the make:good blog, which has many other reflections about the nature of community, city life and co-design

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