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I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about Place and Placelessness by E. Relph since this time last week. It’s one of those slim but thought provoking books that makes you wish you knew lots of people who have read it so you can all get together and talk about it. What do you think about all the elements that go into place-making? Does authentic place really require an unselfconscious lived-in-ness to make it authentic? Does kitsch and tourism always fall under a sense of placelessness? Or does tourism refer to a certain kind of travel only? And can’t kitsch be ironic or make a statement and have nothing to do with placelessness?

The book is broken up into eight longish chapters with lots of small sections that focus on different elements of Relph’s examination point by point. It is the sort of book that one wants to sit down with and talk about section by section. Published in 1976, the book is sadly out of print and hard to come by. I got lucky that the university library where I work has a copy.

Relph, a geographer, is surprised that geographers in general have not spent much time examining the concept of place. Relph sees place as being something much more than just knowing a certain area. There is a

significance of place in human experience [that] goes far deeper…[it] is apparent in the actions of individuals and groups protecting their places against outside forces of destruction…To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places. To be human is to have and to know your place.

Relph proposes and examines all the elements that go into place-making. He likes his Heidegger and quotes him liberally. He also likes Camus. I will not delineate all the elements, I will just quote one of his summary conclusions:

The basic meaning of place, its essence, does not therefore come from locations, nor from the trivial functions places serve, nor from the community that occupies it, nor from superficial and mundane experiences — these are all common and perhaps necessary aspects of places. The essence of place lies largely in the unselfconscious intentionality that defines places as profound centres of human existence.

Relph focuses on the urban, discusses planned communities and prefab housing. He also broadens his view to include countries and narrows it to cover individual places within locations belonging, for instance, to particular family members –a desk, a chair, etc. He has a really lovely section on “home” that I just might write about in a post of its own.

Once Relph establishes what place is and how place is created, he looks at placelessnes and the elements that cause it. He sees contemporary society moving further and further away from place and deeper and deeper into placelessness. We have split our working, home and religious life apart. The average person moves every three or four years. Home is losing its significance and becoming instead an interchangeable thing. Mass media homogenizes place, crowding out the local. Mass culture also serves to homogenize place. In Relph’s time it was Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain, today we have McDonald’s, Starbucks, Walmart, Target, and any number of other big chain stores.

One of the things about the Mall of America near me that makes me marvel is why people from far away go there specifically to shop. Sure it’s huge, but it is filled with stores you can find anywhere from Nordstrom to Macy’s and Old Navy to Forever 21. Aside from size there is nothing significantly different about it. We are also not encouraged to become attached to places. The economic culture, at least in the U.S., touts the benefits of being mobile so you can go where the jobs are.

Placelessnes is becoming normal and Relph sees this as being a negative thing. He wants to move toward a reinvigorated place-making world but suggests we cannot do it in the same ways we used to. Reviving a sense of place does not lie in preserving old places –museumisation he calls it — nor in a self conscious return to tradition. Instead we must find a way to transcend placelessness. We must find a way to move beyond the homogenous spaces to create a diverse, rich, and lived-in space that enriches experience and our lives.

I’ve had to simplify Relph quite a lot, but I hope I have managed to at least give you a flavor of what he is about. If you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I highly recommend it.

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