Reclaiming Sense of Place in a Country Town

Reclaiming Sense of Place in a Country Town

Résumé en français

La nature et lesqualités du "sens du lieu" sont explorées dans cet article à traversdes concepts tels que 'la manière intemporelle de construire' et le 'genius loci', qui donnent un sens auxlieux. Le travail de Luis Barragán est utilisé pour illustrer le rôle durégionalisme et du contexte, utilisé de manière contemporaine pour laconception de bâtiments et de paysages.

Dans la recherche d'unsens du lieu, une série de qualités, distillées au fil du temps, sont proposéescomme base pour instiller ou récupérer un sens du lieu à travers le paysage etl'aménagement urbain, leur but étant de stimuler la réflexion dans la créationde lieux, au lieu d'être soumis à des règlements d'urbanisme prescriptifs etsouvent inappropriés.

 Le rôle de lalégislation sur le patrimoine en Afrique du Sud est examiné en tant qu'outilpermettant de révéler, de documenter et de conserver les lieux de qualitéhistorique ou spéciale, ainsi que d'autres mesures de planification telles queles "zones de superposition".

Enfin, la ville deStanford est utilisée comme étude de cas pour illustrer comment la communautélocale, avec l'aide de l'architecture paysagère, peut améliorer les paysages derue mornes et récupérer le sens essentiel de la ville grâce à la création deplaces et d'autres lieux spéciaux.

The nature and qualities of 'sense of place' are explored in this paper through concepts such as 'the timeless way of building' and 'genius loci' in giving meaning to places. The work of Luis Barragán is used to illustrate the role of regionalism and context, used in a contemporary way for building and landscape design. In the search for sense of place, a range of qualities, distilled over time, are put forward as a basis for instilling or reclaiming sense of place through landscape and urban design, their purpose being to stimulate thoughtfulness in place-making, instead of being subject to prescriptive, and often inappropriate, planning by-laws. The role of heritage legislation in South Africa is discussed as a tool for revealing, documenting and conserving places of historical or special significance, along with other planning measures such as 'overlay zones'. Finally, the country town of Stanford is used as a case study to illustrate how the local community, with landscape architectural input, can upgrade dreary streetscapes and reclaim the town's essential sense of place through the creation of squares and other design interventions.

The Elusiveness of 'Sense of Place'

If 'place-making' is our ordination as landscape architects, then surely our quest is to find the essential qualities that contribute to sense of place.

Discovering these attributes is for most designers something of a life-long search. How does one even define 'sense of place'? And does sense of place play a role in contemporary landscape and urban design? We think we have experienced sense of place in one form or another, but it is difficult to rationalise it, perhaps because it is illusionary – something only the heart understands. The fact that it is often described as the genius loci, or 'spirit of the place' attests to this.

Ancient wisdoms relating to ley lines and energy lines, as well as Feng Shui (the art of living in harmony with the natural or made environment) in Chinese culture, are also a part of sensing place but are seldom used in contemporary design in Western culture. In 'The Timeless Way of Building' Christopher Alexander (1979) states:

"There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness" – he calls this 'the quality without a name' because of its illusionary and elusive nature, although our primitive instinct may be aware of it.

Experiencing sense of place involves all the senses and intuitive inner experience, that it can be in any setting, from wilderness to urban, and at any scale, from a room to an entire landscape, and can involve quiet solitude or dancing in the street.

The Search for Sense of Place Qualities

The book, Genius Loci: A Phenomenology of Architecture (Norberg-Schulz, 1980), provides some understanding of settlements and their various typologies, the idea being that places are not only functional but also symbolic in that they convey meaning. This is based on the philosophy that a human's most fundamental need is to experience one's existence as meaningful. And for a place to be experienced as meaningful requires a sense of 'orientation' and 'identification' with that place, as one often finds in traditional settlements.

'Orientation' is seen as being central to 'sense of place', providing a feeling of security by means of familiar spaces or landmarks. 'Identity' goes hand in hand with orientation, providing a sense of belonging, as opposed to alienation, often common today.

According to Norberg-Schulz (1980), a distinctive quality of traditional settlements is their sense of enclosure, or a boundary that separates them from their surroundings, either physical, as in a walled town, or inferred, as in a clearly defined edge. Settlements tended to locate where nature offered a defined space, the genius loci, or spirit of place being derived from the correspondence between natural conditions and settlement morphology.

"The basic act of architecture is therefore to understand the 'vocation' of the place" (Norberg-Schulz).

Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote: "No building seems ill at ease in Italy. The native rocks and trees and garden slopes are at one with them, resolved into a harmonious and complete composition."  He believed that the secret of this harmonious order was the organic character of nature-patterns and the way buildings blend in.

In a similar vein, the Mexican architect, Luis Barragán, stated: "The lessons to be learned from the unassuming architecture of the villages and provincial towns of my country have been a permanent source of inspiration". (Burri, 2000). Most of us have been similarly inspired by the mission villages and small rural towns in our respective home countries or by the Medieval towns of Europe, imbued with the qualities of timelessness to which Christopher Alexander refers (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The country town of Stanford in the Western Cape, South Africa, has a strong relationship with its environment (Photo: B. Oberholzer, 2014).

Traditionally there was a pleasing logic to the siting of settlements in the landscape, usually based on topography, availability of water or fertile agricultural soils, on trade routes or as a defence against enemies, each with its unique response to its context. One seldom experiences this satisfying logic today in undifferentiated sprawling townships. On another level, 'The Line' mega project in Saudi Arabia can be seen as a contradiction of 'sense of place' having nothing to do with anything regarding its geography and local culture, illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: 'The Line', a project of the so-called Neom region of Saudi Arabia is not particularly concerned with regionalism or sense of place (Image from Dezeen 2023).

Over time, through various articles (Oberholzer and Chittenden, 1989) and teaching, I have tried to distil the qualities that contribute to sense of place, some of which are described below. These are by no means complete, particularly as each quality can be subdivided into many more intrinsic qualities, given the complexity and elusiveness of what constitutes sense of place.

A sense of nature – an awareness of life-cycles, seasonal rhythms and patterns as part of a living landscape or web of life of which we are a part.

A sense of the region – a response to local climate and topography, plants and rocks, as well as the vernacular architecture, settlements and culture.

A sense of history – an awareness of landscapes and buildings inherited from the past as part of a continuum of historical layers.

A sense of timelessness – a feeling of rootedness, where roads and buildings have become embedded in the landscape and townscape.

A sense of authenticity – where buildings and landscaping reflect the true nature of their natural and cultural context within the region.

A sense of unity – a recognisable pattern that gives a place overall coherence and legibility.

A sense of integrity – where the landscape or townscape has a pristine or intact quality, unspoiled by discordant elements.

A sense of orientation – the role of landmarks and special places for way-finding and a sense of the familiar.

A sense of scale – a relationship to human scale in the buildings and outdoor spaces.

I suspect that Luis Barragán, who had an almost monastic approach to design, would have added another one:

A sense of serenity – places of quiet contemplation and retreat from the bustle of the street and distractions of urban life.

The Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City, and the San Cristobal Stables, below, illustrate Luis Barragán's concern with serenity (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Hotel Camino Real (Photo: B. Oberholzer )
Figure 4: San Cristobal Stables (Photo:  Pinterest)

Revealing and Enshrining Sense of Place

The qualities that contribute to sense of place indicate that they have value in contemporary landscape and urban design, although achieving these qualities often remains difficult in a materialistic world of large-scale commercial or utilitarian projects.

In South Africa, the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) is used to protect places of historical value, both natural and cultural. The Act also requires municipalities to prepare an inventory of heritage resources and guidelines for their protection and management.

The Overstrand Municipality near Cape Town, South Africa, is a particularly scenic area with a strong landscape sense of place in the form of mountain ranges, coastal plains, agricultural valleys, wine farms, coastal resorts and rural villages. At the same time the numerous settlements are facing the pressure of growth and suburban sprawl.

A heritage survey and generic guidelines for the area were prepared by consultants (Baumann et al, 2009), in which places of historical or landscape value were graded into categories of protection. Examples of the guidelines intended to conserve the unique regional sense of place are illustrated in Figure 5 below.

Figure 5: Indiscriminate development in the upper diagram results in loss of sense of place, the lower diagram responding to the logic of the landscape by means of differentiated settlement patterns. (Baumann, Oberholzer and Winter, 2009).

Another planning tool is the Municipal Spatial Development Framework (MSDF), which municipalities are required to prepare and update on a regular basis. Although these documents often refer to 'sense of place', they remain broad policies without the legal teeth of the Heritage Act. However, municipal zoning schemes can include 'overlay zones' for heritage or special areas, as illustrated in Figures 6, 7 and 8 below.

Figure 6: A clear distinction existed between the settlement, farmland and wilderness areas in traditional settlements.
Figure 7: Indiscriminate development in the form of suburban sprawl and decentralised shopping malls erodes the sense of place of the traditional settlement.
Figure 8: Heritage guidelines and overlay zones can be used to protect the unique qualities and sense of place in the growth of settlements. (Figs.6-8 Baumann, Oberholzer and Winter, 2009).

Over the years excessive road space and parking provision by traffic engineers have resulted in the gradual erosion of historic precincts with their special sense of place in many municipalities. Well-intended zoning schemes, often with inappropriate building setback and parking by-laws, further erode the unique qualities of the streetscape and townscape. To remedy this, overlay zones for heritage and special areas can be promulgated to protect or reclaim a precinct's sense of place, as illustrated in Figure 9 below.

Figure 9: Excessive road space and parking (top), erode the precinct's sense of place. Relating buildings to the street (bottom), locating parking to the rear of buildings and creating special places, reinforces sense of place. (Baumann, Oberholzer and Winter, 2009)

The country town of Stanford, within the Overstrand Municipality, is a typical settlement of heritage value within a rural setting. It was laid out in a neat grid pattern, dating back to the colonial period in the mid 1800s, with a market square and irrigation channels that fed backyard vegetable gardens. Houses fronted directly onto the streets creating a charming character and human scale, (Figures 10 and 11).

Figure 10: The Stanford Village Green is the heart of the town. (Photo: B. Oberholzer)
Figure 11: Houses fronting onto a residential side street with gardens behind. (Photo: B. Oberholzer).

Even though it was proclaimed a Heritage Village, modernisation has taken its toll on the town's sense of place, with streets being widened and trees cut down to meet parking bylaw requirements, eroding the town's sense of place, (Figures 12 and 13).

Figure 12: Existing excessively wide side street in Stanford (Photo: B. Oberholzer)
Figure 13: Cluttered sidewalk inhibits pedestrian movement. (Photo: B. Oberholzer)

The efforts of the Conservation Association, along with landscape architectural input, are an attempt to reclaim the original qualities of the town by creating a series of squares, along with other traffic-calming measures, and in this way reinforce the essential qualities that constitute the town's sense of place, as illustrated in Figure 14 below. This tends to be an incremental process depending on municipal budgets, (Figures 14 and 15).

Figure 14: The upgrade of Stanford consisted of re-discovering special places, particularly those that relate to civic or religious buildings, and knitting these together to create a stronger overall sense of place for the village centre. (Oberholzer, 2014)

Figure 15: A planned landscape intervention for Stanford village centre, from the existing situation (top) and subsequent phase for the main street and public spaces, creating a 'heart' for community life. (Oberholzer, 2014)
Figure 16: Upgraded, shared pedestrian street. (Photo:B. Oberholzer)

Even minor details can detract from or enhance sense of place. Traditional settlements derived their qualities from the limited palette of local materials and craftsmanship in contrast with the more crude engineered constructions and the clutter of street hardware common today, (Figures 17 and 18).

Figures 17 and 18: A typical crude engineering road detail (top), and a more finely crafted road verge detail from Germany (bottom). (Photos: B. Oberholzer)

Concluding Remarks

'Sense of place' has many different meanings and takes many forms at a range of scales. Its genesis lies in an appreciation of the unique characteristics of the region, its landscapes, settlements, architecture and culture. Although hard to define, an attempt has been made in this paper to highlight some of the qualities that constitute sense of place.

The work of Luis Barragán and his fellow architects of the time has been mentioned as a typical example of a contemporary Mexican aesthetic reflecting the biography of the place, leading the architect Ignacio Morales to say: "if architecture is not of its place then it is not architecture" (von Zeil, 2002).

We need to ask ourselves to what extent these values remain true and valid in contemporary design in the African context, particularly when contrasted with mega projects such as 'The Line' in the Middle East.


Alexander, C. 1979. The Timeless Way of Building. p. 19. Oxford University Press, NewYork.

Burri, R. 2000. Luis Barragan. p. 7. Phaidon Press Limited, London.

Baumann, N., B. Oberholzer, S. Winter. 2009. Heritage and Development Guidelines Related to The Overstrand Heritage Survey. Overstrand Municipality.

Norberg-Schulz, C. 1980. Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. Rizzoli, NewYork.

Oberholzer, B. and D. Chittenden. 1989. Streets for Living: Emerging Patterns. Landscape Southern Africa Journal, May/June 1989.

Oberholzer, B. 2014. Stanford Village Plan: Queen Victoria Street Precinct. A collaborative project. Unpublished report.

Dezeen, 2023. Report on 'The Line' by T. Ravenscroft in Dezeen, January and February 2023.

Von Zeil, C. 2002. Luis Barragán: The Man and His Work. Master of Landscape Architecture paper, University of Cape Town. Unpublished paper.