Sense of Place in the Spatial Planning, Landscape and Urban Design Disciplines

Sense of Place in the Spatial Planning, Landscape and Urban Design Disciplines

Résumé en français

Le sens du lieu dans lesdomaines de l’aménagement du territoire, du paysage et de l’urbanisme

L’article postule que le concept du sens du lieu n’est pas unepréoccupation abstraite, mais qu’il devrait être au centre des professions del’aménagement spatial. Il ne s’agit ni d’une question qui peut être abordée enmême temps que d’autres, ni d’un élément « agréable à avoir ». Ildoit être au centre de la conception.

 Il n’est pas défini par l’échelle, mais nécessite une réflexion à traversles échelles. Il ne concerne pas seulement l’environnement naturel, mais tousles paysages de la société, qu’ils soient sauvages, ruraux ou urbains.

 Toutefois, le terme est utilisé différemment selon les personnes. Dans cetarticle, les auteurs tentent d’articuler leur compréhension du terme du pointde vue de la l’aménagement spatial. Ils soulignent l’importance particulière del’équilibre dynamique, de l’ordre holistique, de l’enceinte et de la qualitéspatiale dans la création d’environnements positifs qui reflètent le sens dulieu. Pour ce faire, ils s’appuient sur une série de diagrammes annotés qui serapportent au processus de conception.

It is argued in this paper that ‘a sense of place’ is not an abstract concern but should be central to spatial design disciplines at all scales. It is not simply a ‘nice to have’ which should be considered alongside other concerns. It should be central to design since it is the product of holistic thought. It lies in the totality of environments. It is not defined by scale. While ‘place’ is a holistic term, it is made up of many smaller decisions and elements, all of which are important in achieving it: the smallest decisions can impact positively or negatively on it. It therefore requires consistency of thought at all scales. It does not only relate to the natural environment but is relevant to all landscapes: wilderness, rural and urban. Different people, however, use the term differently. In this paper, the authors seek to articulate their understanding of the term from a spatial design perspective. It emphasises the particular importance of dynamic balance, holistic order, enclosure and spatial quality in creating positive environments, which reflect a sense of place. It does this through a sequence of annotated diagrams which relate to the design process and to case studies.


‘Sense of place’ is not an abstract term but should be central to all spatial design disciplines – not simply a ‘nice to have’ but the driver of spatial design at all scales.

The term is clearly not scale-related. While place is a holistic term, it is made up of many smaller actions and elements that can impact positively or negatively on it. It therefore requires consistency across scales. It does not only relate to the natural environment but is relevant to all landscapes – wilderness, rural and urban.

The authors acknowledge that different people use the term differently. In this paper the authors seek to articulate their understanding of the term from a spatial design perspective, emphasising the importance of dynamic balance, holistic order, enclosure and spatial quality in creating positive environments which reflect a sense of place.

 Aspects contained in the Concept of ‘Sense of Place’

 The term ‘a sense of place’ contains within it a number of meanings as discussed below.

Uniqueness and Diversity

Firstly, a concern with sense of place is a plea to respect and strengthen uniqueness and diversity, and to reject standardisation and uniformity. Design should identify and strengthen uniqueness, not destroy it.

Landscape Characteristics

Secondly, it recognises that natural landscapes have different characteristics and these are important in their own right. These differences mould and inform human values and the perceptions of people living within them. It does not require judgments about what is more beautiful or useful: it is important because it is.  The clear implications of this is that, at a larger scale, reflections of all landscapes making up the totality of many places should be respected as wilderness areas or large parks.

Inter-connected Scales

Thirdly, a concern about a sense of place is not scale-related: it is relevant at all scales. Large totalities are made up of many smaller ones. The implications for design thinking is consistency across scale: thus, almost all design challenges require a ‘package of plans’ approach in which concepts are formulated at a number of scales, with larger scales providing the first level of fixes for the scales below.


Fourthly, a concern with place does not only relate to natural environments: it is relevant in wilderness, rural and urban contexts. At a larger scale, a central design issue is creating a dynamic and mutually reinforcing balance between these three landscapes.

Landscapes and Human Actions

Fifthly, central to a sense of place is the appropriateness of human actions on the landscape. Differences in characteristics (e.g. topography and climate) call for different design responses and suggest different activities. The appropriateness of the response strongly informs sense of place. It is therefore useful to distinguish between two types of landscape: romantic and cosmic (Norberg-Schultz, 1980). In romantic landscapes nature plays the foreground role and human action is appropriately background: sometimes, for example in sacred places, these are more spiritual and ritual than physical. In cosmic landscapes, for example in desert landscapes, these signals are far less clear and a sense of place needs to be created through human action on the landscape.


Sixthly, order is central to a sense of place. To elaborate, structure is the design device at all scales which people historically used to order the landscape. ‘Structure’ refers to the way in which elements of public spatial structure (green space, movement of all modes, public institutions, hard urban space and utility / emergency services) are brought into association to create a logic to which users of land respond in their own self-interest. In the first instance this logic is that of accessibility.  

The elements of public structure and their relationship with each other creates an ‘accessibility surface’: a pattern of greater and lesser accessibility along a continuum ranging from very public or exposed to very private or embedded.

All activities have their own requirements in terms of accessibility (for example, retail outlets require a high degree of exposure: they cannot survive if they are embedded). When the public structure is clear and legible all activities, large and small, formal and informal, can find a logical place in the system. The repetitive patterns thus created strongly inform a sense of place.

Quality of the Public Spatial Environment

Seventhly, the quality of the public spatial environment strongly informs a sense of place, particularly in settlements where public spaces, which may be linear (the street or boulevard) or nodal (square or piazza, which can take many geometric forms), are the highest order of social institution. While being important for all, they are particularly important in poorer areas. By definition, poorer people cannot carry out all, or even most, of their daily activities in private space. The public spaces then become central to meeting these needs; these are the places where children play, where lovers court, where the elderly meet and talk, where vendors trade or where scholars study when the house is over-crowded and so on.

When these spaces are good (when they are defined, enclosed, humanly-scaled, multifunctional and surveilled by human eyes and are landscaped), they give dignity to the entire environment. Conversely, when public spaces are poor (when the space is too large or when space bleeds out), the entire environment is hostile, regardless of the amount spent on individual buildings. The primary responsibility of all buildings is to contribute to defining public space.

While all public space is important, arguably one of the most important is the street. There is a fundamental difference between ’street’ and ‘road’. A road is an engineered conduit for motor vehicles. A street is a defined linear public space which can accommodate many human activities (albeit none perfectly), including movement.

The open space system in any settlement is strongly hierarchical, with a small number of large spaces and many smaller ones, creating an interrelated ‘family' of public spaces. The nature of the family is not the same from place to place, but it is central to structural legibility and to the character and memorability of the settlement.

Enclosure and Containment

A quality, which bears particular emphasis in relation to a sense of place, is that of enclosure and containment. There is considerable psychological evidence to suggest that humans find comfort in feeling enclosed. It is an important design consideration across scales.  

The critical issue here is achieving qualitatively good three-dimensional space whether naturally defined or designed through human actions which integrate landscape, settlement and human activities.

A Normative Position and Some Central Principles for Achieving Sense of Place

 There are a number of design principles which are central to achieving a sense of place as outlined below.

An overarching principle is one of maintaining a dynamic balance between the landscapes of society – wilderness, rural and urban so that there is an essential symbiosis between all three (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Balance between the landscapes of society – wilderness, rural and urban

A primary regional planning challenge is to create a balance between the landscapes of society. Wilderness and rural landscapes should be seen as the positive elements, instead of urban, as is currently the case, where sprawl is destroying the other two. Achieving this requires the reservation of large ’rooms’ of wilderness and rural space, linked by green corridors to create a green lattice within which a hierarchy of settlements occurs.

The second overarching principle is one of recognising the role of water as a scarce resource and evoking its place-making potential. Water possesses powerful symbolic value and should be used as a place-making element where possible. Surface water furrows, as opposed to underground pipes, have been the primary organising system of settlements historically, contributing to sense of place (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The structure of water – its various forms and functions

Additional principles include the following:

the principle of integrating natural and built elements in settlement formation with mutually reinforcing networks and geometries including tendencies towards linearity in both nature and in settlements;    

the principle of integrated settlements with a clear, legible and equitable settlement structure;

the principle of creating agricultural opportunities at all scales particularly where there is a need for food security;

the principle of multi-functionality, which promotes various overlapping uses;

the principle of inter-connected space in settlement structure with integrated public open space being central to sense of place and legible settlement structure; and

the principle of clustering in which a ‘kit of parts’ provides public elements to increase convenience and create special places. This requires mutually reinforcing community facilities organised around a dignified multi-purpose public space.

 Some Central Pre-conditions to Guide Thinking about Sense of Place

While the principles discussed above relate to achieving a sense of place, there are  broader considerations which are pre-conditions for achieving it. These are illustrated graphically below.

The distribution of hard and soft open space should not be ad-hoc nor comprise residual or ‘left-over’ space. This, along with movement routes and other public infrastructure should be integrated into a holistic system forming the public ‘skeleton’ of a region or settlement – an inter-connected public spatial network. The dominant landscape elements (wilderness, rural and urban) create a generic geometry of point, line, grid and domain (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Dominant structural landscape elements

Various landscape forms, each requiring different human responses with particular reference to rising mountain, sloping terrain, flowing water, opening or closing of space relate to the idea of boundary and edge, directionality, domain, foci and landmarks (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Landform, landmarks, water, routes and sense of gateway(Adapted from: Ardalan, N and Bakhtiar, L (1973) and Higuchi, T (1975)

An aerial view of the town of Graaff Reinet, Eastern Cape, South Africa reveals the enclosure, containment, strong edges and compact form which are all central to a sense of place (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Harmonious and symbiotic relationships between landscape and settlement

A contained settlement which is compact with strong and clearly defined edges are intended to discourage sprawl. It is embedded in open space in the form of agricultural domains surrounded by wilderness. Internally, the settlement is organised around a hierarchical system of streets, parks and hard open spaces (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Compact settlement with clearly defined edges (Adapted from Rucano, M, 1999)

The hierarchy of spaces, both hard and soft, forms the primary ordering system. The ‘family’ is made up with both linear and nodal space. The hierarchy of open space corresponds with the hierarchy of movement.  Edges of the settlement are strong and clearly defined and the width is determined by convenient walking distances from the central spine (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Integrated settlement with a hierarchy or a ‘family’ of public spaces

The settlement is announced by clear gateway and sense of arrival spaces.  At a local scale, open space is directly associated with the dwelling unit and can take the form of private or communal gardens, landscaped street space, front yards, internal courts, loggias or balconies. Integrating the public elements of settlement structure consistently across scales is integral to a sense of place.

The elements of public space can have many configurations, either linear (the street) or nodal (the square, which can take many geometric forms). The square (or collective gathering space) is the community heart. It is necessary for a sense of belonging, for orientation, as a landmark, as a place of escape from the intensity of the surrounding areas, as a place of meeting and a place of exchange. The generic idea of square is a timeless and honoured tradition (Figure 8a).

The concept of square and linear space is strongly hierarchical with a ‘family’ of collective similarly scaled spaces. In larger spaces, flexibility is an asset.This is strongly suggested in the great market square of Marrakesh (Figure 8b), which has evolved over a long time.  Here regional transport routes and public facilities come together to create a vibrant mixed-use precinct which fluctuates in size over time in terms of spontaneous activities.

Figures 8a and b: Public space – the traditional idea of ‘square’ or collective gathering place

Streets, in their various forms, can offer many types of opportunity.  The street is the lowest common denominator of movement in settlement space. They are, by their nature, linear public spaces with rhythmic pulses of activity along them. Streets and paths define movement channels in urban settlements and are organised hierarchically according to function, role, volume of traffic they carry, width and character.

Common forms of street include multi-way boulevards, local main and collector streets, secondary access streets, residential streets, traffic calmed streets, pedestrian zones and transport connections. Streets can also be classified by form, such as linear, curved and intermittent street space providing variety.  When streets are viewed as public spaces, they can become important instruments of urban upgrading, as in a plan for the upgrading of Eveline Street, Katutura, Windhoek, Namibia (Figure 9a).  

Figure 9a: Public space – structurally and spatially significant streets

In poorer communities, social interaction is complemented by small scale economic activities, occurring in dignified street spaces reinforced with robust and appropriately scaled infrastructure. Positive streets are multi-functional, the functions they perform affecting their cross-sections. Emphasis should always be on human comfort in street design. Upgrading possibilities, including the importance of active and clearly defined edges are shown in the sections for Eveline Street, Katutura, Windhoek, Namibia. Building height is important for spatially containing urban activity and creating opportunities for surveillance (Figure 9b).

Figure 9b: Public space – the street as integrator of social and small-scale economic activities

Illustrating and Expanding the ArgumentThrough Case Studies

The case studies below illustrate some of the principles associated with the making of place. The cases, mostly by the authors unless otherwise indicated, include a variety of contexts. Some of the projects are from the Western Cape – a many-placed place that contains  high mountains, escarpments, plateaus, plains, great rivers and coastlines of very different character. Climatically it is diverse, ranging from semi tropical to Mediterranean to semi-desert, reflecting a unique sense of regional place.  

The first case, the Agulhas National Park at the southern tip of Africa, deals with the concept of sense of place in a wilderness zone – a zone in which, almost by definition, the design challenge is not to compete with nature, but to enhance it.

The Park authority intends to increase the tourist potential of the park by providing several new facilities, including a restaurant, tourist offices, a teaching and display function, new ablutions, a shop and improved parking. The site contains two main attractions, these being the historic lighthouse and the southern-most point of Africa (Figures 10a and b).

Figures 10a and b: creating sense of place in a wilderness context, Agulhas National Park at the southern tip of Africa, South Africa

The next case illustrates a concept to structure two settlements within an environmentally sensitive urban context into an integrated emerging corridor at Kommetjie and Ocean View, settlements which in their current form are non-places. Elements which contribute to a sense of place are mapped in order to determine informants for development.  These include physical, climatic, biotic and visual factors. (Figures 11a and b).

Figures 11a and b: A Concept for integrating the settlements of Kommetjie and Ocean View, south of Cape Town,South Africa

Acupuncture-type projects serve as catalysts, the intention being to insert them strategically into the urban fabric to stimulate spontaneous upgrading of the surrounding urban area over time. An acupuncture project for a town is illustrated below for the Blue-Jacket Corridor in Francistown, Botswana. The road formed a barrier, not an integrator, with a poor pedestrian experience and edges that are entirely dead –qualitatively a no-man’s land. The project involved a revitalisation opportunity for an area identified locally as having development potential.  

The design response was to down-grade the road and stitch the urban fabric together to create a slower-moving street and integrate the street with the other elements of public structure, along with infilling on the edges. Precincts along the street, which have different possibilities, were identified (Figure 12).

Figure 12: An acupuncture project in a town context, Francistown, Botswana

An acupuncture-type project in a rural context is illustrated for Bergville, a small town on the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountain Range in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Over time, the spatial structure had become very confused and an urban design framework was commissioned to resolve this. The primary elements of public structure contributing to sense of place included strong edge definition to protect surrounding agricultural land, an interconnected green space structure, elements and spaces of heritage significance, a hierarchy of movement and street spaces, an interconnected system of public space and gateways/ arrival spaces (Figure 13).

Figure 13: An urban design framework for a rural context, Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

A project in a mission village context involved the upgrading of the Main Road through Elim Village in the Western Cape, South Africa. This included landscape, heritage, transportation and place-making considerations. Actions to turn the road into a street to become the focus of the village included re-establishing a visual axis between the Church and the highest point of the landscape, gateways into the village, a church forecourt space, and defining the historic precinct and street using low walls and planting. (Figures 14a and b).

Figure 14a and b: Urban design concept and images of upgraded main street, Elim, Western Cape, South Africa

In the case of Atlantis, north of Cape Town in the Western Cape, a run-down open space on a strategic corner site was upgraded as a multi-functional local park. The intention was to create a ‘place of comfort’ in a tough social environment and to encourage more intensive activities on the edges, improved pedestrian experiences and the provision of passive spaces for recreation to uplift the local area. The initiative formed part of the City of Cape Town's 'Public PlacesProgramme' (Figure 15).      

Figure 15: Dura Park Upgrading Project, Atlantis, Western Cape, South Africa

 When people are poor, most daily activities occur in the streets and other public spaces, these being essential to processes of informal settlement formation. Projects with a focus on public space in informal settlements are illustrated below. One of these is Bloekombos in Kraaifontein, Cape Town where a diagrammatic representation of shared public space is shown (Figure 16).

Figure 16: Diagrammatic footprint of shared public space to be upgraded in Bloekombos, Kraaifontein, Cape Town


Professionals concerned with sense of place need to, and must grapple with, inter alia the following issues:  

optimising the assets of the place;

reinforcing and creating a sense of place;

using water as a place-making element;

respecting heritage;

using public institutions as landmarks;

creating special places;

viewing public space as the highest order of social institution;

promoting qualities of ‘street’, and not ‘road’;

promoting diversity, choice and convenience;

using planting to create structural legibility;

adopting and applying ‘safe-city’ principles; and

prioritising the pedestrian.


These aspects together contribute to qualities of livability and resilience.


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