One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Authentic Sense Of Place

A recent post in Eco-Notes—Living Shelter Designs’ green building blog—caught my attention and imagination. Any discussion about ‘sense of place’ always peaks my interest, as it’s a concept I think about a lot, as a writer, as an artist and as an urban dweller.

The thought-provoking article focused on building local in the Pacific Northwest, but brought up ideas that are relevant no matter where you live. (Or if you’re a fiction writer, where your characters live!) In the post, author Kira Connery discusses how building local should strive to help define this often “ephemeral” sense of place. She says:

Place is a challenging term to define – what makes a location an authentic “place,” rather than just coordinates on a map? What makes some cities, towns and homes memorable and others forgettable? What impact does “place” have on our community and individual identities? And how do we uncover a location’s sense of place? Building professionals and scholars have long debated these questions amidst ongoing explorations of what makes a space a “place,” and how this sense of place varies from region to region.

She mentions my home town, San Francisco, and says while many immediately think of Victorians as its defining characteristic, the authentic character of a place is much more than just architectural style—it is a constantly evolving relationship between the people who live there and the landscape that defines their environment. I love that. And know that we San Franciscans interact daily with the hills, the circumscription of water in three directions, the tumble of fog advancing and retreating from the horizon. This to me defines the sense of place where I live as much as the wooden bay-windowed houses tightly butted up against one another lining the hills in my neighborhood.

Like many, I am drawn to landscapes with an authentic and unique sense of place and I feel strangled and even offended by landscapes that have been striped and replaced by something ugly and generic. Ms. Connery has something to say about that too:

In most cities and towns, it is easy to find buildings that don’t tell us much about our communities. Fast-food chains and big-box stores are two common examples of buildings that owe their appearance to processes far removed from their site and the community they serve. They are uniformly prescriptive, rather than uniquely perceptive. These buildings detract from a sense of place not because they lack a specific style, but because regardless of where they are built, their appearance and relationship to their surroundings is the same…
Place-making requires discovery, participation and interaction, not only from building professionals, but from home owners and community members as well. This process can shape architecture in a variety of ways: a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials.

This last line acted like a light switch in my writer’s mind—I’ve copied and saved it to use when I’m revising a story for setting:

“…a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials.”

What a marvelous tool for creating a specific and distinctive setting. Instead of just living in a ‘house in the suburbs,’ (or the city, or the country) what if your character lived in a house or a community that reflected the region, the local culture and/or the indigent natural resources, prescribed by artisans of the area? It’s a richer, more layer way to create setting and certainly worth considering, don’t you think?

To read the entire excellent article go to Living Shelter Designs’ Eco-Notes. Oh, and by the way, Living Shelter is owned by my brilliant architect sister, Terry Phelan!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on sense of place, whether in the real world or in your writing…

Take Good Care,


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! You're right; a sense of place is absolutely essential in our writing. Through reading this I realized there are a few details I can add to the setting of my WIP -- details I hadn't thought about before, but will really add to the setting. Thanks!