The Sense of Place

It is important to realize that a “sense of place” is of fundamental value to people everywhere – in every city, every town, every neighborhood and every culture, from all ages (Kent, Unknown).

A poor quality and sterile environment can create feelings of alienation amongst residents and users. This results in an area where people feel uncomfortable, where pride and sense of shared ownership of the environment is low. Also, few people will want to linger in public spaces and where crime particularly vandalism (

 Place is a central concern for architects and urban designers. For example, Whyte (1998) provides detailed descriptions of the life of the street in a modern city. His comprehensive descriptions of the use of the street-side plazas highlights the issues between places which “work” and those which do not, whether or not people want to be there. Similarly, Christopher Alexander’s (1987) “pattern” ostensibly describes principles of physical design, the focus is less on the structure of buildings and cities, and more on the living which goes on in them. He comments “those of us who are concerned with buildings tend to forget too easily that all the life and soul of a place, all of our experiences there, depend not simply on the physical environment, but on the pattern of events which we experience there”.

So, architects and urban designers are concerned not simply with designing three-dimensional structures (spaces), but with places for people to be (Harrison and Dourish, 1996).

Sense of public place Courtesy of

Sense of public place
Courtesy of

Sense of Community

 What constitutes sense of community has varied across the studies. McMillan and Chavis (1986) argue that membership, mutual influence, fulfillment of needs and shared emotional connection are the four major elements that should be distinguished in sense of community.  There are four concepts that received attention from architects and urban designers which act as important aspects of residents’ feeling that they belong to the place (community).

1. Place (Community) Attachment:

It refers to residents’ emotional bonding or ties to their community. The sense of feeling at home is one’s community can be expressed in a variety of ways including:

– Community satisfaction: when local residents find their homes and community

satisfactory, they are likely to experience a strong community attachment.

– Sense of connectedness: residents feel attached to their community when it reminds them of their personal and community history and tradition and familiar environmental characteristics.

– Sense of ownership: when local residents feel they have a sense of control over their community, this sense of ownership can increase community attachment.

Sense of ownership and control over places Courtesy of

Sense of ownership and control over places
Courtesy of

– Long-term integration: long-term residence lead to long-term social integration into the local area, and such integration creates an emotional bond between residents and their place.

Long-term social integration Courtesy of

Long-term social integration
Courtesy of

Thus, place attachment is a key domain of sense of community, as it expresses ways in which one feels at home and belonging to the community.

2. Place identity:

It is defined as personal and public identifications with a specific physically bounded community with its own character. Community identity implies that local features of the built and natural environment characterize a physical identity of place, which in turn affects residents’ personal and group identity. Community identity is engendered by the following:

– Uniqueness or distinctiveness: it means “being different” from other through associating with a place.

– Continuity: physical properties of community maintain a link between residents’ past and present environments, which in turn helps preserve their own and community identities.

– Significance: self-esteem, pride, referring to a positive evaluation of one-self, the group or the place with which one identifies.

– Congruence or compatibility: a “good fit” exists when the environment facilitates people’s everyday lifestyle and when they can perform well in that environment.

Compatibility with the surrounding environment Courtesy of

Compatibility with the surrounding environment
Courtesy of

– Cohesiveness: the strong character of community is expressed by a sense of homogeneity, intimacy and compactness.

Through combinations of these qualities, community identity can thus contribute to residents’ sense of community.

3. Social Interaction:

It is designed as formal (e.g. active, planned) or informal (e.g. casual unplanned) social opportunity in which residents attend to the quality of their relationships. Social interaction consists of:

– Neighboring: interactions with residents living next door or on the same block.

Interactions between residentsCourtesy of

Interactions between residents Courtesy of

– Community participation: interaction about community issues or engagement in community problems and related activities.

Residents' engagement to solve community problems Courtesy of

Residents’ engagement to solve community problems
Courtesy of

– Social support: friendship networks and the development of small groups that fosters feeling of caring for each other.

Through such social interactions, residents get to know one another and gain a sense of belonging in the community.

4. Pedestrianism:

It implies that a community is designed for walking and fostering street-side activities. Pedestrianism consists of four major concepts:

– Walkability: in a walkable community, the community’s physical environment is conductive to more walking and less driving.

– Pedestrian propinquity: residents may feel a sense of community if their community has necessary services within easy walking distance.

– Public transit: when the community center, workplaces and other communities are reachable by public transportation, a community is likely to experience a sense of community and to promote less automobile dependency.

Public transit systems Courtesy of

Public transit systems
Courtesy of

– Pedestrian-scale and street-side activity: if a streetscape is designed to human scale to create a high-quality street environment, it can help residents to feel comfortable in engaging in street-side activities.

High quality street-side environment Courtesy of

High quality street-side environment
Courtesy of

This means that pedestrianism provides support for the role of pedestrians in enhancing sense of community. Walking in the community brings residents closer to the community providing opportunities for greater social contact, enhanced identity and stronger attachment (Kim and Kaplan, 2004).

Milwaukee: The Transformation from Parking Lot to Hot Spot

For more than twenty-five years, the site that is now partially occupied by the Spot 4MRE, has created a problematic gap in the physical and social landscape of Downtown Milwaukee. The pair of city-owned surface parking lots, spanning two acres, was recently described both as a “black hole” and a “sore spot”. At the same time, though, there has been a growing coalition of civic leaders and community organizers who recognize the tremendous potential of this space. Not only does it have a number of key downtown destinations as neighbors (a convention center, historic hotel and major retailers), but there is also an emerging belief that this location could become a place that all Milwaukeeans can share. Residents have declared that because the feels like it is no one’s, it has the potential to become everyone’s.

Milwaukee area Courtesy of PPS

Milwaukee area Courtesy of PPS

In early 2014, the Winconsin Ave. Milwaukee Development Corp (WAMDC) selected Creative Alliance Milwaukee (CAM) to lead a multidisciplinary team to identify the best uses for the site. The team discovered that there was a huge demand for more dynamic, inclusive and community oriented activity downtown and that any development of the site should include a flexible public place that supports a wide variety of activit

Also, community members helped develop a shared vision for the space and identify the best “first move” for the project. Later on, the area became a place for people, not cars.

Team members created a colorful site graphic and initial suite amenities including picnic tables, umbrellas and games. Additional amenities like exterior hula-hoop racks, signage, beanbag chairs, giant games and a sound system were also added to the mix. Moreover, community members were allowed to participate in painting large portions of the design.

Milwaukee area Courtesy of PPS

Milwaukee area
Courtesy of PPS

The Spot 4MKE is still a humble place, but it is full of evidence of a community that is trying to do things differently, a community that has a courage to lead with people and places, a community that understands that the project of making a more creative, inclusive and prosperous city will never be finished (Project for Public Places).


One way to engender sense of ownership in residents and users of place is through their participation in the design of their environments. Users who participate in the design of public places develop a sense of meaningful involvements and responsibility in society. One of the most important outcomes of users’ participation in design is their sense of environmental competence. Environmental competence is the knowledge, skill and confidence to utilize the environment in order to carry out one’s own goals to enrich one’s experience. By building a user’s environmental competence, the participant feels as though he or she created a unique place-one in which the user has ownership over.

Public places that include community attachment, place identity, social interaction and pedestrianism will foster user ownership. The ability to increase users’ engagement is dependent on their opportunities to “own” their place. Consequently, users who can acquire a sense of connectedness, active involvement and personal investment in their public place are able to better understand their surrounding environment and therefore senses of promote a desire to own these places.


Written by: Riham Nady

Edited by: Aiysha Alsane



– Harrison, Steve and Dourish, Paul. (1996). “Re-Pla-cing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems”. ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work. New York, United States.


– Kim, Joongsub and Kaplan, Rachel. (May 2004). “Physical and Physiological Factors in Sense of Community: New Urbanist Kentlands and Nearby Orchard Village”. Environment and Behaviour. Vol. 36. No. 3. pp. 313-340. Soge Publications.

– Project for Public Spaces official website. (Unknown). “Toward an Architecture of Place: Moving Beyond Iconic to Extraordinary”. an-architecture-of-place-moving-beyond-iconic-to-extraordinary

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