… recently, architect and preservationist James Marston Fitch wrote that “[preservation] affords the opportunity for the citizens to regain a sense of identity with their own origins of which they have often been robbed by the sheer process of urbanization.” 2
Each of us can probably think of a place, like Cicero’s childhood home, that seems to embody our identity, but how do old places “tell us who we are?” What exactly is this relationship between old places and identity? In earlier posts, I described how old places are critical for people to maintain a sense of continuity and of memory. Identity is closely related to both continuity and memory—they are part of the same package. In this post I’d like to look at individual identity, which will be followed by a future post on national or civic identity.
For more than 30 years, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and architectural theorists from all over the world have actively studied the relationship between place and identity, and have developed a variety of definitions and processes for looking at “place attachment,” and “place–identity”—how a person’s identity is tied to place. Although there is no consensus about the definitions or processes, most studies seem to accept the notion that “the use of the physical environment as a strategy for the maintenance of self ” is a pervasive aspect of identity, and that “place is inextricably linked with the development and maintenance of continuity of self.”3
The way places inform our identity and the way we create identity out of place is complex and multi-layered, and there is no agreement about how it works. The Turkish architect Humeyra Birol Akkurt offers a useful summary of a number of other scholars’ definitions of how our identify ties to place:
“…a set of links that allows and guarantees the distinctiveness and continuity of place in time,”
“the bond between people and their environment, based on emotion and cognition,”
“…symbolic forms that link people and land: links through history or family lineage, links due to loss or destruction of land, economic links such as ownership, inheritance or politics, universal links through religion, myth and spirituality, links through religion and festive cultural events, and finally narrative links through storytelling or place naming….”
Other writers have noted a sense of pride by association and a sense of self-esteem. Akkurt notes that one scholar theorizes that for any particular place there are as many different place identities as there are people using that place.4
The Norwegian architect Ashild Lappegard Hauge summarizes a key finding as “[a]spects of identity derived from places we belong to arise because places have symbols that have meaning and significance to us. Places represent personal memories, and … social memories (shared histories).” Hauge concludes that “Places are not only contexts or backdrops, but also an integral part of identity.”5
People seem to recognize intuitively the way older places symbolize meaning, significance, and memories. Yi-Fu Tuan, the influential geographer who pioneered the study of people’s relationship to place, wrote, “What can the past mean to us? People look back for various reasons, but shared by all is the need to acquire a sense of self and of identity… The passion for preservation arises out of the need for tangible objects that can support a sense of identity…”6 Old places, then, provide tangible support for our sense of identity.
But there also seems to be something bigger at work. It’s not as if we simply decide what our identity with place is. In fact, some theorists say the relationship between place and identity is inseparable. One writer, in summarizing the findings of Edward Relph, a geographer who pioneered theories about place, stated: “…the essence of place lies in its largely unselfconscious intentionality, which defines places as profound centres of human existence.” 7 Or as David Seamon summarized Relph’s idea, place is “not a bit of space, nor another word for landscape or environment, it is not a figment of individual experience, nor a social construct….It is, instead, the foundation of being both human and nonhuman; experience, actions, and life itself begin and end with place.”8