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Place in geography

“Place is an idea that lies at the very core of geography and is one of the key concepts around which the new secondary geography curriculum has been built. Indeed, place is so ubiquitous in the subject that it can be tempting to take it for granted…”

Benjamin Major, 2010

Topics on this page:

  • The importance of place in geography
  • Ways of thinking about place
  • A three lamps model
  • Understanding place as a concept
  • What is a ‘sense of place’?
  • Place and mental maps
  • A question of scale
  • Reading

The importance of place in geography

Place has been identified as one of the key concepts within geography. Do you take its central role in geography for granted? How deeply have you thought about why place lies at the very heart of the subject? Why is the relationship between people and places so important to the subject? Why is a ‘sense of place important’? 

You should consider these questions carefully before you start thinking about how to teach about places. Explore for yourself the meaning of the term ‘place’ and the concepts of ‘place’ and ‘space’, especially if you did not study this as part of your degree.

  • Refer to some of the readings listed below and consider the importance of academic geographers’ thinking about place and its importance for school geography. Think about how place can be defined and the difference between ‘place’ and ‘places’.

Reading

  • Cannings, J. (2002) ‘Why Place?’ Teaching Geography, July.
  • Cresswell, T. (2008) ‘Place; encountering geography as philosophy’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Cresswell, T. (2015) Place: An introduction, 2nd Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 120-3
  • Major, B. (2010) ‘Aspects of place’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Rawling, E. (2018) ‘Place in geography: Change and challenge’ in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education. London: Routledge, pp. 49–61
  • Rawling, E. (2018) ‘Reflections on “place”’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Taylor, L. (2005) ‘Place: an exploration’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

Ways of thinking about place

The readings identify the many aspects of place that there are to be considered and show that the concept of ‘place’ can be interpreted in several ways, from a spatial location to a human experience. These different ways of thinking about the concepts will influence how you teach about place.

Place is an interaction of human activity with the physical environment. This is an important way to think about place. Several writers point out that ‘place’ cannot be studied in isolation because places are socially and economically linked to other places. Major asks us to consider:

Where does the concept of place stand in a world that is commonly seen as being increasingly globalised and interconnected? Is place still a relevant concept?’

How to define place? Cresswell (2008) discusses ‘defining place’ and asks us think about what we mean when we refer to ‘place’ in everyday life. Cresswell (2015) outlines several different ways in which ‘place’ can be used, as:

  • A location
  • A locale or community, with a meaning for people and evokes a ‘sense of place’
  • A landscape
  • An idea or way of understanding the world.

Place and identity. Cannings (2002) points out that it is important to help students to develop attachment to place for their own self-identify and personal stability, particularly those who have come from different countries and cultures. 

The ideas of place, home, identity and belonging are part of young people’s everyday experience. It is, therefore, important for students to develop the capacity to think about each of these carefully and critically as part of their geographical study to take them beyond the ‘everyday’.

Place and creative arts. Rawling (2018) points out the resurgence in academic geography of humanistic research and how phenomenological research has a concern with the creative arts that offers ‘huge possibilities for school education’.

  • Be imaginative in your lessons and explore different ways to teach about place. Taylor (2005) reminds us that our ‘everyday relationships with place are incredibly rich and complex. Even staying at home is the stuff of geography, but do we get the most out of it in our lessons?’

A three lamps model

Freeman and Morgan (2017) present a three lamps model in relation to key academic perspectives on place:

  • Natural science/positivist: an objective and factual view of a place with a focus on location and features, such as landscape and settlements
  • Humanistic/interpretivist: a subjective view of a place as a locality or community that has meaning for people and evokes a ‘sense of place’
  • Social science: considers collective human-environment interactions (socio-economic or political) at a variety of scales from neighbourhood to international.

This model could provide you with a ‘checklist’ for your teaching so that you give students opportunities to see places through each of these perspectives and help them to develop a rounded and holistic understanding of place.

Ofsted, in the 2023 report Getting our bearings, explains that teachers should:

Make sure that pupils learn about places in an appropriately nuanced and complex way. They should encounter the same places at different times and in different contexts, or look at a place through a range of geographical lenses. Pupils should have some opportunities for regional as well as thematic studies.

  • Refer to the GA website Investigating place for extensive resources about teaching place and using Sheffield as a case study.

Understanding place as a concept

A teacher must ensure that students understand the concept of place, which is different to knowing the details of particular places. Understanding place as a concept requires students to consider different kinds of places in their own right, not just as examples of thematic geography.

They need to explore different place meaning and identities, considering their local place as well as more distant places. They should find out how others represent a place and have opportunities to express their responses to place.

Ofsted (2023) reported that where the concept of place was taught very well and teachers planned to revisit places in a range of contexts over time:

…pupils were able to use their locational knowledge to explain some of the features of the places studied. They also considered how a range of different human and physical processes applied to the place and contrasted the place with other places that they had learned about…pupils were aware of the multi-faceted nature of the places they studied‘.

  • See Hunt (2022) who explores how he used football to develop the concept of place with GCSE students.

What is a ‘sense of place’?

Place as a concept provides a rather theoretical view of the world and this may not be the best way to motivate all young people to study place. An experiential, as well as a conceptual, route, can be used to engage young people in their study of place. Thus, geography teachers often look to the idea of a ‘sense of place’; this refers to the meanings that are associated with a place.

Edward Relph (1976) describes a sense of place as the deep appreciation of a place’s character and he stresses the individuality and uniqueness of places. It is important to bear this in mind as we teach about places. Massey (1997) points out that places are home to multiple communities and individuals, all with different senses of place. Hill (2019) applies the idea to the term ‘terroir’ in the context of regional food and drink.

Taylor (2005) is a key reading; consider the points it raises carefully. It draws on the work of academic geographers such as Relph and Massey for different perspectives on ‘place’ and stresses the value of thinking deeply about a ‘sense of place’ and how to approach this in our teaching.

Place and mental maps

Knowing the locations and characteristics of people, places and environments is necessary for geographic learning and thinking. A geographically informed person must mentally organise spatial information about people, places and environments and be able to call upon and use this information in appropriate contexts.

An effective way of doing this is to develop and use what is known as a mental map. These ‘maps in the mind’ are what a person knows about the locations and characteristics of places at a variety of scales, from the local to the global. 

Mental maps are a mix of objective knowledge and subjective perceptions: precise knowledge about the location of geographic features as well as impressions of places, rough estimates of size and location, and a general sense of the connections between places.

A question of scale

Scale is one of geography’s most important concepts and has a significant role in understanding and teaching about place. But ‘scale’ is far from straightforward. 

In simple terms it refers to the translation of distance in the ‘real world’ to its representation on a map, indicated in such simple metric terms as 1:50,000. It also refers to different spatial resolutions – such as the local, the national or the global. We study places at all these different scales.

There is also a relational way of thinking about scale. Different scales are connected with each other; for example, ‘the global’ is comprised from many ‘locals’. Every locality is influenced by many forces that act upon it; some of these may be local, but other may operate at a global scale.

Decisions taken on Wall Street or in Brussels reverberate around the world, and impact in different ways in different places. But also, global forces are shaped by processes that originate in local places. 

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 is a good example. It led to a global movement against a history of violence against Black people that looked back to slavery, colonialism, the legacy of empire and the racist symbols it represented.

To capture this relational way of seeing the world, geography educators have adopted the photographic metaphor of zooming in and zooming out rather than remaining at one, fixed, scale of analysis. Geography teachers can use this visually through the use of Global Earth. We can look at case studies at different scales, such as urban data at neighbourhood and city level.

We can study issues at different scales, such as questions about wealth and poverty. We often arrive at different interpretations of data according to the scale that we are looking at; for example, employment data can tell a different story if it is UK-wide compared to regional data.

Reading

  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 11 pp. 120-3.
  • Hill, R. (2019) ‘Exploring terroir: a sense of place in food and farming’, Geography, Spring.
  • Hubbard, P. and Kitchin, R. (eds) (2001) Key Thinkers on Space and Place. London: SAGE.
  • Hunt, P. (2022) ‘Using football to introduce the concept of place to key stage 4 students’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Massey, D. (1997) ‘A global sense of place’ in Barnes, T. and Gregory, D. (eds) Reading Human Geography: The poetics and politics of inquiry. London: Arnold.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rawding, C. (2007) Theory into Practice: Understanding Place as a Process, Geographical Association, which includes a chapter on ‘What is Britain’?
  • Relph, E. (1976) Place and placelessness. London: Pion.

Browse issues of Geography for articles from academic geographers that provide excellent case studies of places that can be used as a teaching resource. 

For example the Spring 2023 issue of Geography includes articles on British National Parks, the Arctic region and two Indian cities, Chennai in south-east India and Srinagar in the Kashmir. In particular the feature This Changing World which is in each issue is a useful resource for teachers.