Why place matters

Places all over the world change in a rapid pace and are affected by processes such as globalization and modernization. Some scholars argue that globalization has turned the world into a marketplace, where everything has become a tradable object, driven by a discourse of competitiveness. Others argue that the re-ordering caused by globalization has resulted in a disconnection between places of production and consumption, sustainability problems, and the commodification of land and landscapes. Some scholars have even referred to the ‘erasure of place’ ‘non-places’, or ‘place-lessness’ as gloomy outcomes of globalization. This raises the question: does place still matter?

We would argue that place is more relevant than ever. A key argument is that all structural processes affecting places, such as capitalism, climate change, state decisions, or market relations, have a differentiating impact on how places areactually shaped. This results in place diversity and spatially dispersed sustainability problems, such as resource depletion, economic inequalities, mobilities and social exclusion. Exogenous factors thus are not merely adopted in a local context, but result in spatially varied outcomes: ‘territories of difference’.

Picture: Toentje, a citizen initiative on urban gardening in Groningen, the Netherlands

Furthermore, a place is not a blank canvas, but the result of the inscription of culture, physical characteristics, and historic and actual human actions. Places are also unequal in the ways power, capacities and resources can be mobilized, something that a local ‘politics of place’ must take into account. Places shape a wide range of opportunities and barriers. The physical shape of places, their infrastructure, ownership and uses, all influence how people can make a living and live their lives and enable or disable future pathways.

Place is also relevant because it has meaning for people. It holds the space for individual values and collective identities of people. A shared ‘sense of place’ can potentially be a call for action and result in collective care and responsibility of resources, although the link between sense of place and action is not a straightforward and causal relation.

Place is also an arena, an expression of power relations, holding a variety of opinions and interests and potential conflicts, cutting across boundaries of wealth and institutions. It is a bridging notion that helps to understand how humans, as social beings, interact with their environment. Place is a setting for collective action and co-creation, object of policies that aim to intervene in the relations that shape places. The human actors in places should not be considered as passive victims of hegemonic processes affecting their place. Humans employ individual and collective agency in their everyday practices and co-shape their place of living, according to their ideas, opinions and values.

Often notions of place and space are not sufficiently incorporated in debates on sustainability, resulting in place-less approaches to sustainability. A ‘place-less’ approach is not sensitive to differences in contexts and places and the relations between places. A place-based approach, on the contrary, acknowledges the activities, energies and imaginations of the people and communities and how these can have impact on the environment and economy in a more sustainable way.


A place-based approach to sustainable development and transformation

There is an urgency for transformations and new (spatial) development trajectories in the context of our unsustainable patterns of living, production and consumption, provoked by processes of globalization, and uneven development. Loss of biodiversity, the depletion of resources and climate change are just some of the consequences. The challenge to develop sustainable pathways for the future has become especially urgent in the wider debates on the depletion of fossil resources and climate change.

Transformations are rooted in and affect places. Sustainable transformation must therefore accommodate the heterogeneity and diversity of places, supporting place-based approaches to development. Such place-based approaches are increasingly favoured in policy and science. The ability to adapt effectively to the current sustainability challenges asks for an inherently interdisciplinary ‘place-based’ approach, building on the specific resources, assets, capacities and distinctiveness of places, which can strengthen the resilience of areas. A place-based approach to sustainable development can provide a more systematic understanding of the place-specific links between processes that enable or hinder transformations towards more sustainable futures. It can also accommodate public participation and negotiation, local knowledge and sense-making, practices and planning, to support sustainable development.

Place-based research can help to understand and explore the transformative capacity of grassroots practices. Grassroot practices can potentially re-connect people to place. Examples are the shared management of natural resources, production of place-based crafts, community-owned renewable energy generation, urban gardening projects, and the provisioning of ecosystem services. Collaboration, collective capacity-building and self-efficacy are key conditions to utilize the full potential of places and communities towards place-based sustainable development.

For further reading, see the special issue in Sustainability Science on this topic and the editorial article: Horlings, L.G., Nieto-Romero, M., Pisters, S. et al. Operationalising transformative sustainability science through place-based research: the role of researchers. Sustain Sci (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00757-x

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