A Sense of Place…

A Sense of Place…

Every neighbourhood or urban landscape has a unique sense of place, resulting from its physical form and the characteristics of its community. Memory and emotion impact how we engage with and value places.

When new developments are built in or next to existing urban landscapes, does a different sense of place exist for the former? How can the merging of past and present contribute to the long-term social sustainability of a community?

Finding Place in Recognition

With the projected increase in the population of NSW over the next few decades, there is little doubt that the availability of land, or more specifically housing, is a critical issue for the strategic planning of the state. This also places additional pressure on the planning approvals processes at the local and state level.

Urban regeneration is the rehabilitation of land areas that are subject to high-density urban land use.[i]

It is a strategy that aims to transform and renovate areas to be upgraded for housing, public/community spaces, commercial buildings, infrastructure, and services. This process is an effective way to improve urban performance by targeting areas with low utilisation or a high incidence of poverty, pollution, and congestion, with the aim of creating a complete regeneration of an area.

Urban regeneration has met with both success and failure. It has had an impact on significant urban landscapes and changing demographics across the globe. When implemented successfully, urban regeneration is a significant opportunity to reverse declining cities by improving physical structures through new urbanisation models and enhancing the economies of those cities.

When transforming these underutilised landscapes, buildings and neighbourhoods, it is critical that heritage and social sustainability are considered. Urban regeneration is an opportunity to use innovative approaches to managing developmental pressures and create a platform for the sustainable growth of cities in the future.[ii]

This can be achieved by considering the existing elements within a site or landscape, such as buildings, infrastructure, landscapes (natural and cultural), communities, services, amenities and social connections to a place. Ideally a regeneration process would seek to utilise what is already present and create a new form or use. These unique characteristics can contribute to the sense of place—something that distinctively defines one location as opposed to another.

Forging Community

So how can urban renewal and the conservation of heritage items be combined to create socially sustainable communities? Also, what is the contribution of retained heritage elements—both built and landscape—within a site that has undergone regeneration? Those who have been in the heritage industry for some time often have an innate sense that retaining heritage and social values contributes to the long-term success of urban renewal, but the question of how heritage contributes to a sense of place requires further unpicking.

The changing idea of a ‘sense of place’ has been described by the influential American landscape writer JB Jackson:

‘Sense of place’ is a much-used expression, chiefly by architects but taken over by urban planners and interior decorators and the promoters of condominiums, so that now it means very little. It is an awkward and ambiguous translation of the Latin term genius loci. In classical times it means not so much the place itself as the guardian divinity of that place. … in the eighteenth century the Latin phrase was usually translated as ‘the genius of a place’, meaning its influence. … We now use the current version to describe the atmosphere to a place, the quality of its environment. Nevertheless, we recognize that certain localities have an attraction which gives us a certain indefinable sense of well-being and which we want to return to, time and again.

The process by which a landscape, building, or group of buildings goes through urban regeneration is not a new concept; however, the methods and policies for applying the process have changed from rudimentary reconstruction projects to well-considered adaptive re-use projects that integrate the new and old elements in a strategic approach.

A successful example of this approach is the redevelopment of the former Prince Henry Hospital Site in Little Bay. Today the area is characterised by mixed low-rise development, predominantly residential, with some commercial and community use spaces. Just 20 per cent of the large former Prince Henry site has been developed, with the remainder retained in public ownership—preserved as parks, bushland and walking areas, all designed to protect endangered native plant species, heritage and cultural landscapes.

It is clear in observing the former Prince Henry Hospital site at Little Bay that the retained heritage assets of the place remain a key focus for the community. Whether they provide residences, community services, recreation facilities or a landscape to be enjoyed, it is the whole complex of retained heritage assets in their broader setting that contributes greatly to the quality of the development and the sense of place.

Future Challenges

There are significant growth areas currently identified for renewal in the greater Sydney region, such as Central to Eveleigh, Parramatta Road Corridor, Bays Precinct and Parramatta North. These precincts comprise a variety of urban, industrial, commercial and residential elements, and all contain significant heritage assets (built, landscape, social or archaeology).

Considering the long-term viability and sustainability of these communities is a critical factor in planning these urban renewal projects. This would require foresight from government agencies and development corporations to invest in not only the required infrastructure, services and buildings, but also to invest in systems for engaging with people and enriching their experiences. A planning process which allows for the understanding, appreciation and active engagement with the heritage of a place can significantly contribute to these projects’ long-term success.

An essential piece of this whole discussion about urban renewal and new development is the notion of authenticity and character. This is not something that can be constructed or planned, but is what underpins the innate, intangible sense of place that residents may feel, even if they find it hard to reason why. This should be an earnest consideration for urban renewal projects and for developers looking to implement ‘placemaking’ projects. All landscapes, whether underutilised, abandoned, or well visited, have a personality and authenticity. It is the process of how this authenticity and social value is considered in the planning of urban regeneration projects that could determine how successful a renewal project may be in the long term.

Strategic, tailored planning projects, rather than ‘cookie cutter’ approaches to renewal, demand looking at places on an individual basis and treating them with a level of respect. Keeping the sense of place at the forefront for any site can help enrich its social sustainability, in turn offering powerful outcomes for the long-term success of urban renewal.

[i] Roberts, P & Sykes, H (eds) 1999, Urban Regeneration: A Handbook, SAGE Publications, London, viewed 13 April 2018 <http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unsw/detail.action?docID=1023916>.

[ii] Labadi, S, & Logan, W (eds) 2015, Urban Heritage, Development and Sustainability: International Frameworks, National and Local Governance, Key Issues in Cultural Heritage, Taylor and Francis, Milton.