Reconfigurations of Meaning and Sense of Place in Abandoned Communities
Updated: Jun 8
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the fixation of capital around industries provided enough shared wealth to produce extensive urban landscapes. Over the past fifty years, the flight of capital, coupled with racist public policies, has led to large-scale abandonment and disintegration of these landscapes. Those who have remained have had to recreate some sense of community, stability, and security that the local economy and public services used to uphold. This is a profound challenge, as the physical and visual cornerstones of everyday life of long-time residents have disappeared and day by day continue to. Both the material and social networks that used to compose the residents’ lives have become worn and frayed. In this context, how do people still relate to the place they call home? How is their sense of place affected by the slow dilution of familiar sights and relations, by the spatial-economic processes of abandonment, disinvestment and displacement? How is it regenerated, reconfigured, replaced or transformed? On what material or symbolic markers does it still stand?
This memo will look at how scholars in various fields have reflected on issues associated with space and place, considering examples of projects and concepts that interrogate people's relation to place as well as examples that reveal how people reconfigure attachments within emerging conceptions of place.
1. Meanings of the sense of place
1.1. Place as a theater of relations
Scholars of urban sociology has been interested from early on in the relation between the individual, the collective, and place. In the 1920s and 1930s, members of the Chicago school theorized the notion of urban ecology (Joseph and Grafmeyer, 2009). They studied the role of neighborhood ties in urban environments, and the nature of the city as a social laboratory, a natural phenomenon, and a way of life at the same time (Park and Burgess, 1967, Joseph and Grafmeyer, 2009). Their approach to belonging in the city is one that is deeply cultural and contingent on social interactions and spatial mobility: we are the product of our social interactions, and place is the receptable of ever-reconfiguring social relations.
French sociologist Alain Bourdin has focused his work on the question of local identity and its determinants (2000). Through a comparative analysis of the many scholarly works dealing with space and the local dimension, he explored the many forms taken by the notion of locality and “the local object” (l’objet local). He identified three types of the local: the necessary local (le local nécessaire), the inherited local (le local herité), and the constructed local (le local construit). Local is a socio-historical and political assemblage, and the sense of place resulting from it stands on a sense of history and destiny that is politically constructed and shared by a community.
In The Production of Space (1974, English translation 1991), Henri Lefebvre informs us on the relationship between social and material space. He also looks at how the “monumental space” – a realm of the social space – acts as the “metaphorical and quasi-metaphysical underpinning of a society.” In the monumental space, everyday objects and buildings are transformed by the superimposition of new meanings coming from above. In the capitalist space that he considers, “the building effects a brutal condensation of social relationships.” The material landscape of the city is a reflection of a society’s operations, aspirations, and economic and political order.
Finally, ethnographies of deindustrialized communities suggest a range of ways that people relate to place. In Ceux qui restent. Faire sa vie dans les campagnes en déclin (2000), Benoit Coquard takes an interest in the reconfiguration of social networks of young adults in the deindustrialized countryside of North-Eastern France, where community intermediaries (public services, trade unions, economic and social fabric) have declined in both number and importance. He points out how, in comparison with their parents’ generation, young individuals have transferred their social scene from the public to the private sphere. The sense of place is affected by the reorganization of the local economy spatially, but also symbolically, as the epoch of their parents’ youth is glorified. Social relations are no more determined by the place of residence and work but are mutually chosen though affinities, and they cover a much larger spatial area. Their sense of place is not geographically or temporally bound.
1.2. The role of urban design for place-making
The field of urban studies inform us on the way urban design interacts with human relations. Kevin Lynch, in The image of the city (1976), is interested in the cognitive dimension of the built space. We construct a mental map of the places we inhabit in order to orient ourselves in them. This mental map relies on images, which are based on identity, structure and meaning. For us to be actively involved in a community, the space around us has to allow room for the mapping, learning and shaping of the environment. Lynch’s main take-home argument in relation to sense of place in abandoned communities is that the mental image we have of a neighborhood is not necessarily the reflection of the built environment itself. It is affected by the way we can interact with our surroundings. The sense of place is therefore informed by its legibility, and it is interesting in that regard to ask ourselves whether abandonment affect positively or negatively our capacity to read space.
Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), has also studied the urban form of cities and the way their perception affects urban dwellers. Her angle is however on the frequent social interactions – between people who are not necessarily familiar with each other – that only the public spaces and streets of dense cities offer. The design of the city thus plays a role on the quality of life and social cohesion of its inhabitants, as it nourishes a sense of belonging through proximity, which gets distorted when urban environments are altered.
The writings of Mindy Fullilove, a social psychiatrist and urban expert, shed light on mental connections to place and the role of trauma. In Root Shock (2004), she analyzed the effects on individual health of the destruction of collective housing units through urban removal projects, which have affected communities of color in particular. Root shock is defined by Fullilove as “the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or parts of one’s emotional ecosystem.” The sense of place is here experienced through its absence. Families scattered throughout cities after housing removal have lost the strong bounds that united their neighborhoods through mutual proximity and accountability. In that regard, Fullilove’s assessment can be compared to Jacob’s: proximity and urban design play a crucial role in the sense of place of communities as they foster social relations.
1.3. Heritage-making as product of an interplay betwen actors
It is worth investigating heritage studies to understand how the sense and memory of place can be transcended over time (and sometimes space) through the multi-factorial process of heritage-making. French geographer Vincent Veschambre (2008) studied the process by which a “trace” becomes a “mark” as it gets imbued with heritage values. The heritage-making process at work is the result of negotiations between a variety of actors and institutions (residents, community organizations, public administrations), in which the symbolic and material appropriation of space is a political issue. The “heritage value” of an object is not an inherent quality but the result of a collective choice, which conjures up different – past, present and future – visions of a place and can therefore lead to conflict.
Professional heritage organizations such as the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) have focused their attention on the preservation of the ”spirit of the place”. The 2008 ICOMOS Québec Declaration defines for instance the spirit of the place as the “tangible (buildings, sites, landscapes, routes, objects) and the intangible elements (memories, narratives, written documents, rituals, festivals, traditional knowledge, values, textures, colors, odors, etc.), that is to say the physical and the spiritual elements that give meaning, value, emotion and mystery to place”. It is a “relational concept”, “constructed by various social actors”, which is “capable of possessing multiple meanings and singularities, of changing through time, and of belonging to different groups” and “is constructed by human beings in response to their social needs”. Though the notion of the spirit of the place evokes a more specific and value-oriented idea that the sense of place, both notions nurture each other. This definition of the sense of place is interesting in its acknowledgement that the appropriation of a place is not necessarily exclusive to a community but can be shared.
1.4. The bioregion as a land-based approach
A final set of perspectives to enrich our understand of the sense of place can be found in the works on bioregionialism which have emerged in the United States in the 1970’s (Berg 1978, Sale 1985). The notion refers to a social and political space defined and organized according to its main ecological. An Italian school of thought (the Territorialists) led by urbanist Alberto Magnaghi reused the term in the 2010s to anchor it in a more cultural dimension of land, where the notions of heritage, place-consciousness and spatial planning play a large part. Despite their conceptual differences, the American and the European bioregional schools converge on the necessity of knowing a place – both its social and ecological components – in order to live a fulfilling life in accordance with the place’s potential and in the respect of its limits. The physical and natural characteristics of the landscape are markers that can help in the social regeneration of a place-based communities.
This overview helps us frame the sense of place as a shape-shifting process: a cultural and political construct defined by social relations, rooted in the physicality of its man-made structures and ecological foundations, imbued with meanings and symbolic attributes which can transcend its material condition over time and space. We will now look at cases and notions that illustrate the array of community-based reconfigurations of the sense of place. In these strategies, distinct determinants of the sense of place are mobilized (functional, emotional, symbolic, material, memorial), which helps understand how different factors combine to influence place reconfiguration.
2. Examples of reconfigurations
2.1. Filling the void: art in Detroit
Heidelberg Project, Detroit, 2012. The individual initiative of turning collective space into art raises questions on the legitimacy of purposefully modifying the urban environment in abandoned communities. (Photo author: The Erica Chang - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heidelberg_Project,_Detroit_USA_-_panoramio_(3).jpg)
Communities and individual actors in deindustrialized cities and regions have implemented projects with a view to interrogate the physical voids in their neighborhoods. Such attempts can be seen in the form of large-scale open-air art projects, such as the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. In the mid-1980s, artist Tyree Guyton started putting up art installations and painting buildings in the Heidelberg Street of Detroit (Herscher 2013). Early comments were negative, as both neighbors and city authorities saw this spatial appropriation by one individual as a sign of the state of dereliction of the neighborhood. The project however grew and gained momentum in the 1990s, attracting attention from outside the city, which ended up changing the municipality’s attitude which finally started seeing it under a positive light. The project was seen as provocative in the sense that it forced all residents, through a physical and visual intervention on their living environment, to face and acknowledge abandonment (which is normally processed at different times according to individuals). An individual cognitive process became a collective experiment. For architect Andrew Herscher, who studied Heidelberg among other art projects in Detroit, this one raised a number of public interrogations in relation to the legitimacy of this initiative: “Who or what speaks on behalf of a neighborhood or community? Can art transform the public interest instead of merely satisfying it?”. According to him, “the innovative aspect of the project lies in its reformulation of objects and spaces associated with failed attempts at urban survival as a critical reflection on contemporary urban conditions in Detroit”. Unlike urban gardening, which makes you look away from abandoned buildings to focus on emerging activities, art fills up the urban void by shedding light on vacancy. It signals a disfunction, an absence that is appropriated opportunistically, and which raises a number of questions on who can occupy unclaimed spaces and how.
2.2. Heritage-making as place-making: from marker of identity to commodity
In Angers, France, former working-class neighborhoods of the town center have been demolished between the 1960s and 1980s as part of urban renewal programs. Local efforts to fight the program and preserve the neighborhood as a coherent historic urban landscape were unsuccessful in the poorest areas. Only selected buildings were conserved after influential owners managed to have interests heard. (Photo source: V. Veschambre/Archives municipales d’Angers: https://www.persee.fr/doc/aru_0180-930x_2002_num_92_1_2458)
In his study of heritage-making processes in Western France, Vincent Veschambre (2008) showed that the individuals first involved in organized preservation efforts belong to social classes higher than the average residing population, that they often originate from a different place, and they can count on a rich social and cultural capital. He however noted that successful heritage-making movements generally gather people from both inside and outside the community. The perception of a place as unique and worthy of preservation is first brought up by foreigners who arrive on the setting with their cultural baggage and a fresh look on things. Their advocacy for preservation is often better received by local authorities than when it comes from the residents themselves. Notwithstanding social origins, all actors involved in preservation movements ground their efforts and their public discourse on “local identity”. Identity acts as a place-based unifying factor between old and new residents. No matter the outcome of the preservation efforts, the collective process of defining the heritage dimension of the local landscape is in itself a proof that residents share the same pride and care for their living environment. The final recognition of this environment as a registered or protected heritage site is only a guarantee that this common pride will be respected and will survive them. Such examples cannot be directly put in perspective with U.S. abandoned communities as the social and regulation contexts of each country are quite different, but they are useful to articulate the role of “foreign” actors in the symbolic reappraisal of neglected landscapes. The continuously declining demography and the extent of the economic distress of the cities of the Rust Belt however make it difficult to base the cognitive reevaluation of an abandoned neighborhood on external actors (conservation efforts ultimately succeed when most actors involved find a financial motivation in maintenance rather than demolition, be it in the short or long run). Heritage-making is a contributor to social cohesion and acts on local imaginaries, but it cannot make up for the material needs that are an abandoned community’s main priority.
Stacks as silent sentinels. These once served to vent the rolling operations at U.S. Steel's Homestead plant, and now mark the location of The Waterfront Shopping Mall. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons).
Heritage-making processes can also shed light on industrial legacy as commodity. The Homestead Works Steel Mill, in Pennsylvania, used to be “an icon if U.S. industrial history” (Cowie and Heathcott 2003) due to its role in a number of workers movements which had national consequences. It however closed down in 1986 and was progressively dismantled. The only remnants of the factory are its twelve smokestacks, which serve today as scenery for the strip mall known as The Waterfront that has replaced the plant. This appropriation of the last physical traces of one of the largest labor-related movements of U.S. history by a temple of mass consumption can seem cruel, but it shows the level to which a place can be deprived of its memory, its values, and be simply repurposed and marketed as reminder of a bygone era. It also shows the role of residents land local actors in the perpetuation and reconfiguration of the sense of place since in their absence, public authorities and private stakeholders have free rein to remodel a place according to their own interests.
Commodification of industrial legacy can also take place on a transregional scale. In St. Louis for instance, buildings are being dismantled and their famous red bricks are exported throughout the country, along with balustrades, streetlamps and other markers of a past golden age which has become meaningless in the city, but is still prized elsewhere, where the social and economic effects of deindustrialization are not tangible (Heathcott). The material complexity of the place is therefore reduced to its smallest part, frozen in one fantasized historical sequence excluding all others. The displacement of material artefacts can only export part of the memory of the place, a convenient memory that does not account for the full social experience of abandonment and can therefore be only apprehended as a truncated and oversimplified reformulation of the sense of place.
Heritage-making is a versatile contributor to place-making. In order to account for its full effects on communities, it has to be understood not as a mere administrative act, but as a transformative process taking place within a framework of intertwined social, political and economic relations. While it can unite residents in their pride for their place and their will to save it for future generations, it can also be manipulated and distort the meanings associated with the sense of place that is experienced by the community.
2.3. Embracing the absence: another look on the “unintentional”
Abney Park. London, 2021. New uses developed spontaneously after the cemetery was abandoned, with different groups of actors each claiming their share of legitimacy. (Author: Mx. Granger - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abney_Park_3.jpg)
Alongside approaches to transform symbolically or physically neglected urban environments, some scholars have tackled the issue through the recognition of what is often seen as an absence (of the house, the plant or the parking lot that used to be) as a presence instead (of a rare spontaneous vegetation worth studying, of marginal urban practices, of a place of disorientation). British geographer Matthew Gandy wrote on the practices and imaginaries emerging in and around these “unintentional landscapes” (2016). Because they defy expectations of what both urban nature and built landscapes are supposed to look like, they are perceived as “negative spaces” (Kim et al, 2018). They form an in-between state where “the distinction between human artifice and ecological succession becomes progressively blurred” (Gandy 2019). To extend an ontological discussion of urban wastelands beyond usual binary schemes (natural/man-made environment, wild/designed nature, functional/vacant space), Gandy has developed a reflection on “queer ecology” and on the “heterotopic alliances” that can occur in places offering a “'mixed' or mitoyenne (joint) experience” (Gandy 2012). Based on the study of a former cemetery in London (Abney Park, “a creation of neglect”) which is at the same time a registered landmark, a place of ecological interest for nature enthusiasts, and a cruising site for gay men which offers safety and secrecy. Different meanings and functions coexist in the same place, though not always mutually accepted or understood by their respective users. Gandy however sees in such spaces a potential to increase the mutual acknowledgement of various experiences as “there is a conceptual synergy between queer space and urban heterotopias that furthers our understanding of how material spaces are experienced and of how different kinds of cultural or political alliances might emerge in relation to the protection of specific sites” (Gandy 2012). Beyond aesthetic representations and normative imaginaries inherited from the past, a focus on the material and functional realities that are taking place in abandoned spaces rather than on what should be there can enrich the sense of place and extend its potentialities.
While the effects of abandonment and capital flight on urban communities can appear to show similarities across (national and international) cases, the way communities organize to survive and maintain a sense of shared destiny is contingent to a number of factors. Abandonment is a process that publicly exposes a community’s wounds. Social and economic distress cannot be covered up when residents have fled in droves, leaving behind them a landscape of desolation. Residents, like their local governments and administrators, can only acknowledge the tangible legacy of neglect that surrounds them. Whether the traces of this neglect get replaced, exalted, preserved, embraced or questioned depend on the ties that residents forge within themselves, with external actors and with political and administrative authorities.
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