Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The place of place in geography

Images: Bustling London, April 2010.

Related sites to the Spatialworlds project
Spatialworlds website
21st Century Geography Google Group
Australian Geography Teachers' Association website
'Towards a National Geography Curriculum' project website
Geography Teachers' Association of South Australia website
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Where am I??

Adelaide, Australia: S: 34º 55' E: 138º 36'

The place of place in geography

The need for geography to inform and provide spatial understanding and awareness of place and places in space (for all including world leaders plus celebrities) is more urgent than ever. Many in our society do not appreciate or see the role geography does and will continue to play in our world. Many people who work as geographers in a geographical way often do not say they are geographers – they see themselves as town planners, park rangers, weather forecasters, demographers or council officers but not geographers. It is always a thrill when the media and the community recognises what they are watching, reading or listening to is actually geography and/or the work of a geographer.
However for many in the community the knowledge of where a place is is what geography is about. This view is an anathema to the modern geographer who sees geography as …

“Geography is the investigation and understanding of the earth and its features and the distribution of life on earth, including human life and its impacts. It is the study of the many different “places”, or environments, which make up our world and is described as “the why of where”. Places are specific areas of the Earth’s surface, and can range from a locality to a country to a major world region. Geography answers our questions about why places have their particular environmental and human characteristics; how and why these characteristics vary from place to place; how places are connected, and how and why they are changing. Geography examines these questions on all scales, from the local to the global, and over time periods that range from a few years to thousands of years. It also looks forward to explore ways of influencing and managing the future of places including their environmental, economic and social sustainability.“
(Australian Curriculum: geography Shape paper definition)

However it is hard to argue that knowledge of where things are is not at all important. Such knowledge helps us to perceive spatial relationships and interconnections, spatial variation and distribution and to analyse associations, impact and consequences.

We have moved in geography a long way from what Ptolemy was thinking in 150 when he said:

"The purpose of geography is to provide a view of the whole earth by mapping the location of places."
Ptolemy, 150

The study of place is much more complex that just where it is. However where it is is a starting point that we need to know.

Modern geographers see place as an area that is defined by everything in it. All places have features that give them personality and distinguish them from other places (population, climate, economy, vegetation, landforms, buildings/structures, soils, water resources, cultures and communities, landscape/topology and aesthetic quality). Increasingly geographers are also talking about the sense of place (a feeling or perception held by people - not by the place itself). It is often used in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging. Others, such as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, have pointed to senses of place that are not inherently "positive," such as fear.

The 1994 US National Geography Standards attempted to shed light on what the geographically informed person should know and understand about place.
They were:
* The physical and human characteristics of places.
* That people create regions to interpret Earth's complexity.
* How culture and experience influence people's perception of places and regions.

The UK National Geography Curriculum has a similar take on the concept of place:
* Understanding the physical and human characteristics of real places.
* Developing ‘geographical imaginations’ of places

This statement succinctly describes the place of place in modern geography:

The Irish National Curriculum attempts to provide clarification of the term place by stating:

Through completing the strand units of the geography curriculum the child should be enabled to have a sense of place, meaning to:
• explore and become familiar with the distinctive natural and human features of the locality, the county and Ireland
people and communities living and working in these areas
how literature, culture, language and customs reflect the nature of places
major natural features
settlement: homes, other buildings, open spaces
economic and leisure activities
townland, parish and county boundaries
major regions (e.g. Burren, Golden Vale)
transport and other links between these features
• become familiar with the distinctive natural and human features of some places in Europe and other parts of the world

“Any time a location is identified or given a name, it is separated from the undefined space that surrounds it. Some places, however, have been given stronger meanings, names or definitions by society than others. These are the places that are said to have a strong "Sense of Place." Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or peoples. Places said to have a strong "sense of place" have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place … is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place.”

In the age of GIS and the ability of creating or viewing a map with the click of a mouse, does it really matter whether we know by memory the places of the globe? Surely not! When the Australian Curriculum: geography refers to place there is no insinuation that students need to know places by memory. The study of place is way richer than just rote learning!

During the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: geography we will have a job of educating the community about modern geography and the place of place - that geography is learning about the location and character of places, scale, environments, physical and human processes and their relationships, sustainability, interconnections and interdependencies, spatial associations and arrangements and changes of places over time, not just where places are!

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