Essence of Place: What is it?

Fjords, Norway

How will you know when you’ve compromised yours?

Those of us who are lucky enough to live and work in parks, nature reserves, and historic sites tend to have pretty deep emotional and intellectual attachments to them. We feel, at a deep level, what makes our place special. We know what our place is—and what it isn’t—and we understand how all of its wonderful qualities (its landscape, its history, its community, its sights and smells) add up to foster an ineffable feeling of place. We live and breath it every day.

And yet, we rarely articulate it. When drafting an interpretive plan or a management plan, rather than crafting an Essence of Place statement (and making a plan to communicate it) we put on the narrowest of intellectual hats. We set out to articulate, say, when and why Mackenzie King slept here (or which particular soil profile of the tall-grass prairie is protected here) and we ignore everything else. We forget the way the sun rises over the rooftop in spring, and how we feel when we stop to soak up that sunshine at the start of the day. We ignore the fact that garter snakes live under the rocks of our historic house’s garden; we forget how the visitors gather to watch them emerge after hibernation. We forget how the early tourists of the 1920s frolicked through our forest reserves with reckless abandon. Those people don’t belong with our current approach to communicating ecological integrity.

Canal, Netherlands

But in order to do our jobs—to facilitate unforgettable experience for others— I think one of the most important things we can do is to take ourselves back in time to when we didn’t understand our place’s scientific themes. What were the experiences that led us to our feelings of love and connection? What were the moments of understanding and appreciation, those mini-epiphanies that helped us fully connect with our place? The ability to recall that long-ago starting point, and lead new visitors by the hand through their own connections and epiphanies, is at the heart of the interpreter’s vocation. We live to share our journey, our understanding, our stories, our passion with our visitors.

I really think one of the biggest mistakes we make as planners is in forcing our visitors’ eyes to the scientific before all else—marching them straight toward the Important Themes that define our historic site or park and led to its official designation.

Viet Nam boats
Viet Nam

Really, we know better: anything we present that doesn’t relate to the experience of our visitors will be sterile, to paraphrase Freeman Tilden. Ignoring our visitors’ delight in the sunrise, or the joy of jumping into our creek, leads us nowhere. Our job as guardians, guides and storytellers is to begin with the visitor’s own experience: the seen, felt and heard environment (and the feelings it conveys.) That’s our point of departure; that’s our responsibility and our privilege: to lead our visitors from there to the intellectual and scientific.

This is what an Essence of Place exercise is intended to facilitate. We start with the whole: the sensory, the affective, the recreational and restorative qualities of the visitor experience, and we lead the visitor from there to the historic or ecological or astronomical facts that define our attraction’s importance.

Fiji shore line

And ultimately, we recognize that the recreational and affective qualities of our site—the joy of jumping into our creek—may in fact be the totality of that site’s importance to many of our visitors. And we recognize that this is fine: there are many ways to connect with a place, each of them perfectly valid as long as they honour the long-term integrity of the resource. Never forget that there is a portion of the visiting public who will never give a rip about the soil profile of the tall grass prairie. Their visits are valid, too.

(This is the first article in a series about Essence of Place. Feel free to sign up for my monthly bulletins so you won’t miss an entry!)

Sydney Harbour


  1. Hi Don
    The last photo titled Saskatoon is actually the Sydney Opera House at sunset…sorry to be picky, just a proud Aussie!
    Jenny Hanson

  2. Michelle Stuart

    it is so obviously the Sydney opera house that it is not funny and should be changed!

    • Don Enright

      Actually the Saskatoon Opera House on bustling Saskatoon Harbour is an up-and-coming international destination. Some fine sailing around those parts.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.