New Tools for Defining Essence of Place

One of the planning techniques I have been using a lot as an interpretive planner and visitor experience advisor is defining essence of place. Essence of place is the sum of the qualities, tangible and intangible, that come together to make that place unique on earth. 

Closely related to ICOMOS work on genius loci, the idea of essence of place has come to the fore in heritage planning since the early 2000s. Defining essence of place or genius loci is a way of ensuring that non-tangible heritage values are included in plans for heritage protection—or, in the case of the work I do, heritage communication. 

See, it’s well and good to conserve your pyramids, your species at risk, the historic cobblestones that make up the ancient road. But if we are to conserve our heritage as any kind of authentic and meaningful whole, we need to include intangibles in the plan. What good are those cobblestones if nobody can hear the unique way human and horse footfalls sound on them, for all the industrial noise from the encroaching city?

Essence of Place helps us know when we’re screwing a place up.

As more of the world’s heritage places become fragmented, we find ourselves with the heartbreaking realization that we may be saving the tangible resources, but compromising the place’s essence and with that essence, its authenticity (and arguably its sustainability as a heritage destination.) Sure, we’ve saved the cobblestones. But this place is no longer what it was; without its soundscapes, it has lost something essential. 

And so as an interpretive planners I work with local communities to try to identify what, exactly, defines a site’s essence. We gather together for a day of workshops, and if we do our jobs right we should have, at the end of the day, a list of things, tangible and intangible, that combine to define a place as unique on earth. 

And yes, we recognize that the exercise is subjective. One community may value a place and describe its essential qualities completely differently than another community. Part of sustainable tourism is gathering the right community—the people who live and work in a place, the people in whose ancestral territory the place is—as the ones defining its heritage values.

How do you define essence?

Defining essence of place can be a fun exercise, and sometimes a fairly abstract one. I would say that, after about ten years of doing this work, one of the most effective questions to bring into a discussion is to simply ask community members to fill in this blank: “Without _____, this place is no longer this place. It has lost something essential.”

Other rewarding exercises are questions like, “Bring exactly six images with you that are emblematic of this place; that you feel communicate what this place is all about. Be prepared to tell us about them.”

Finding New Essence Tools

Lately I have worked with a couple of groups who seemed to want something a bit more concrete to work with—something a bit more intellectual and rational. And so I have had to sit down and take some of these affective exercises and work them toward something a bit more, well, cut and dried. That has led me to try to figure out what actually are the pieces that come together to make up essence of place. What are the ingredients? Is there a fixed number of things to consider? 

So here’s where I’m at with it. 

Essence of place, if you really want to divide it down into its bits, is the combination of:

  1. Geography
    • Topography and landform. Is the place mountainous? Flat prairie? How does that influence what happens here, who lives here, how they travel, how they live? 
    • Soil and geology: how does the earth itself define what happens here? What lives, grows, flourishes here? How is it essence of place grounded in the, well, ground? 
    • Archaeology and palaeontology would sort of straddle Geography and History, I guess. You’d need to consider them somewhere in here.
  2. Climate and weather
    • How does climate shape how this place feels? What can live here? How does climate shape the ways people live, raise their families, raise their food, practice their work and their spirituality? 
    • How does precipitation, frequency of storms, depth of snow, length of drought, severity of summer heat affect how a place looks, feels, works? 
  3. Waterways
    • Is a place defined by the rhythms of the ocean? By the lifeblood that is a river or spring? How do those waterways determine how many people can live there, how they live, how they travel?
  4. Flora
    • What grows here? Is it a forest, a desert, a meadow? What do people grow here? How do people, animals, societies interact with the green environment around them? How do cycles of plant growth, annual and over the years, influence how a place feels, what happens there, the culture that arises there? 
  5. Fauna
    • How is the essence of a place influenced by birds, fish, mammals large and small? If you’re interpreting the essence of an urban core, maybe you just talk a bit about, I don’t know, rats (or if you’re lucky Eurasian swifts.) But if you’re interpreting a natural area, the fauna are potentially central to connecting with essence of place. 
  6. History
    • What are the events of the past as they have defined the present; as we remember them today? How is understanding the human history of a place essential to connecting with it today? This includes traditions that we bring forward, which brings us to…
  7. Culture. The unique mix of human activity today, including:
    • community dynamics
    • transportation
    • agriculture
    • industry
    • arts
    • sport
    • spiritual practice
    • cuisine
    • family life
    • politics
    • and so on 

Two Ways of Using This Analysis

So I think there are two outcomes of this “ingredients” approach to essence of place. We can lead our client groups through the exercise of articulating what they identify in each of these categories. “What about this area’s topography is iconic, emblematic, essential to you?” 

But we can also ask them to rank the criteria themselves. This one would be helpful to me as a planner: “Yes we can talk about this area’s waterways, and its climate, and its human history—but how important is each of those in the mix?” “Would you say waterways are more important here than topography? Would you say waterways have a bigger influence on essence of place than others?”

Case study

I can see this exercise working for where I live today, compared to where I have lived in the past. 

For example, understanding waterways is much more important to connecting with Mayne Island than it is to connecting with the essence of Calgary. Understanding topography is at least as important to really understanding Calgary as it is to understanding Mayne. Agriculture? More important to Calgary, less so for Mayne though it’s still part of the story.

I realize this exercise might seem a bit esoteric: why not just go ahead and define the place without weighting the criteria? And yes, that’s always how I’ve done it. But here’s the thing: when I walk in to a planning exercise, I risk placing emphasis on the wrong things. I ask them about topography because it’s part of my essence of place exercise, not because it’s particularly important to the essence of their place. I ask about arts, music, spirituality… because that’s normally part of a heritage site’s essence. But maybe it isn’t really germane to this place and these people. An exercise like this allows the community to narrow down the criteria to what they feel is actually essential to them.

If I got a rating on a scale of say, 1-3 for each criterion, I could scale back or add weight to a particular essential element of the place. If they tell me amazing things about a place’s cultural practices, and they also tell me those are their number one most important criterion, I can position that appropriately. Alternately, they might tell me something super cool about the place’s geology… while also letting me know it isn’t in the top five of things the they value about their site and its essence.

I’m still not sure I’ve got all the criteria here, or that I’m really explaining myself here. Please feel free to let me know how this resonates with you, and what you would add into the mix of criteria.

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  1. Hi Don,

    I love that you are addressing this issue, it is one that has been vexing me for years. My non profit, the PUP Global Heritage Consortium, has been developing a community-based consensus approach to describing site heritage called the Interpretive Framework. While its participatory methodology is based on the Technology of Participation’s Workshop Method, the elements that we use to describe heritage are strongly influenced by Steve Van Matre’s book, Intepretive Design and the Dance of Experience. Thus we use outstanding heritage attributes as the building blocks (superlatives about a site) to later construct interpretive themes, universal processes or forces that created a heritage site and continue to transform it, and essence or genius loci. Our methodology calls for all of these elements to fit on a single page, so the essence is a statement, not a narrative description. Of course it can be described in more details in subsequent pages. The process is briefly described in The Interpretive Theme Writer’s Field Guide (NAI, 2018).

    But I have never been content with what we have. Basically we use a guided imagery or meditation practice where, based on the results so far, when we ask participants to imagine that they are an eagle (or other flying object of your choice) soaring overhead and looking down on the site. We ask them to notice the patterns, both geographical as well as cultural or meaning as well as the energy and material flows through the site. And then we try to distill a single sentence which integrates everything else, as you say, that makes the place truly unique. Of course its definition is also a consensus product arising from multiple perspectives of the diverse stakeholder group. But I am still in search of a better way at getting at the essence through a participatory consensus-based group process. Maybe a different way of describing what they should look for or how to think about it as they fly overhead (if the high altitude is even necessary).

    The example in the Field Guide comes from the Flint Hills of Kansas, which reads, “The Flint Hills landscape undulates through space, burns through time, and offers refuge to its changing character of community.” Of course you would have to see the whole framework or otherwise participated to fully appreciate what the group was trying to communicate, but this is an example of one statement that integrates tangible and intangible from a high altitude.

    Of course any suggestions that fit our group process are highly welcomed!

    Thanks again for you article. Reaching essence like themes requirings high-level abstract interpretive thinking, much beyond just biophysical description. It’s not easy, but it is essential.

    • Hi Jon-
      I’m wondering if a single sentence might be a pretty tall order to try to identify the unique heritage values of a place. Your Kansas example reads a bit like marketing copy, which is what I always struggle with when working with groups on essence. Exactly what defines this place? And we struggle to avoid what Lisa Brochu calls fill-in-the-blank thematic statements – things that sound good but are true virtually anywhere. “Burning through time” – does that refer to a fire history or a fire adaptation of that particular place? Or does the place simply burn through time as, well, everything and everyone does?

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