Taken on my arrival at Disneyland, September 2003. One enters Disneyland via ‘Mainstreet USA’ – an homage to neighbourhood streetscapes lost to placeless urban sprawl. Mainstreet USA is built at 3/4 scale to enhance the visitor’s sense of intimacy.
In this article, I discuss how ‘sense of place’ is used to sell real estate by creating a fantasy for what buyers may experience. In Australia, at least, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’: the fine print lists a caveat that the offer of train station, local services and amenities are ‘subject to change without notice’. I will argue that planning legislation and policy needs to provide an explicit definition for ‘sense of place’, and clear directions for how to achieve measurable and defined outcomes. Using Liveability metrics, these could be tied more closely to desired outcomes for ‘20-minute neighbourhoods. If we can return a defective fridge for a refund: why not the dream home that promised us liveability and a ‘sense of place’, but instead delivers social isolation and dysphoria?
The peri-urban municipality in which I live – the Macedon Ranges – has a Vision for its “brand”: The Macedon Ranges will be a favoured destination for escape and rejuvenation that is highly regarded for its quality nature-based attractions, artisan products, maker’s culture and authentic experiences (Visitor Economy Strategy 2019-2029).
Core to the Macedon Ranges ‘brand’ is that visitors are seeking ‘authentic experiences’:
Visitors are more regularly seeking out new and authentic ways to experience destinations, with a strong desire to connect to the people and places they are visiting. Increasingly visitors are researching the history and culture of the places they travel online. Recognising this trend, some regional towns are adopting new ways of recording and sharing oral histories and stories.
I’ve written about this before: I moved to this Shire in 2011, enamoured by this very real sense of authenticity that existed only an hour from the city centre by train, or 30 minutes by car from the edge of Melbourne’s endless sprawl. And, sure enough, the placeless sprawl is coming to meet my town: McDonald’s, KFC and big-box retail are lining up to leverage off this ‘authenticity’.
Much of urban development, place-making, tourism and opportunistic real estate subdivision happening in my peri-urban shire (e.g. ‘Willow’ at the edge of Gisborne) seems to be about offering City people the promise of (re) connecting to place, even if it means the developer’s marketing department creating a fantasy about what this place might be.
Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders Age article from July 2017, Are Melbourne’s sprawling outer suburbs destined to become ghettos?, compared the fantasy with the placeless reality. As the then Mayor of Casey was quoted: “Developers and government are selling a dream to young families… ‘This is your only chance to buy a home. Come here and bring your family up in open air where we have space’. But people get here and the reality is nothing like that. In fact it’s often a nightmare.”
The fantasy: Photo credit: Eddie Jim
The reality: Screen shot from Millar and Schneiders (2017) Age article, showing ‘placeless’ cheek-by-jowl housing, with no shade trees or back gardens in which to play, grow food or flowers.
The rise of placelessness
This march to placelessness is not new! In The Australian Ugliness (1960), architect Robyn Boyd decried postmodernism’s rise of placeless and featureless development. Jane Jacobs’ seminal 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, offered a blistering critique of post-war planning, rezoning and development that had degraded opportunities for people to experience convivial, safe and authentic neighbourhood life at a local level.
In 1963, my Fulbright mentor, psychiatrist Leonard Duhl (later Professor of Urban Planning and Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley) published an edited book called The urban condition: People and policy in the metropolis. The book evolved from a cross-disciplinary ‘think tank’ that Duhl established in the mid-1950s for the US National Institute of Mental Health, comprising “psychoanalysts, public health physicians, psychologists, animal ecologists, sociologists, biologists, city planners, journalists, humanists, scientists”, and noted that mental health has implications for “justice, education, general welfare”.
(As an aside, Len’s group was initially labelled ‘the Space Cadets’. However, 20 years later, Len’s vision spawned the WHO Healthy Cities program, which spread rapidly to more than 10,000 cities, municipalities world-wide. In Victoria, Australia it informed the practice of 78 local Councils via Environments for health: promoting health and wellbeing through built, social, economic and natural environments (2001), the Victorian municipal public health planning framework.)
The Urban Condition showed that 60 years ago, people were already concerned about the size and magnitude of urbanisation, sprawl and its mental health impacts. Whilst a product of its time in terms of cultural norms, it nevertheless offered an extremely currently relevant systems perspective on the links between urban design, politics and policy, health, education, and personal security.
Another 1960s critic of mass urbanization, C. W. Moore, was concerned about the loss of local identity and meaning by the subsumption of local places into a mass urban sprawl. He argued that local nodes of meaning were becoming replaced by buildings whose placement appeared meaningless, monotonous and chaotic. Diversity and significant places were becoming lost. 
Drawing in 1976, on Moore’s earlier warnings, Edward Relph argued that “This ‘inauthentic attitude of placelessness’ is now widespread – to a very considerable degree we neither experience nor create places with more than a superficial and casual involvement”. Relph argued that because ‘placelessness’ was becoming a prevalent attitude, it was decreasingly possible to create a place in an authentic manner. Placelessness cannot be removed necessarily by improved planning and design: “inauthentic existence is stereotyped, artificial, dishonest, planned by others, rather than being direct and reflecting a genuine belief system encompassing all areas of existence”. He saw meaningful community participation in place-making and urban design as key antidotes to placeless urban development. Relph was already concerned that planning methodology and the constrained nature of their brief served to alienate and insulate planners and developers from any authentic connection to the properties that they acquired and redeveloped. He warned that property development was emerging as a major function of big business – in which land and places were commodities for sale, production, retailing and management.
In 1996, Peter Read shared Relph’s concerns that globally, cities, towns and suburbs were becoming uniformly similar. Read argued that local individuality needed to be preserved as a testament and contribution to the diversity of the city in which it formed a part; in recognition of the emotional and spiritual significance that people have invested in these places; and in acknowledgement of the pain that their destruction would cause their inhabitants. “Each construction of event, experience, memory and place is unrepeatable”. He urged that this be acknowledged as the pace of globalised sameness accelerated.
“The World’s Most Liveable Suburb”
In Melbourne, residents of properties in Beacon Cove required to build and paint their homes to specific styles and colours, and we have new construction techniques used in high-rise towers responsible residents of $1M apartments being subjected to unbearable groaning sounds. In an open letter to the Planning Minister, a Docklands resident complained in 2020 that their dreams of light-filled parks and low-rise neighbourhoods had instead become a “windswept failure” in which “an original plan for mostly low-rise street fronting buildings had been replaced by ‘soulless’ and ‘alienating’ streets with a waterfront dominated by ‘obscene high-rises’”.
Meanwhile, YarraBend, a brownfield development in an inner Melbourne suburb declares that YarraBend will be “The World’s Most Liveable Suburb”:
A visionary new neighbourhood located alongside the Yarra River, YarraBend is perfectly placed for every lifestyle. Just moments from the Eastern Freeway and a short distance to the CBD, YarraBend is well connected in every way.
Image source: https://yarrabend.com.au/news
According to The Urban Developer,
Yarrabend is expected to provide all of the elements a solid suburb should, like retail offerings, a specialty retail hub, apartments, townhouses and traditional house blocks. Yarrabend will also benefit from a proposed new shopping centre and community facilities delivered by others on the broader Paper Mill site*
*Note the caveats to cushion the dream: ‘expected to’, ‘proposed’, ‘delivered by others’…
In fairness to the developer, YarraBend is, indeed, just 450m from Alphington Train Station and 1km from Fairfield station. However, to get there, pedestrians will need to cross a busy, 4-lane arterial road. The development adjoins a major four-way road interchange that currently privileges cars over pedestrians. From inspecting the Masterplan, I cannot see any overpasses that helps to connect pedestrians to either train station (or to connect adjoining residents to the shops and services that are promised on-site, assuming that they will be allowed to enter). I also wonder about how an additional 4,000 residents will impact on the train service: to what extent have the YarraBend developers been partnering with Metro Trains and the Department of Transport to ensure adequate transport services? I don’t wish to sound churlish, but building ‘the world’s most liveable suburb’ requires connectivity to — and engagement with — the surrounding environs and infrastructure.
I will, however, end this analysis with good news: 10 apartments are being donated to a not-for-profit affordable housing association for affordable housing. Through liaison with the local Council, these apartments must be used for affordable housing for at least the next 50 years. After that, the housing association can sell the housing, but only if the proceeds go towards providing local affordable housing. The same housing association is also purchasing 140 apartments; these apartments must be used for affordable housing for at least 10 years.
Placelessness as a symptom of a dysfunctional relationship
For me, there’s a deeper issue underpinning the malaise of placelessness. With the rise of the Anthropocene, mass extinction and climate emergency comes the realisation that humans’ relationship with our supporting and surrounding ecosystem —including the built environment — is deeply out of balance. Climate grief, ecological grief and ‘solastalgia’ — a homesick grieving for the lost places and landscapes in which we are still living — are well ensconced. The unfolding climate emergency in mainland United States has left people reeling: “nowhere is safe”
Storm damage in Germany, July 2021. Image credit here.
Much of the environmental movement is based on the perceived need for people to respond collectively to an environmental ‘crisis’. If, however, we view ‘environment’ as an expression of our community’s relationship with the resources on which our members depend, then any environmental crisis is, in fact, a crisis within that relationship. When people talk of ‘saving the Earth’, they are in fact talking of saving a relationship with the Earth that sustains human life.
This also applies to our relationships with places. ‘Place dependence’ refers to people’s relationships to the neighbourhood resources and amenities on which they depend, and by extension with which they may identify and feel they belong. ‘Psychological sense of community’ links to the expectation that we will continue to enjoy living somewhere for a long time. It occurs to me that when places and buildings, trees and features are destroyed or changed irrevocably beyond people’s control, then we are experiencing an environmental crisis firsthand. We are also bearing witness to a societal disconnection to place and the supporting and surrounding natural environment.
How can urban development deliver authentic ‘sense of place’?
As I wrote in my fourth article on ‘sense of place’, we in Australia have a proliferation of planning legislation, frameworks, guidelines and practice notes at the state, regional and local level, peppered with aspirational language like ‘should’ — but lacking explicit legislative requirements. This means that any intention to protect and enhance real ‘sense of place’ implodes under the sheer weight of its own rhetoric, loose terminology, and free-market leeway. Mainstream commercial development capitalises on this. Cynical developers can play the long game with politicians and community opponents. It could be argued that they are mostly interested in selling product, rather authentic experiences.
What would it take for us to be able to place more trust in the capacity of the overall planning system and development industry to deliver an authentic ‘sense of place’? I have four suggestions.
- Planning legislation and policy need to establish an explicit definition for ‘sense of place’, in which this term is anchored in a robust theoretical framework that includes place attachment, place identity, place dependence and ‘sense of community’ (that other, overused term).
- Planning policy needs to give explicit directions for how to achieve measurable and defined outcomes.
- These Place outcomes could be tied more closely to desired outcomes for the ‘20-minute neighbourhood and Liveability metrics.
- Perhaps most heretical/utopian: a legal requirement that the dreams of social infrastructure and spruiked on the billboards selling greenfield developments in far-flung growth areas (or even brownfield developments) be backed up by warranty. We can return a defective fridge for a refund: why not the dream home that promised us liveability and a ‘sense of place’?
Ultimately, we need robust agreement on what it is that we are trying to preserve or strengthen — and for whom; how we are going to deliver it; how we can involve community members; and how we will know if we have succeeded. And for that to occur, we need people to reflect on their own complex relationships with places. In a future post, I will share something of my own journey. Meanwhile, in my next post I will examine opportunities to bring together research on psychological conceptions of ‘place’ with efforts to document ‘20-minute neighbourhoods and Liveability.
 Duhl, L. J. (1963). Introduction. In L. J. Duhl (Ed.), The urban condition: People and policy in the metropolis (pp. vii-xiii). NY: Basic Books. Cited p. xiii.
 Cited in Relph, E. (1976). Place and placelessness. London: Pion Ltd.
 Relph, E. (1976). Place and placelessness. London: Pion Ltd. Cited p. 80.
 Ibid., p. 109.
 Read, P. (1996). Returning to nothing: The meaning of lost places. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Cited p. 197.
 Weintraub, B.A. (1995). Defining a fulfilling and relevant environmental education. Urban Education 30 (3), 337-366.