Identity Issue 4

Identity and Place

Words By: Oli Mould, Geographer at Royal Holloway University

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Every place has its own individual look and feel, its own particular essence. But these attributes are subject to constant change, affecting both the identity of a place and our attachment to it. Dr Oli Mould, lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway university, reflects on the identity of place.

What makes you, you?

I can tell you what makes me, me. I identify as white, male, a husband, a football fan, a brother, a lecturer, a drummer, a son, an introvert, a runner, a father; the list is endless. Moreover, it depends on who I’m with, what I’m doing and where I am. My identity is not static; it is not pre-given, nor is it ever defined in absolute terms. The same applies to places, because a place is far more than a set of geographical co-ordinates. It has multiple histories - complex human, social and cultural processes that create its ‘feel’. Places are a mix of the local practices of the people who live, work and play there, but also the wider practices that help sustain it. That is why people feel attached to places - because they are co-constituents of how those places are experienced. Conversely, if they’re no longer contributing to the ‘feel’ of that place, they can suddenly feel alienated and ‘out-of-place’.

The geographer Doreen Massey once said: ‘Places are processes’. In other words, the very essence of a place can shift depending on the forces acting upon it. A place may be fixed in material terms but it can be extremely fluid socially, culturally, ethnically, politically and economically.

In reality, places are held together by different processes that are personal, local, global and everything else in between. Massey described this as: ‘A global sense of place’. What this means is that specific places, and our attachments to them, are constantly in flux and can be influenced by myriad forces. This applies to all kinds of places: home, work, holiday towns, childhood parks, even specific roads or shopping malls.

Where we grew up, for example, may be considered home but may not necessarily feel ‘homely’. Complex and geographically disparate processes, such as family life, migration, hyper-gentrification and national politics, will all influence our connection with that place for better or worse. We only have to look at some towns and cities post-Brexit to see how certain people - notably non-UK, non-white citizens - are being made to feel extremely unwelcome in the very neighbourhoods that they grew up in, work in and have traditionally called home.

The attachment we have to a place, therefore, is always shifting, based upon local, but also national and global processes. The identity of any particular place, and our feelings towards it, are contingent upon this balancing act, and of course, they can change radically over time.

A place may be fixed in material terms but it can be extremely fluid socially, culturally, ethnically, politically and economically.

Take Elephant and Castle in South London. It was my place of work: a place of Latin American vibes, amazing Chinese food, street markets, underground walkways, mixed housing estates and a much-maligned shopping centre. In the last few years though, the area has rapidly changed, certainly beyond my recognition. This primarily reflects ‘global’ forces, specifically those aligned with the contours of the real estate market. Southwark Council has partnered with property developers to create entirely new housing estates, including the nearly-completed Elephant Park. But to do so, they have demolished the Heygate Estate, consequently shifting a large number of its former residents, in some cases to as far away as Milton Keynes. Even for those who have not been moved, the new homes are largely unaffordable, in effect ‘displacing’ incumbent residents. The project has been hugely controversial, catalysing vocal and local protests, which have accused the council of ignoring the long historical identity of Elephant and Castle in favour of creating a more homogenous ‘place’ that attracts a wealthier class of people.

This strength of feeling is due to the rapidly changing nature of Elephant and Castle’s identity, or more precisely, the jarringly quick change in the mix of local and global, old and new. Property prices in the area have soared, and this influx of finance from City investors and far-flung corners of the world has eroded the intense local forces which made it such a vibrant community in the first place. As such, many people who once called it home now, very suddenly, feel unwelcome and alienated. The controversy surrounding Elephant and Castle’s identity is so fierce, precisely because the balance between the differing processes that construct it has been so rapidly tipped in favour of globalised financial practices.

Many neighbourhoods all over the world are experiencing a similarly dizzying pace of change; they are losing their existing identity and becoming more identikit. They have the same ‘feel’ of sterility as many other places: the same leisure and retail outlets, open spaces under constant CCTV surveillance with restrictive usage rules, questionable outdoor art, chain stores, vacuous branding, contemporary architecture, and even the same kind of people. Urban sociologist Sharon Zukin describes this process, stingingly, as: ‘gentrification by cappuccino'.

Some of this process falls under the rubric of ‘placemaking’ but actually does very little to ‘make place’ as Massey would have understood it. In fact, it sometimes destroys place by rhetorically suggesting that there wasn’t a place there to begin with; nothing of worth to anyone. We often hear of revitalisation, redevelopment, emerging neighbourhoods. The concept can work, sometimes. Too often, however, regeneration rides roughshod over incumbent communities because they seem ‘out of place’ with the developer’s pre-conceived notions of what will generate profit.

Any place (however defined) will always have an identity, a meaning to a community, however small or disjointed it may be. And the identity of a place is critical in generating its homeliness and community feel, and the balance between the multiple forces that constitute it – both local and global – needs to be carefully nurtured. For urban development to be of benefit to those who call it home and those who would like to, this balance must be of the utmost importance at all times, and certainly more important than just profit.


Oli Mould is a geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London. He writes about cities, creativity and the politics of protests. His new book, Against Creativity has just been published.

This article appeared in Issue 4 - Identity

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