Review: Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (by Yi-Fu Tuan)

by Caleb Gordon

Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, by Yi-Fu Tuan (University of Minnesota Press, 1977)

What is the difference between ‘space’ and ‘place’—and why does it matter? In his 1977 book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, the humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan offers an answer to these questions. Over the course of the book, Tuan develops an account of ‘space’ as an abstraction of freedom and potential: a geometric context within which ‘place’ and other objects of attention must be situated. For Tuan, ‘space’ becomes or contains ‘place,’ when—and to the extent that—a space becomes a location of meaning. ‘Place is a special kind of object,’ he writes. ‘It is a concretion of value, though not a valued thing that can be handled or carried about easily; it is an object in which one can dwell.’ (12) A key aspect of Tuan’s thought is that our minds supply and confer an interpretation of space. For Tuan, the very fact that humans do this is a critically-important—but also neglected—part of the ways that environments must be planned, managed, and evaluated. 

In distinguishing ‘space’ from ‘place’ in this way, Tuan generates an imperative to conceive of space in terms of the sensory and interpretive relationships created and maintained by the subjects within. When space is being evaluated—whether for development or conservation—it must also be evaluated in terms that recognise and integrate the meaning of the space. This means considering the sensory relationships of particular environments and their inhabitants. Tuan’s resulting account of the relationship between imagination and physical objects is both the most challenging and most rewarding element of his work. We do not have (direct) access to the experiences of others, but Tuan refuses to let us dismiss them in the process of environmental planning; changes to a ‘space’ can profoundly change its character as a ‘place.’ 

Calling something a ‘place’ suggests an important relationship between its shape and its occupants, even if the significance of that relationship unclear to an outside observer. Tuan’s aim is not to solve this problem, but to convince his reader that it is too important to be dismissed, even though it is difficult. As he puts it near the end of the book: ‘Experiences are slighted or ignored because the means to articulate them or point them out are lacking. The lack is not due to any inherent deficiency in language. If something is of sufficient importance to us we usually find the means to give it visibility.’ (201) He further defines the goal of his work not as demystifying the creation of meaningful places; but rather to ‘increase the burden of awareness.’ (203) If we become more aware of the meanings inscribed on ‘space’—which is to say, if we are compelled to recognise ‘spaces’ as ‘places,’—then we are faced with a moral problem. We are forced to acknowledge a fuller picture of the ways that people interact with their environments, and the importance of those interactions to the creation of meaning, purpose, and fulfilment. We cannot assess these interactions from beyond our own perspectives; but with Tuan’s clarification, the difficulty of the problem can no longer justify its neglect.

While Space and Place is not an overtly theological work, Tuan’s framework lends itself to theological reflection. The kinds of questions he generates—what meanings do we associate with various places and objects? How do we generate meaning in the first place?—have theological implications for the relationships between humans and the environments we inhabit. Though published nearly 50 years ago, Space and Place addresses environmental problems which have only intensified since then. People increasingly report feelings of disconnection or unbelonging while social and economic pressures change and shape the development of cities and other inhabited landscapes. Such changes do not always fit with the lived experience and emergence of relational meaning which, Tuan argues, are essential characteristics of humanity, and thus essential to human fulfilment. Tuan’s work challenges us to consider how we develop theological perspectives and how those perspectives influence our views on the spaces we inhabit; the spaces we make into places. We might also be prompted to think about the sorts of relation to place that are theologically compelling or nourishing, or how our environments help us relate to God through the meanings we inscribe. This is Tuan’s most significant contribution to theological reflection: while our ability to define ‘place’ is essential to our humanity, the meanings that we do attribute to our environments are reflections of our relationship to God. 

Caleb Gordon
Caleb Gordon

Caleb Gordon is a Ph.D. candidate in Religions & Theology at the University of Manchester.