Spirit of place

This article is about cherished aspects of location. For the debut album by Australian band Goanna, see Spirit of Place (album).

Spirit of place (or soul) refers to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place; often those celebrated by artists and writers, but also those cherished in folk tales, festivals and celebrations. It is thus as much in the invisible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories, etc.) as it is the tangible physical aspects of a place (monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, architectural style, rural crafts styles, pathways, views, and so on) or its interpersonal aspects (the presence of relatives, friends and kindred spirits, and the like).

Often the term is applied to a rural or a relatively unspoiled or regenerated place whereas the very similar term sense of place would tend to be more domestic, urban, or suburban in tone. For instance, one could logically apply 'sense of place' to an urban high street; noting the architecture, the width of the roads and pavements, the plantings, the style of the shop-fronts, the street furniture, and so on, but one could not really talk about the 'spirit of place' of such an essentially urban and commercial environment. However, an urban area that looks faceless or neglected to an adult may have deep meaning in children's street culture.

The Roman term for spirit of place was Genius loci, by which it is sometimes still referred. This has often been historically envisaged as a guardian animal or a small supernatural being (puck, fairy, elf, and the like) or a ghost. In the developed world these beliefs have been, for the most part, discarded. A new layer of less-embodied superstition on the subject, however, has arisen around ley lines, feng shui and similar concepts, on the one hand, and urban leftover spaces, such as back alleys or gaps between buildings in some North-American downtown areas, on the other hand.[1]

The western cultural movements of Romanticism and Neo-romanticism are often deeply concerned with creating cultural forms that 're-enchant the land', in order to establish or re-establish a spirit of place.[2]

Modern earth art (sometimes called environment art) artists such as Andy Goldsworthy have explored the contribution of natural/ephemeral sculpture to spirit of place.[3][4]

Many indigenous and tribal cultures around the world are deeply concerned with spirits of place in their landscape.[5] Spirits of place are explicitly recognized by some of the world's main religions: Shinto has its Kami which may incorporate spirits of place; Christianity has spirits of place in the Angelic Choirs of Dominions and Principalities, Hinduism, Vajrayana and Bonpo traditions.

Spirit of Place Symposiums

Between 1988 and 1993, five annual Spirit of Place Symposiums were produced by environmental psychologist James Swan and Roberta Swan, in the United States and Japan. The programs sought to explore the relationship between ancient wisdom about the importance of a sense or spirit of a place, and modern science and design. The programs—held in Davis, CA; Grace Cathedral, San Francisco' Mesa Verde National Park; Tenri, Japan; and San Rafael, CA—featured over 350 speakers, including scientists, designers, and representatives of natives cultures. They also included concerts by Paul Horn, Anna Halprin, Steven Halpern, and R. Carlos Nakai. The five programs attracted an audience of 10,000, and featured on national TV in the United States and Japan. The 1992 symposium held in Tenri, Japan, was the largest environmental conference in Japan that year. Representatives of 20 different American Indian tribes, Ainu, Inuit, Aborigine, and African traditional cultures were speakers in the series. Two anthologies edited by James and Roberta Swan, The Power of Place (Quest, 1991) and Dialogues with the Living Earth (Quest, 1996) present a selection of presentations at the Spirit of Place Symposiums.

See also


  1. A. Akkerman and A.F. Cornfeld (2010) "Greening as an urban design metaphor: Looking for the city's soul in leftover spaces," The Structurist 49/50: 30-35
  2. T. Graves and L. Poraj-Wilezynska (2009) "'Spirit of place' as process: Archaeography, dowsing and perceptual mapping at Belas Knap," Time and Mind 2: 167-193.
  3. B. E. Bannon (2011) "Re-envisioning nature: The role of aesthetics in environmental ethics," Environmental Ethics 33(4): 415-436.
  4. Fulford, R. (2008) Andy Goldsworthy: Nature's collaborator, art's alchemist," Queen's Quarterly 114(4): 597-607.
  5. Opp, J. (2011) "Public history and the fragments of place: Archaeology, history and heritage site development in southern Alberta," Rethinking History 15: 241-267
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