Place and Space

Place, in contrast to space, is a context-specific, meaning-rich concept. Although many use the two words interchangeably, a fairly clean distinction can be made between them. Space is more abstract and undifferentiated than place. Space often is used to express a freedom from or a potential for something—“give me some space” or “we need space for this relationship to develop.” Place, by way of contrast, describes a realm where something significant has happened or is happening; “there’s no place like home.”

Walter Brueggemann identifies place as “storied.” One way to easily visualize the relationship between space and place is to think of a college dorm room. Before a student moves in, the dorm room has everything that is needed for college life, but it’s generic, undifferentiated space. Typically, there is a desk, a bed, a closet, a mirror, and a light. Within a week or two after the student moves in, this space is transformed into a place. There are pictures on the mirror, a cover on the bed, posters on the walls, and bric-a-brac on the desk. The story of that particular semester of college in that student’s life has already begun to be inscribed on the walls.

There is a dynamic relationship between space and place. Place is good, but we sometimes need a break from it. As a person lives life, one’s narrative begins to etch meanings on a particular space, causing it to become a place. As the meanings and memories crowd a place, a person may express a desire for more space. This is why we go on vacations to be restored or sometimes long to start over.

Space can be good in and of itself as well. Space is sometimes necessary for personal growth or identity formation within a group. Often we go on retreats not to disengage, but to reconnect with God, with ourselves, or with others. Often, however, new spaces are lonely and disorienting. Strangers finding themselves in this kind of situation long to find a place that they can call home.

The Demise of Place

John Inge discusses how modernity has diminished the importance of place in contemporary life. In ancient and premodern cultures, place was a significant determiner of one’s identity. A person typically was born, lived, and died in one particular place and was closely identified with that place (Jesus of Nazareth or Joseph of Arimathea). With the universalizing impulse of modernity typified in the scientific method, the particularities of place began to be perceived as a liability to the modernist project. For an experiment to be valid, it had to be repeatable regardless of the particularities of place. Through this and other developments, space began to be valued more highly than place.

With increasingly faster modes of transportation and communication, place became swallowed up by time. As people could get information and goods from various places and could easily travel, places (and the people associated with them) became less and less important. In the nineteenth century, a person from North America would have to travel on a boat for many weeks to experience the taste of a kiwi or would have to wait months for news from the mission front in interior China. In the twenty-first century, a North American can eat a bowlful of kiwis in the middle of winter while participating in a video conference with missionaries from six continents at once. If you want to make a direct connection with another person today, the most important thing you need to coordinate is the time of your connection. With the cell phone, Skype, and Facebook, your location and theirs are insignificant.


 Globalization and the horizontal integration of corporate structures have more recently introduced the notion of placelessness into the modern vocabulary. Big-box chain retail stores and identical, production-built tract houses can be understood as placeless places. These are technically places in that stories are lived in them, but the generic nature and short time span of the buildings make them resistant to holding the stories that are generated there. More and more of the contemporary landscape is being taken over by developments in which it can be very hard to tell where one happens to be located.


 While one would be hard-pressed to try to make a convincing case against the scientific method, improvements in communications technology, or the significant benefits of expanding productivity in industry, it may still be helpful to consider some of the implications of the diminishing importance of place in contemporary life.

As one’s connection with a particular place becomes more tenuous, it can be harder to make sense of one’s identity. Gaston Bachelard makes the argument in The Poetics of Space that our identity is formed by our early interaction with places like the homes of our childhoods. This notion suggests that placelessness might play a contributing role in the current crisis of identity.

The loss of place can have a detrimental effect on our collective and individual memory as well. Places of significance hold memories, and when they are designed with standardized elements or for short-term use, they tend to hold memories less well. To people who have been commanded in the Bible to “remember,” this should be particularly concerning. We will explore this theme in more detail later in this chapter.

The boundedness of place has been an important element in relational development. We know one another more deeply when proximity forces us to interact on a regular basis. The contemporary ease by which we can move from one place to another has tended to pull us further apart from one another rather than bring us closer. Martin Heidegger has observed that in contemporary life “the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness.” This theme will be taken up in chapter 3.

Ambiguity about Place

 Not all of the attributes of place can be considered unequivocally good, however. For some people, place is primarily associated with oppression. A place can signify the stigma of one’s identity in a particular context. One woman who encountered Jesus understood only too well that her place carried with it certain restrictions, “for Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” A place can evoke painful and destructive memories, and place can provide the pretext for relational disassociation and social stratification—“they ought to know their place.”

In many ways, postmodernity has been concerned with navigating the assets and liabilities associated with place. On the one hand, postmodernity has revived an interest in narrative and localism in an attempt to recover some of the richness of place. On the other hand, postmoderns have embraced the fluidity and mobility allowed by modern communication  technologies. Modernity brought the radical notion that a son of a blacksmith from Bath could grow up to be a lawyer in London. Postmodernity presents us with the possibility of making up an online identity that needs no correspondence with our actual geographical or demographic particularities. We have yet to discover the implications of this radical dismissal of place.

Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2012.

Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.


Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Thank you for this introduction to your book, I look forward to reading it.

    Eric Jacobsen writes : “Gaston Bachelard makes the argument in The Poetics of Space that our identity is formed by our early interaction with places like the homes of our childhoods.”

    The book has been sitting on my bookshelf for 25 years unread beyond the first few pages, but you’ve inspired me to pull it back off the shelf to give it another go.

  2. “Space” is that recognizable arena which, when adding people, turns said space into “Place”. The two are inextricably united and both are depauperate without the other. One of the principle defects of the modern planner is that they actually think they can create one or the other without thinking of either, one or the other.

  3. Thank you, Eric! It was great to hear your keynote at the FPR conference earlier this month. Do you have a blog?

Comments are closed.