In his famous book on space and place the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan gave the following instruction on reading his own text: ”The approach is descriptive, aiming more often to suggest than to conclude. In an area of study where so much is tentative, perhaps each statement should end with a question mark or be accompanied by qualifying clauses. The reader is asked to supply them.” (p. 7) Let us do what he suggested and question some of the widely cherished ideas of space and place – partly the legacy of Tuan himself. Space is often thought to be somehow more abstract than place. It is taken to be an undifferentiated container that becomes a place only when we endow it with value. Place is the home of security, space the realm of freedom. Place is known to us, space not so much.
Although there is some truth in this, this way of thinking is also problematic. Space as such is clearly no more abstract than place: both can be abstracted to the same extent, as in the Cartesian grid where space is represented with the x- y- and z-axes and the place with a point with coordinates relative to them. Speaking in concrete terms, on the other hand, both space and place are clearly meaningful to us. The home is a meaningful place, but so is the motorway that Augé called non-place – only the meanings are different. There are safe places but also scary places, in which case the safest thing is to get the hell out of there. Space is freedom, for sure, but it is freedom exactly because it allows the possibility to change places. Space as a multitude of alternative places, all of them with different characteristics and meanings, is how this interesting interplay could be approached. There is never just one place, always a multitude of them, and they exist to us as possible locations even if we would never visit them.
How are these theoretical reflections relevant to the contemporary situation of urban and regional planning? We know, of course, that people are not staying at one place, and that is why transportation between places is such a crucial element in planning. We know that commuting from home to the workplace does not respect municipal borders, and that commercial activities concentrate in places of good accessibility, having their customer base in a wider area. Instead of cities and the dichotomy between the city and the countryside, we have come to accept the functional city region, where citizens and businesses not only choose their locations but build complex networks, and where both housing and labour markets are regional.
But something more is happening. The development of information technology has greatly increased the possibilities of working outside the main office: at home, in various contemporary urban offices, during transportation in trains and buses, and in public and semi-public spaces like libraries and coffee shops. The employers, in turn, have noticed that it makes no sense to rent and maintain large office spaces with low occupancy rates; instead, the workers are profiled according to their mobility, and the mobile ones are not allowed to keep rooms or even permanent desks. Work is thus becoming mobile both inside and outside of the office. For the mobile workers, there is no longer only one workplace but a number of alternative workplaces, only some of which are intentionally designed for this purpose.
In addition to this, we are not necessarily living in only one place at a time. As secondary homes have become more well equipped and communication networks faster and more widespread, the borderline between working and leisure is slowly becoming blurred, and people can spend longer times in the places of their preference independently of their working hours. Highly specialised working couples also need to search for job opportunities from a larger catchment area, leading to several forms of interregional solutions of living in many places. Climatic preferences, higher incomes and the growth of the retired population is creating international networked living in different places in different countries. In this multitude of living opportunities, the concepts of primary and secondary homes are becoming outdated, even though the primary residence still determines our identities as citizens and taxpayers.
Considering these developments, we may say that contemporary urban planning – along with urban and regional politics – is clearly lagging behind. The tradition of planning only one neighbourhood or even city at a time, with an ’existing’ or ’projected’ number of residents and workplaces inside its perimeter, is missing the whole point of multi-local living and multi-local working. The tradition of planning functionally divided land-uses, as well as designing spaces for specified functions, has difficulties in dealing with this dynamic multifunctionality of spaces and places. And organising public services ’close to home’ makes no sense anymore: home is where your heart is.
Tuan, Yi-Fu (2011/1977) Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Augé, Marc (1995/1992) Non-Places. Introduction to Anthropology of Supermodernity. London and New York: Verso.
Publications on multi-locality:
Libraries as transitory workspaces and spatial incubators
Di Marino, M. & Lapintie, K. 2015 In : LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SCIENCE RESEARCH. 37, 2, p. 118-129
Emerging workplaces in the post-functionalist cities
Di Marino, M. & Lapintie, K. Forthcoming in JOURNAL OF URBAN TECHNOLOGY.