As Madonna (Louise Ciccone) famously said, “New York isn’t a place – it’s a state of mind.” To back this up, I stayed at a friend’s place in Melbourne recently where a very large black and white aerial photograph of New York’s Flatiron District covered most of a wall.
How is it that a place is no longer a place but a state of being?
How is it that cities can become evocative of a feeling from the other side of the world? When does a city image become commodified to the extent that its reproduction becomes a symbol full of meaning? (Think of a red London bus, Paris’ Eiffel Tower or a Grecian Mykonos laneway.)
I’d like to think that cities have a certain power to connect people to belonging in a way that the natural world can not. I don’t deny that a mighty waterfall, a desert panorama, or a coral reef are not evocative and can’t promote a certain state of mind. But something is missing, and that something is people. These natural places are understood as away from the buzz of urban life and speak to our longing for places of serenity and peace, away from people. This isn’t a bad thing, but to suggest that these natural places are places of belonging in the same way that cities are, I think, misses the point. We need both.
Doreen Massey has much to say about this in her seminal piece, A Global Sense of Place.(1) While writing primarily about global flows of capital and those who are left out, Massey makes many keen points about why even today, 30 years later, sense of place and sense of belonging have become important, possibly even more so. The suggestion is that our social connections have become disjointed in our global world and that our neighbourhoods, streets, schools, shops, and parks help deal with the virtual presence brought about by globalisation, and balance it with very real socio-emotional connection. She also points out the dangers of place becoming a proxy for tribal notions of defence and exclusion – something I see in our world today. Place should never be an excuse for fear of the other, who may simply be entering in to share in your joy of place.
At the Centre for Building Better Community our Flourishing Framework (TM) includes, as one of six elements, 'Belonging to People and Place.' This isn’t an accident of course. We are seeing in our work that sense of belonging and sense of place may be foundational to two of our other elements for flourishing cities – Contribution and Meaning. When a person can give back to their neighbourhood a powerful connection to place occurs. It's an investment in meaning-making, and place can be simply defined as a space with meaning for people.
To come back to that photograph of New York City and how it connects to a universal longing for belonging, we must remember that the symbol is more than virtual - it is a real place. Unlike soft-drink brands or international banks, or even the United Nations to press the point, cities are real physical space. I am reminded of this as the photograph in question shows Union Square in the background, which is my local park. It's a real place, not a commodified image on a wall. So yes, I am fortunate, and yes, I am a participant in the global flows that allow me to live here, and I could write more about the equity and justice of it all. However, whatever your place, take care of it and respect it.
Enjoy your neighbourhood, village, suburb, compound, settlement, or industrial waterfront. Give to it, respect it, love it and renew it. And as you do, your place will become both a state of mind and a very real physical manifestation of belonging.
(1) Doreen Massey (June 1991), Marxism Today, Communist Party of Great Britain, London.