Creating a Sense of Place

By Sarah Brindle, Sustainability Funding Development Intern

I’ve lived in Bloomington for five years now, and in those years I’ve had many great experiences. I graduated college, started grad school, adopted my first dog, met my fiancé, and will be getting married here in December.  While here, I’ve also been able to eat many breakfasts outside at Runcible Spoon, buy fresh eggs at the farmers’ market, eat ice cream at Chocolate Moose, dine on 4th street, see performances at the Buskirk-Chumley, and volunteer at a nonprofit. All of these experiences and more make Bloomington my home.

The outside eating area at Runcible Spoon.

Scott Russell Sanders, author and former IU English professor, writes in his book A Conservationist Manifesto that part of living sustainably is creating a sense of “place” where you live. Sanders writes that

“A powerful sense of belonging to our home ground can draw us out of our self-preoccupation and revive our concern for the public realm. It can help transform us from rootless wonderers into inhabitants, from consumers into stewards (96).”

I couldn’t agree more with Sanders’s statement. Being an active member in your community not only builds relationships, but also develops a sense of care for your community. When you care about something, you want to sustain it—to help preserve and protect it.  I care for Bloomington, and therefore I want to support its local shops and restaurants, preserve its beautiful parks and lakes, and volunteer at its nonprofits.

Some of the restaurants along 4th St.

In the first section of Sanders’s book, he lays out the state of the planet—diminishing resources, animal extinctions, destroyed forests, polluted waters, and increasing greenhouse gases. When you read all of this, it’s overwhelming. How do we fix a problem this big? And in this regard, I think Sander’s discussion of place is so important. There is the saying ‘think global, act local.’ We unfortunately cannot solve all of the Earth’s environmental problems in one fell swoop; however, we can make important sustainable changes at the individual and community-level. These actions, community by community, can create significant global impacts.

The Buskirk-Chumley Theater on Kirkwood Av.

As a child, I felt that the town I grew up in lacked “place.” It wasn’t a bad town by any means, but it was a uniform and cookie-cutter community. Typically, when residents wanted to eat, shop, and play, they left town and “lived” elsewhere. Sanders writes that

“A real place feels as though it belongs where it is, as though it has grown there, shaped by weather and geography, rather than being imported from elsewhere and set down arbitrarily like a mail-order kit (96-97).”

Part of creating a sense of place is cultivating it—looking for and participating in the ways that makes a community unique. For example, if one were to visit Lebanon, Indiana (a small city north of Indy), they would find that this tiny community is home to some of the best local chocolates and doughnuts around. Donaldson’s Chocolates has been in Lebanon since 1966 and is a cute old-fashioned chocolate shop that makes delicious candy. Titus Pastry Shoppe at 5 am (on any day of the week) has a line that stretches into the parking lot, full of people waiting to get a dozen of the famous Persian doughnuts (they only make so many, so you have to get their early!).  These places are what I cherish about Lebanon—for me, what makes it a “place.”

Titus Pastry Shoppe in Lebanon, IN.

One of my favorite quotes from A Conservationist Manifesto is as follows,

“What all of us long for, I suspect, is to love the places in which we live and to live in places worthy of love. Surrounded by sham and disarray, we hunger for integrity and authenticity. We wish to dwell somewhere rather than nowhere (103).”

Healthy and vibrant communities do not just exist; they are cultivated by the commitment and care of their community members. The IU Office of Sustainability defines sustainability as “learning to thrive within our means.” As we think of ways to be better stewards, live more sustainably, let’s take Sanders’s discussion of place to heart, and learn to thrive in our communities.


3 thoughts on “Creating a Sense of Place

  1. With the trending push toward localization, I think that it is critical for a given community to having defining qualities so that its residents are more apt to preserve, maintain and contribute to it. When individuals place their time and effort into both the development and sustenance of something, they grow to appreciate it with more vigor and take greater pride in seeing it succeed and as Sarah mentioned, it is these types of communities that often seem the most vibrant and have a sense of place.

  2. What a beautiful post! You are absolutely right about the creation of space and the importance of community. The US is unique in terms of mobility: about 1 in 8 people move each year to a new residence, and many others try to vacation at least once a year. It would help greatly if more people focused on building their communities as opposed to escaping from them. Sustainability requires more than living within our means, it requires people to cherish the places in which they dwell.

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