Center for Community Economic Development
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Community Economics Newsletter No. 307 (May 2002)

Thomas G. Johnson *

The Value of Place

The emergence of regional science almost 50 years ago was due to the growing recognition of space and place as important and fruitful areas of scholarship. Similar recognitions of the importance of place have occurred in the arts and other scientific disciplines.

The novelist and environmentalist, Wallace Stegner, wrote that he had a “tyrannous sense of place” (1994, p. ix). Stegner wrote that people are created by the place they inhabit as a child. Stegner writes, “I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from. … However anachronistic I may be, I am a product of the American earth, and in nothing quite so much as in the contrast between what I knew through the pores and what I was officially taught” (1962, p. 23).

But I agree with others that we are shaped throughout our lives by places, and as importantly, the people in places. Robert Hanna (1999) suggests, “We must remind ourselves of the power of place. Place triggers memories of the past, it impels us to act in the present, and it spurs us to hope for the future … day by day the ordinary places of our lives leave their mark on us. They become part of us and we become part of them.”

I. Theories of place versus theories of space

Spatial theories deals with the location of activities relative to other activities and to spatially defined characteristics. The theories of Von Thunen, Christaller, Ricardo, Weber and others all predict spatial patterns of land-use and economic activities. In most of these theories space is assumed to be featureless and undifferentiated except by the land-uses being explained. The places in these theories are indistinct and undifferentiated. More sophisticated spatial theories allow space itself to be differentiated and punctuated by spatial characteristics. Places in these theories are repositories for amenities and characteristics. But even the most sophisticate theories of space predict that two places with the same attributes and spatial characteristics would provide the same firms and families the same flow of services and value. They predict symmetry among places with respect to migration costs, search costs, preferences, and location probability.

II. Place in other disciplines

Geography: Location, Locale and Sense of Place

“Place matters because it structures the way we behave” (Flint et al., 2000, p. 3). With this as their rationale, Flint, Harrower and Edsall call on political geographers to develop theories of place. They go on to suggest a place-based approach built on concepts articulated by a colleague, Agnew (1987) and extended by Massey (1994) in which there are three dimension to place — what they call, location, locale and sense of place. Location refers to a place’s role in the global milieu. A place’s locale is its institutional, social and geographic context. A place’s sense of place is its self-identity.

Anthropology and ethnography: cosmic, social and personal space

Wesley Kort argues that ethnographers and anthropologists have in the last half century started to find place (or human spatiality) more attractive. Place is seen as nurturing, rootedness as a virtue. Kort, develops a framework of “human spatiality” in which he identifies three types of spaces: 1) cosmic or comprehensive space; 2) social space; and 3) personal or intimate space.

Cosmic space is roughly comparable with the regional scientist’s concept of spatial theory and with location in the Agnew-Massey definition. It includes all places and all socioeconomic actors. It features environment, infrastructure, labor markets, competition, culture, etc. It embodies nature and has intrinsic value as a whole. Cosmic space has no boundaries.

Social space involves the relationships between people. Social spaces are constructed with invisible lines that overlap one another and vary from purpose to purpose. Social space roughly corresponds to our concepts of community and spatial markets, and to the Agnew-Massey concept of locale. Distance and space are integral but secondary to social relationships. It is at this scale that many regional science issues arise.

Kort’s personal space is closest to what I am referring to as place. Personal space is a characteristic of the individual. The qualities of personal spaces are variable and elusive. Kort writes, “The force and significance of personal or intimate places arises from their enhancement of potentials within persons and their relations, potentials that have content, so to speak, of their own.”

It is possible to view human-place relationships as involving passive places where things happen, or passive humans to whom places affect everyone equally. On the other hand, it is quite possible to see both places and people as active participants in human-people relationships.

III. Putting more place in space

If the above economic theories are deficient as place theories, what would a sufficient place theory look like? I suggest that we should expect the following characteristics of our theories of place.

  1. Place theories should describe active relationships between people and places–relationships in which places have unique characteristics and individuals have unique preferences.
  2. Place theories should be positioned within the context of cosmic space, but they should focus on the social, and especially, personal space.
  3. Place theories should include the physical, economic, social, historical, cultural and institutional dimensions of space as well as the spiritual dimension of space.

Is it possible for a place theory to deal with these apparently idiosyncrasies of place? Can we go beyond the case study without losing the uniqueness of places? Other sciences and disciplines have developed workable, if not complete, place theories. Surely regional scientists can do as well or better. Outside the disciplines of economics and regional science, the notion that we can predict human behavior without reference to these aspects of place would be met with incredulity. To remain credible in a globalizing world, in a world of mobility and mixing of cultures, we must work harder at understanding place.


Agnew, J.A. (1987) Place and politics: The geographical mediation of state and society. Boston: Allen & Unwin.

Flint, Colin, Mark Harrower, and Robert Edsall (2000) But How Does Place Matter? Using Bayesian Networks to Explore a Structural Definition of Place. Paper presented at New Methodologies for the Social Sciences: The Development and Application of Spatial Analysis for Political Methodology, University of Colorado at Boulder, March 10-12.

Hanna, Robert (1999). Landscapes of the Soul: A Spirituality of Place. Ave Maria Press.

Kort, Wesley A. 2001. Sacred/Profane and an Adequate Theory of Human Place-Relations. Paper presented at the Constructions of Ancient Space Conference, Denver, November 17-20.

Massey, D. 1994. Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stegner, Wallace. 1962. Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. New York: Viking Press.

* Tom Johnson is a Frank Miller Professor of Agricultural Economics and Director of the Community Policy Analysis Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia. This essay is drawn from Professor Johnson’s April 2002 Fellows Address given to the Southern Regional Science Association, Washington D.C.