A sense of place creates a sense of belonging

Something that exudes a "sense of place" may have no discernible design features but is still simply a place you want to be and makes you feel like you belong.

I first encountered a “sense of place” as an architecture student and though I haven’t practiced in more than twenty years, I recently realized that it is a concept that we can all relate to.

Architects and planners attribute it to the characteristics that make a place special or unique, or foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging.  It’s something architects aspire to capture in their design. It’s something that makes a place relatable, memorable. It’s more than a look. It’s a feeling. Even though many of us haven’t consciously articulated it, we know it when we experience it.

How place can help define workplace

At a macro level San Francisco evokes a sense of place, while San José just 48 miles to the south, doesn’t --at least not yet. This is probably the single biggest reason that tech startups choose San Francisco even though every objective consideration suggests the latter is a better fit from a labor and infrastructure perspective.

Aspiring to create a sense of place, while not any easier than defining the “workplace of the future”, is complex and not tangible until we experience it. Yet, it is vital in attracting, retaining and inspiring talent. Remember how I mentioned belonging?

Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA

In the same way that a particular city doesn’t always evoke a sense of place, good design alone doesn’t either. For example, I love Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. I view it as an example of great design, but it doesn’t foster a sense of belonging and comes off as a bit sterile. Something that exudes a "sense of place" may have no discernible design features but is still simply a place you want to be and makes you feel like you belong. Some examples of this include, the Cairo Bazaar, Greenwich Village, Praça das Flores in Lisbon and Preston Farm and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif.

Cairo Bazaar, Cairo, Egypt

Greenwich Village, New York

Praça das Flores, Lisbon, Portugal

These are all places where social interactions feel deep and meaningful, ideas come to life, the soul is nurtured, and we feel connected--even if our cell phones aren’t.

Place is nothing new, but is perhaps new again

The concept of creating a sense of place is not new in urban planning. Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Christopher Alexander et al, A Pattern Language (1977) are long-standing books written on the subject. A sense of place is largely taught at the academic level and targeted toward urban planning, so very few of us working in commercial real estate feel we can impact our built environment at that macro scale. I would like to see the emphasis shift away from large-scale city planning and more (micro) towards the “company campus” concept synonymous with Silicon Valley, or singular “vertical campus” iterations in places like downtown San Francisco. How do we transform the skyscraper to make it a place and not just a building?

Your office space as a place

There are already very tangible examples that I believe are quite successful in creating a sense of place that helps attract and retain talent, and foster a more productive, dynamic and exciting work environment. Here’s a few:

Airbnb’s HQ in San Francisco makes full use of an expansive interior atrium to connect the interior space and create a dynamic environment offering constant visual and physical interaction.

Airbnb HQ San Francisco. Photo credit: Emily Hagopian

Urban Outfitters' repurposed large storage buildings at the old Philadelphia Navy Yards to create a remarkably vibrant, light-filled urban campus environment.

Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ accomplishes the remarkable feat of creating a dynamic exterior space replete with town square style retail offerings in a formerly sterile, non-descript suburban Silicon Valley campus.

I would love to hear about any ideas, thoughts or opinions you have on this topic. Also, if you know of a public space, office or workplace that fosters a sense of place, let me know.