Defining Place

The role of nature and culture in place formation

We’ve decided to plant a neighbourhood grove with Trees for Cities. This grove contains a tree dedicated to each and every client we have worked with since starting our company in 2006: thank you for helping us to grow. Your grove will form part of the Broadmead Community Mass Tree Planting Project in London, and represents our commitment to creating richer, more diverse environments for people and our changing cities.

We also wanted to ask you a question: what defines a place?

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Trees are one of the oldest forms of shelter, and beautifully embody the multifaceted nature of place: physical presence, practical necessity, historical value, and cultural or personal connection.

Trees have been on earth for over 370 million years, and serve an abundance of ecological and sociological needs. They provide fuel, building materials, shelter, and shade. They moderate the climate and the air we breathe. They feed into our collective mythologies as a symbol for knowledge, growth, life, and longevity. They are also often one of our earliest and most personal experiences of place formation. Do you remember your childhood tree? Perhaps you built a treehouse, or carved your name? For many of us this was the place where, as a child, we began to set the boundaries of our own territory and plant a narrative of memories.

Consider how a tree contains its own history within the rings of its trunk. Isn’t a ‘place’ also a product of its own history and evolution, with its stories there to be read? Trees, then, seemed a good and familiar spot to begin our investigations of place, and to invite conversation and collaboration. As a marker of place they blend necessity with imagination, bind nature to culture, and capture the real human need to live physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

“There is a need to balance nature with urban development.”

Since launching The Neighbourhood 8 years ago we have supported Trees for Cities, an independent charity that work with local communities on tree planting projects in urban areas. Yes it’s nice to have ‘green credentials’ and give something back, but for us it’s about more than that. It’s estimated that currently 50% of the world’s population live in cities, and this is only set to grow. It’s becoming increasingly important then to consider how these urban spaces work for people on a practical level. Clearly there is a need to balance nature with urban development: a genuine commitment that goes beyond the ‘cult of green’, and engages with the wider implications and needs of a place.

Trees for Cities achieve this through educational tree planting programs, which invite people to become proactive in the evolution and transformation of the places they live. By getting involved, individuals can work together to build upon the shared values and aspirations of their communities. A more collaborative approach ensures the viability, necessity, and sustainability of their schemes. The ultimate goal is to build stronger neighbourhoods, where better quality of life and social cohesion is key. As the Forestry Commission would say: ‘the right tree in the right place.'

So the tree, for us, is more than a tree alone. It becomes a symbol of place. An anchor point loaded with meaning, rich with memories, and implicit in the development of shared narratives and experiences. It’s a way to explore the feeling of connection embedded in place, and what it means to belong.

To discover more about our fascination with place read A Placemaking Philosophy.

This is just the beginning. Follow our investigations and give us your thoughts on what defines a place @neighbourhood #definingplace


Michelle Collier

Date published

26 March 2014