All places are small worlds: the sense of a world, however, may be called forth by art…as much as by the intangible net of human relations.
— Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective (1974, p246)
Geography is the science of place, having three high-level intertwining branches: physical geography, human geography, and geographical information science (GIScience). It seems fair to say that physical geography, like environmental sciences, encompasses or overlaps with several earth and biological science fields (geomorphology, hydrology, oceanography, meteorology; ecology, biogeography), that human geography has close associations with many of the social sciences and with urban and regional planning, and that GIScience incorporates several computational and cognitive science fields as theoretical underpinnings for geographic information systems.
Calling geography the science of place is somewhat provocative. Disciplinary debates over the past century have agonized over whether regional and cultural geography were too descriptive of the particularities of places (idiographic); whether we should be concerned only with the nomothetic search for general laws. As a late arrival to the debates I confess to being somewhat mystified by them. Doesn’t the analysis involved in searching for laws require rigorous description? I enjoy speculating about how Carl Sauer, the Berkeley geographer who conceived “cultural landscapes” (1925) in the 1920s, would have used today’s computational tools to describe and analyze them.
It is natural to differentiate place from space, as Yi-Fu Tuan has done in a spiritual, even mystical sense by discussing place as experiential space (Tuan 1974). There has been an unfortunate tendency amongst some critical theorists to conflate space and place in discussions of “constructed spaces;” I submit they are referring to place and that we need the two words to have distinct meanings. Spatial analysis refers to mathematical operations performed upon representations of space, conceived as objects in a void or continuous surfaces. Humanistic interpretations of space are just that, and the term place works wonderfully. Our “sense of place” is a well-known if not easily articulated concept.
So is the humanistic, experiential place computable? The name of this blog suggests my answer. I don’t think commercial geographic information systems (GIS) are especially well suited to it yet, but they can play an important part and will evolve over time. Yes, places have spatial locations—perhaps vague or contested—but that is only one of their attributes. Their other attributes are how we know and describe them, formally or informally as containers of things (cf. Winter and Freksa 2013) or sites of events (Ibid; Grossner 2010), how we group or differentiate them, and in the case of regions or neighborhoods, how we define them.
At this stage of my research and software development adventures in computing place, I am thinking about what the measurable (computable) dimensions of place are. There are several categories of dimensions I view as equally important. The first three are commonplace; the fourth is not: (1) physical geographic settings such as land cover, terrain, and climate; (2) population characteristics like distributions of wealth and ethnicity; (3) significant human artifacts, including cities, buildings, monuments, and earthworks (“public symbols” for Tuan, which can be places themselves); and (4) activity and events.
Activity from Events of Text-making
If, instead, we conceive of a meeting-up of histories, what happens to our implicit imaginations of time and space?
— Doreen Massey, For Space (2000, p4)
For many studies, places will be most effectively described and understood in terms of what happens there and what has happened there. That is, activity and events. Certainly this seems like the most effective way to join human experience to spatial entities. The third category of dimensions listed above is directly related to events in that all artifacts are products of human acts. Among the artifacts people create are texts and images, which may be explicitly descriptive of places. Less obviously, the creations of people living in a place can be descriptive of it. Arguably, an important dimension of places like Paris, Vienna and Saint Petersburg is the conceptual content of literature emitting from their cafes and salons. Both are an excellent source for understanding places as the human experiences of space. In fact our understanding of concepts held in minds is constrained by what we can derive from language and imagery.
All texts related to places are candidates for analysis. For the recent City Nature project at Stanford (citynature.stanford.edu), we developed a topic model for the comprehensive plans of 37 large U.S. cities, to study both existing circumstances and design intent. In recent exploratory work aimed at developing a taxonomy of cultural activity, I analyzed parts-of-speech in descriptive text for UNESCO-listed intangible cultural heritage practices. Interestingly, nouns and noun phrases were a much richer source of lexical markers for activity than verbs.
Adams and McKenzie (2013) have developed a topic model for a large corpus of travel blog posts and Wikipedia articles about places, and demonstrated place similarity in an interactive web application, Frankenplace. Cooper and Gregory (2011) “map out the qualitative ‘data’ provided by the articulation of subjective spatial experiences” in an analysis of accounts of tours of the English Lake District by the poet, Thomas Gray, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1769 and 1802 respectively).
The relation between artifacts and activity is nowhere more evident than in archaeological studies. In upcoming work on knowledge representation for the Çatalhöyük project in Turkey (led by Stanford’s Ian Hodder; www.catalhoyuk.com), colleague Elijah Meeks and I will use topic models of excavation diaries and grey literature to explore the ways ancient activity is inferred from material evidence.
In forthcoming posts, I’ll elaborate on these and other projects, and discuss formal models of events and activity in places for representing cultural landscapes more explicitly.
Adams, B. and McKenzie, G. (2013). Inferring Thematic Places from Spatially Referenced Natural Language Descriptions. In: D. Sui, S. Elwood, and M. Goodchild (Eds.), Crowdsourcing Geographic Knowledge, pp. 201-221.
Cooper, D. and Gregory, I. N. (2011). Mapping the English Lake District: a literary GIS. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 36, No. 1, p. 89-108
Grossner, K. (2010). Event Objects for Spatial History. In R. Purves, R. Weibel (Eds.) Extended Abstracts Volume, GIScience 2010, Zurich. (PDF)
Massey, D. (2005). For space. London: Sage
Sauer, C. (1925). The morphology of landscape, In J. Agnew, D.N. Livingstone, and A. Rogers, (Eds.). (1996). Human geography: an essential anthology. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Tuan, Y. (1974). Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective. Progress in Geography, 6, 233-246
Winter, S. and Freksa, C. (2013). Approaching the notion of place by contrast. Journal of Spatial Information Science, Number 5, pp. 31–50