Sense of Place & Landmarks


‘Sense of place’ is a widely used term used by urban planners and architects to describe the phenomena comprised of the emotional connections one makes with a place, as well the values, cultural meanings and symbols attributed to a place, that are all continually formed and updated in the individual’s mind.

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At Centric Lab we are concerned with the role neuroscience can play to help bring forward metrics, benchmarks, as well as a more biological view to urban challenges. Understanding more about how to create a "Sense of Place" through the use of new metrics and benchmarks would help create much healthier neighbourhoods for residents.

The first place we start is by breaking down these concepts into elements that can be looked at with a neuroscientific lens. In the case of 'Sense of Place" we started by understanding the first point of engagement with an environment. This would be understanding where they are, this phenomena is heavily dependent upon our cognitive ability to process spatial information. By framing sense of place through the mechanistic neural activity patterns underlying the phenomena, we can begin to set biological metrics for how a person orientates, path finds, and navigates their environment. Our theory is the less "disorientation" occurs the less stressed the person will be, which in turn could translate to a person feeling comfortable as they understand their environment.


Unpacking this even further, neuroscience research has found several key brain regions responsible for processing spatial information: the hippocampus, entorhinal, parahippocampal and parietal cortex. These brain regions have been found to have specific cells that underlie spatial information processing: place cells, grid cells, head-direction cells and border cells.

The hippocampus is of particular importance due its involvement in both spatial navigation and the formation and retrieval of autobiographical memory — key processes underlying the phenomena of sense of place. A two-way relationship has been proposed where our memories of past-events are dependent on the places on which they were formed while in parallel, the strength of our ‘sense of place’ is also dependent upon the integrity of the memories we attribute to a place.

Another important piece to orientation and adding a sense of place are landmarks. They have been shown to reinforce a strong sense of place by acting as a strong anchor for head-direction cells to anchor themselves towards when in an environment, these are cells that fire in a particular head orientation to help you to maintain your internal sense of direction in an environment.

Views of distant, stable landmarks affords the orientation process of head-direction cells which in turn re-orientate place cells in the hippocampus, reducing our disorientation when moving through an environment.

There are distinct cortical regions that support the function of recognising places/landmarks and encoding new place information. One example is activity in the parahippocampal place area (PPA), a region of the parahippocampal cortex has been suggested to play a role in encoding new perceptual information (appearance and layout) of an environment.

Translating the science into the built environment would be to start looking at how different demographics (children, a person with dementia, a person with Autism, etc) map an environment. What are they paying attention to and why. This would help make environments that "make sense", which is the first point to creating a sense of place. If people do not understand where they are or have trouble orienting themselves it already lowers their experience of that specific environment. Therefore, their sense of place has been diminished.

There are further elements to look at such as cognitive load, visual variety, and most importantly how the space supports human to human interactions.



A study found that individuals with a high sense of place for an urban area recalled more physical features (paths and landmarks) vs. areas with a low sense of place — paths and landmarks therefore seem to be key for urban imageability (formation of a strong and useful image of a city).

Recall and navigation tasks from a cognitive map of areas that participants had a stronger sense of place was easier. It therefore seems that certain salient elements of the physical environment afford a greater sense of place.

For those that make neighbourhoods, whether its as an architect, developer, or urban planner they should think about sense of place in terms of user experience.

Places with higher user experience will be more economically valuable and healthier.



Sense of place and place identity: Review of neuroscientific evidence (Charis Lengen; Thomas Kistemann; 2012) -

Neuroscience and Architecture: Seeking Common Ground (Esther M.Sternberg, Matthew A.Wilson 2006) -

Spatial navigation and place imageability in sense of place (Lindsay J.McCunn, RobertGifford, 2018) -