place

NOTHING IS MORE important to all geography, descriptive or analytical, natural or human, than place or location. Place can be divided into at least three distinct aspects: geometric location defined by precise latitude and longitude; relative location of where a place is relative to other places, especially in the context of history; and finally, the unique nature of place—a sense of place.

In terms of precise location, geographers use the global grid system of LATITUDE AND LONGITUDE. In addition, the global positioning satellites (GPS) system allows anyone to determine precise global position to within a few meters. GPS is even used by farmers to apply various rates and types of fertilizer and seeds to unique soils and topographic locales on large farms. It also can be (and is) used by insurgents, terrorists, and the military to precisely mark and identify targets.

As the British geographer Gordon East demonstrated in his book The Geography Behind History, the importance of place often changes dramatically throughout history. For example, as the focus of world culture, economics and politics shifted from the Mediterranean, many places once of great importance have become historical relics. A city such as Ephesus, once a center of culture, commerce, and even religion, today is nothing more than a tourist attraction. The cause of its decline was a shift of trade from the Mediterranean to Central Asia caused by the rise of ISLAM and a focus that moved to Baghdad, present-day IRAQ). Ephesus’s location or place of importance was relative. Rome, once the center of the western world, today is of greatly diminished importance.

A sense of place refers to the psychological and emotional aspects of place. This is the idea that places (or their imagination or romanticization) create unique psychological impacts upon humans. Deserts seem to have consistent impacts in terms of architecture and social values, no matter where they occur—Africa, Asia, North America, South America. The influence of mountains on the imagination, poetry, and art of people around the world is well known. The idea of “Darkest Africa,” or “backward areas” or the characteristics attributed to an ethnic community are example of the sense of place, as well as the ideals of “pure or natural environments,” “dangerous,” “safe,” “holy” or “mystic” places.