January 8, 2014

Why Do Old Places Matter? Individual Identity

Access the rest of the Why Do Old Places Matter series.

Old places embody our identity

“Old places are who we are.” “They give us a sense of self.” “They tell us who we are as a people.” People frequently use these phrases when talking to me about why old places matter. Sofia Bosco, the Rome director of Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), an Italian preservation organization, told me recently, “These places are testimonials of who we are. They represent the identity of every one of us.” Old places—our homes and churches, our neighborhoods, schools, main streets, and courthouse squares, are all part of our identity and of who we are.

Dupont Circle, in Washington, D.C., where the author lives. Our sense of identity changes over our lifetime, and we may identify with places we come to know. | Sam Kittner

People have long recognized the crucial connection between identity and old places. In the ancient world, Cicero chronicled the “indescribable feeling insensibly pervading my soul and sense” on returning to the place where he was born and where his father and grandfather lived. 1 More recently, architect and preservationist James Marston Fitch wrote that “[preservation] affords the opportunity for the citizens to regain a sense of identity with their own origins of which they have often been robbed by the sheer process of urbanization.” 2

Each of us can probably think of a place, like Cicero’s childhood home, that seems to embody our identity, but how do old places “tell us who we are?” What exactly is this relationship between old places and identity? In earlier posts, I described how old places are critical for people to maintain a sense of continuity and of memory. Identity is closely related to both continuity and memory—they are part of the same package. In this post I’d like to look at individual identity, which will be followed by a future post on national or civic identity.

For more than 30 years, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and architectural theorists from all over the world have actively studied the relationship between place and identity, and have developed a variety of definitions and processes for looking at “place attachment,” and “place–identity”—how a person’s identity is tied to place. Although there is no consensus about the definitions or processes, most studies seem to accept the notion that “the use of the physical environment as a strategy for the maintenance of self ” is a pervasive aspect of identity, and that “place is inextricably linked with the development and maintenance of continuity of self.”3

The way places inform our identity and the way we create identity out of place is complex and multi-layered, and there is no agreement about how it works. The Turkish architect Humeyra Birol Akkurt offers a useful summary of a number of other scholars’ definitions of how our identify ties to place:

  • “…a set of links that allows and guarantees the distinctiveness and continuity of place in time,”
  • “the bond between people and their environment, based on emotion and cognition,”
  • “…symbolic forms that link people and land: links through history or family lineage, links due to loss or destruction of land, economic links such as ownership, inheritance or politics, universal links through religion, myth and spirituality, links through religion and festive cultural events, and finally narrative links through storytelling or place naming….”

Other writers have noted a sense of pride by association and a sense of self-esteem. Akkurt notes that one scholar theorizes that for any particular place there are as many different place identities as there are people using that place.4

The Norwegian architect Ashild Lappegard Hauge summarizes a key finding as “[a]spects of identity derived from places we belong to arise because places have symbols that have meaning and significance to us. Places represent personal memories, and… social memories (shared histories).” Hauge concludes that “Places are not only contexts or backdrops, but also an integral part of identity.”5

People seem to recognize intuitively the way older places symbolize meaning, significance, and memories. Yi-Fu Tuan, the influential geographer who pioneered the study of people’s relationship to place, wrote, “What can the past mean to us? People look back for various reasons, but shared by all is the need to acquire a sense of self and of identity… The passion for preservation arises out of the need for tangible objects that can support a sense of identity…”6 Old places, then, provide tangible support for our sense of identity.

But there also seems to be something bigger at work. It’s not as if we simply decide what our identity with place is. In fact, some theorists say the relationship between place and identity is inseparable. One writer, in summarizing the findings of Edward Relph, a geographer who pioneered theories about place, stated: “…the essence of place lies in its largely unselfconscious intentionality, which defines places as profound centres of human existence.” 7 Or as David Seamon summarized Relph’s idea, place is “not a bit of space, nor another word for landscape or environment, it is not a figment of individual experience, nor a social construct….It is, instead, the foundation of being both human and nonhuman; experience, actions, and life itself begin and end with place.”8

Our place identity is not static, however. It is dynamic. It changes over time. As anyone who has been reading this series of posts knows, I grew up on a farm in North Carolina. Without any question, my identity is tied to that place—to the frame farmhouse where I was raised, to the cedar trees that line the fences (I can smell the cedar as I write this), to the very quality of the light on the green grass of the cow pastures. I am nurtured when I return to that place. But my identity is not tied only to that place. I also have an identity connected to places where I have lived, worked, or visited—from the leafy-green campus at Chapel Hill, to the brick sidewalks and apartment buildings of Dupont Circle, to 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, the former Trust headquarters, to a 1950s cement-block riverside fishing cabin in West Virginia. And I look forward to having my identity further defined, enhanced, expanded or clarified by Rome and by other places I will know in the future.

The sign for Eastland Mall in Charlotte, North Carolina, which the preservation organization E.A.S.T. successfully saved as part of the identity of the community | Stewart Gray

Although our identity with place changes over time (and can be re-created in different places), the places that form our identity act as “tangible objects” that support our identity. Our old places—if they continue to exist—serve as reference points for measuring, refreshing, and recalibrating our identity over time. They are literally the landmarks of our identity.

A place that supports our identity may not be particularly old, although many of them are (or have become so over the course of our lives). Eastland Mall, which opened in 1975 in east Charlotte, and which was part of my adolescence, was demolished last fall. Its “Rising Sun” logo signs are being preserved as public art through the efforts of the grassroots E.A.S.T. community group, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation, and the City of Charlotte to continue the community memory of a place that was once considered to have “embodied the spirit of the city.”9 The demolition company tearing the building down established a contest for people to share their memories (the head of the company met his wife ice skating at the mall). A man has even had the Rising Sun logo tattooed on his arm.

I’m glad E.A.S.T. saved the signs, but I wish that more of the place remained. Documented by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation before its demolition, the vacant building had an evocative beauty that makes me think that the city might have been a richer place in the future if we had figured out how to reinvent the old mall in a way that saved this “tangible object” of my teenage memories and identity. Perhaps our society would be a bit more stable and humane—and sustainable—if we didn’t build and replace our buildings every 35 years, with the resulting erasure of recent memories and identity embodied in them, and the inexcusable waste of demolition.

When the places that are part of our identity are threatened, lost or destroyed, our identity may be damaged. As indicated in the earlier post on continuity, when the place is lost, there can be devastating effects on people—a reaction comparable to grief. I grieve for many lost places. I’m sometimes mad about the unnecessary loss—from New York’s Penn Station (which I never even knew), to Chicago’s Prentice Hospital, to my great-grandfather’s gentle white clapboard house.

People survive the loss of places that support their identity. And many times these places survive in memory. But the continued presence of old places helps us know who we are, and who we may become in the future. Think about the places you’ve lost that make you mad—they may have been part of you—and let me know what you think about how old places embody who we are.


  1. Cicero, The Treatises of M.T. Cicero, Yonge, C., Ed. London: H.G. Bond, 1853.
  2. Fitch, James Marston, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1982), 404.
  3. Twigger-Ross, Clare L., and David L. Uzzell. “Place and Identity Processes” Journal of Environmental Psychology 16, 206, 208 (1996).
  4. Akkurt, Humeyra Birol. “Reconstitution of the Place Identity within the Intervention Efforts in the Historic Built Environment,” The Role of Place Identity in the Perception, Understanding, and Design of Built Environments, Casakin, Hernan & Fátima Bernardo, Eds., 64-64 (citations omitted).
  5. Hauge, Ashild Lappegard. “Identity and place: a critical comparison of three identity theories,” Architectural Science Review, March 1, 2007.
  6. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press 1977, ebook Locations 2826, 2990.
  7. Akkurt, 64, summarizing Relph.
  8. Seamon, David. “Place, Place Identity, and Phenomenology: A Triadic Interpretation Based on J.G. Bennett’s Systematics.” The Role of Place Identity in the Perception, Understanding, and Design of Built Environments, Casakin, Hernan & Fátima Bernardo, Eds., 5.
  9. Gray, Stewart. Survey and Research Report on the Eastland Mall Signs, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation, May 30, 2013.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter.

tmayes@savingplaces.org @thompsonmayes

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More