The People, Place and Space Reader

Editor(s) Jen Jack Dieseling and William Mangold with Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert
Publisher Routledge
Year 2014

The People, Place and Space Reader (2014) is a reader about environmental psychology but many professionals in the built environment and social fields will find this book invaluable. The book brings together a compendium of well-crafted articles, written and summarised by scholars from the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York (CUNY). The editors are authors who have earned their reputations. They come across as high-minded, reflective, and unruffled. Their interests converge into environmental psychology, but their experiences are drawn from a wide range of disciplines such as anthropology, architecture, design, gender, geography, history, and women’s studies. The book therefore carries a rich and diverse line-up of articles which are interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. This makes the book to be a worthy follow-up to the previous two editions of the reader produced by former CUNY colleagues in the 1970s led by Harold Proshansky.[1]

The book is organised into twelve themed sections, each of which carries five to six articles of 3000 words each. Altogether, a total of 69 articles are assembled in addition to the introduction of 34 pages. The articles cover more than a century of scholarship on the subject matter starting from highlights such as: Adolf Loos’ The Little Poor Rich Man (1900) to George Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), through Virginia Woolf’s A room of One’s Own, Kurt Lewin’ Psychological Ecology (1943), to Michel Foucault, Panopticism (1975) Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1991), and Setha Low’s Spatialising Culture (2014).

This reader is characterized by a deep and abiding thread of diversity in the articles. The introduction locates the discipline of environmental psychology within current traditions of social thought, providing a basis for understanding its varying usages and meanings through a critical discussion of the contribution of key authors and thinkers. It points at the interdisciplinary influences from writers in various disciplines, including anthropology, geography and sociology, in the making of environmental psychology. The book discusses the core conceptual vocabulary of human geography, such as: agency/structure, state/society. culture/economy, space/place, black/white, man/woman, nature/culture, local/global and time/space, and explains the significance of these binaries in the constitution of thought in environmental psychology. It shows how these binaries have been interrogated and re-imagined in more recent thinking within the discipline using practical examples. A consideration of these binaries does not only define the concepts but situate readers in the most current arguments and debates in environmental psychology.

The first section focuses on the theme of Diverse Conceptions between People, Place and Space. The central theoretical gamut of this section is that people, place and space are socially produced. Most notably, David Harvey presents three dimensions through which people experience space and time. Firstly, it is absolute space and time where people occupy physical space as points in space; Secondly, it is relative space – time referring to flows of information and commodities; Thirdly, he identifies relational space-time referring to spatial meanings which are created through memories and attachments in the understanding of relationships. Through the lens of these dimensions, the other authors show how people, place and space, albeit dynamic, can be produced as raced, classed, nationalised, ethicised, and gendered through the media, food cultures, architecture and art.

Section two deals with the theme of Human Perception and Environmental Experience. The authors are concerned with the impermanency of perceptions and the way they are shaped by shifting representations of social and cultural factors. The authors argue that people and space are connected and co-produce one another. Even in Kevin Lynch’s identification of important characteristics of an urban environment such as: paths, nodes, landmarks, edges and districts, he acknowledges that these characteristics shift depending on the people and the location in different places. Thus, there is complementarity and co-production between the physical and social forms whether we are producing maps, drawing resources from the environment, socialising with other people or re-organising our environments.

Section three takes on Place and Identity to make the point that place and identity are inextricably bound to one another to the extent that they can influence social formations, cultural practices and political action. The authors claim that place identity can inform the experiences, behaviours and attitudes of a person but this often get hidden or distorted by dominant narratives. Dolores Hayden for example is concerned that narratives hid the significance of some histories, for example the Chinese history identity in making of the railway in U.S. Similarly, Kay J Anderson looks at how Chinatown was developed in Europe and Anglo-America with specific focus on Vancouver to leave a racialized impression of difference that is naturalised. Judith Jack Halberstam looked at how LGBT identity is undermined through conceptual frames that project the rural as backward, uneducated and outside. Adolf Loos cautions that there must be room to incorporate people’s interests in the professions of the built environment rather than pursuing efficient design for its own sake.

Section four explores the theme of Power, Subjectivity and Space. This section is about the fact that places carry different identities whether you think of New York, Lagos, or Hanoi, for example. The section looks at symbolic power in various forms: as exercised by man who dominates the hierarchy over women; as presented in law to buttress racism; as used in bureaucracy to favour the elite; as utilised in technology to exclude and include the poor, marginalised, and objectified. The section shows how all these examples inform structures and conditions that perpetuate everyday subjectivity, creating a habitus marked by inequality and exploitation.

Section five focuses on the Meaning of Home. It espouses the understanding that the meaning of home is complex, multifaceted and is something that is conflicted depending on scale and the subject. The articles in this section assert that home has a shifting meaning depending on different locations and time as well as diversity. It takes into account the needs of the disabled. the system of service delivery (e.g. public housing) and class connotations. Thus, perceptions of exclusion and inclusion, and whether people embrace or reject ‘home’ depends on a number of factors that may include location, culture, body condition, class, and typology.

Section six is about the Public and Private as a social construct that conceptualises different domains of everyday life from our bodies, houses and streets. The most striking reflection in this section is the classification of public space by Kurt Iveson into various models of public space: ceremonial model, community model, liberal model, and multi-public model. Irrespective of the categories, Don Mitchell stresses that access to public space is a right (reminiscent of Henri Lefebvre) emphasising human rights above rights of capital. Li Zhang shows how the public may criminalise the private as reflected in Beijing, China, where urban immigrants were blamed for illegal activity through the media, irrespective of their role in producing large-scale residential complexes in the construction industry. Similarly, Historian George Chauncey notes how public law marginalised gays in New York on the basis of sexuality, gender, economic status, age and other markers of identity in the 20th century. Edith Farnsworth et al. show how hegemony of celebrity architects can obscure or monopolise rights, resources and access of private individuals in the name of efficiency in their craft. And Kingwell argues that we should re-invent the meaning of private and public in order to change the adverse relations of inequality created by current conceptions.

Section seven focuses on the Urban Experience and claims that urban areas are affected by technology, shifting capital investments and migration of people. This section carries many of the well-known readings in the academy. It starts with George Simmel’s monumental work, The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903) where he writes about German cities at the turn of 20th century, noting the change towards blasé attitude amongst city dwellers. He noted that individuals embrace anonymity in cities in order to survive. Walter Benjamin acknowledges that capitalist development was a major driver of urban change in Paris as it produced arcaded shopping areas, flaneur, private bourgeois residential interiors, and wide boulevards. He claimed that these were commodities of industrial capitalism which were expressions of class and status depicted as phantasmagoria of modernity. Michel de Certeau identified two modes of operating in the urban environment: A mode of strategy which treats the city as a planned, readable and stable totality, and a counter mode of tactics that are embodied by ordinary people walking across the grid, transgressing and leaping across boundaries. The article reflects how situationists and de Certeau were interested in reimaging the urban experience of moving in the city. Jane Jacobs’ The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact (1961) presented tactics against modernist planning exemplified in the work of Robert Moses, the modernist planner. The article reflects on how she convinced people of the benefits of neighbourhood life and the problems associated with top-down planning based on observations and experiences of Manhattan’s Freewich Village. The unexpected but pertinent inclusion of AbdouMaliq Simone’s People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg (2004) makes the argument that poor people have the ability to form infrastructure. By infrastructure, he refers to the encounters and networks that allow people who are rural-urban immigrants to operate in the city, albeit in unpredictable, impermanent and heterogeneous environments of African cities. The last article here is by Iris Marion Young. She argues that the that capitalist society assumes a perfect community which stands to idealise unity and common values and closes down the space for differences in identity, activity or belief. She stresses the point that urban experience is fragmented and uneven, stimulating and liberating and such differences are shaped by status, race, gender, sexuality and other aspects of identity and belief.

Section eight is based on Landscape: Nature and Culture and makes the points that landscape is produced everywhere and a product of on-going interactions between nature and culture. John B. Jackson links landscape and culture, arguing that landscape is an idea and describes two landscapes: one is political defined by socially recognised markers and boundaries; and the other is inhabited and understood through layers of meaning produced by peoples’ engagements with the environment and the spaces of their everyday life. Judith Carney sees intersections of culture and nature and argues that the scope can be read as the extensions that make visible histories of interactions in space. Wendy Walford examines the art of rural landless workers in Brazil from a political ecology perspective and argues that mobilisation is shaped by specific relationships which people have with the land. Michael Pollen sees landscape presented dichotomously, as the wilderness — untouched by civilisation — and the lawn-nature dominated by civilisation and industrialisation. He argues that seeing the garden as a place of careful cultivation can be a more appropriate model for human relations with nature. Louise Charles examines autobiographical accounts and suggests that space has ecstatic memories with which people sustain remembrance and are shaped by those memories.

Section nine is about The Social Production of Space and Time. It starts with Henri Lefebvre who is credited for introducing the idea that space is socially produced. His work contends that abstract space is produced and perpetuated through grids, plans and schedules utilised by the dominant capitalist system of production. He talks of Spatial Practice (daily routine of living in space); representation of space (conceived designs of space related to order) and representational space, being ascribed symbolic meaning of space. Wolfgang Schivelbusch traces how space and time are contracted through the development and expansion of the railroads. He argues that from older notions of time to the current global standard of determining time zones, the imagination of place has also shifted to the new spatial and temporal experience brought about by growth of railroads to the rest of the world. Anthony King discusses how the sense of time and space changed during the rapid development of industrial production and that its regulation is socially produced through patterns of production and consumption. Through her experience of London, Virginia Woolf is critical of the gendered nature of space. Katherine Mckittrick reflects on how spaces are organised and produced along racial and sexual lines and argues that legacies of racism and sexism are perpetuated through spatial constructions. Neil Smith looks at gentrification and argues that urban areas are produced through specific actions and policies of capitalism.

Section 10 looks at Shifting Perspectives: Optics of Revealing Change and Reworking Space by probing notions of invisibility in place. Notably Michel Foucault’s study of panopticism provided fresh insight into the understanding of power, knowledge and sexuality as well as space and social institutions. He saw space as a power of surveillance and he noted that there is a pattern of self-regulation and surveillance which is instrumental in architecture and planning and also in social, economic, and political practices. Juhani Pallasmaa is concerned with hegemony of the marketable image and argues that designers tend to privilege sight and ignore the multisensory experience of space. He argues that we need to take account of both our ocular-centricity and a fully embodied experience so that as architects and designers we can fulfil our social responsibilities. Laura Pulido addresses environmental racism in Los Angeles. He argues that the discourse of racism, which focuses on hostile and discriminatory acts in its definition, renders white privilege and the conditions of the under-privileged invisible as environmental inequalities are not seen as the product of hostile racism. Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller and John Urry argue that everything is partial and on the move including the idea of borders. In the same vein, Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner argue that scales are permeated with one another. They dismiss the binary imagination of the global and local scales and they argue that geographic scales infuse one another in people’s experiences and action. Cindi Katz contends that not all people experience the time-space compression (noted by David Harvey) because some people are unequally connected to the global economy. She argues that time and space compression is the experience of the wealthy and the powerful and the poor are always forced to travel.

Section 11 looks at The Spatial Imagination and how we interpret experience depending on our situation and location. In Invention, Memory and Place (2000), Edward Said looked at the conflict between Israel and Palestine and how the past history of the Abrahamic faith (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) forms part of the political, economic and social claim or attachment to Israel. In Orientalism, likewise, he demonstrates how western society presents an imaginary ‘Orient’ through travelogues, art, literature and scholarly work in order to justify and advance its colonial ambitions and practices. Selcuk R. Sirin and Michele Fine explores hyphenated identities of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality among Moslem American youth in New York after 9/11 and she finds that the youth have split identities and multiple identification which puts into question the limited meaning of ‘Moslem’ often imposed by the media. Thongchai Winichakul looks at the historical geography of Biam in Thailand and reflects on spatial imaginations that are malleable in producing material geographies. Winichakul finds that borders are far from static as the peoples’ histories are beyond limits or boundaries. He argues that boundaries are geographic imaginations which are always shifting, contested and impermanent. Richard Feinberg observed the oral traditions of the Anutan people in Polynesia and noticed that not all people measure distance with time. The Anutan people navigate distance using naming conventions and reading of the coral reefs, tidal movements and constellation of the stars in the night sky. Gibson-Graham raise the question: How do we get out of this Capitalist Place? (1996) and explore ways of creating alternative communities without being stifled by the capitalist economic systems. Looking at activities and projects done in Philippines, India and Massachusetts, they argue for a blend of informal, wage and alternate economies that are resistant to dominant capitalist modes of production and consumption. Architect Bernard Tschumi calls for an imagination of ideals that offer possibilities of a better future. He argues for a set of spatial relationships and interactions that do not follow the Cartesian rules of space and time and he motivates us to imagine how space- buildings and cities could be re-organised if we could cut and paste without the conflicts of regulated life.

Section 12 is conclusively about Democratic Prospects and Possibilities. This last section analyses and suggests ways in which spaces and places may become more democratic and open to transformation. Susan Saegert argues that individual subjectivity should be constructed relationally and should serve as the basis for democratic openness. She adopts John Dewey’s idea of pragmatism and argues that life should be grounded in first-hand experience and emotional engagement of the individual with the world. This should enable the individual to figure out a ‘structured-self’ to deal with uncertainly, participate and cultivate democratic communities and material world. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattazi argue that producing democracy and democratic space necessitates rethinking power relations and challenging existing hierarchical relationships. They propose the idea of a rhizome advocating for growing horizontally and sending shoots in all directions, suggesting the creation of new moments, structures and ideas — what they call plateaus. They believe change can kill the capitalist hegemony and lead to a development of equal social and spatial relationships. Lila Abu-Lughod takes the idea of a plateau forward by looking at the protest moments in North Africa and the middle-east particularly at a rural village in Egypt. She looks at how Facebook was used to reach out to remote areas and argues that places and society are co-produced through the patterns that can resist or propel social transformation. Michael Sorkin talks about patterns that structure social relations and argues that the flow of traffic is a good way to understand the landscape as well as social relations in the U.S. under contemporary capitalism. He argues that the system of highways and the system of capitalism are the product of human needs as reflected in the flow of goods, people and information. However, he reckons that there is always friction when people engage with one another hence the need to consider the role of experiences in the making of cities. Lastly, Roger Hart focuses on spaces for childhood play. He highlights the importance of providing spaces for children to play and argues that it is crucial for their physical and psychological development. He also contends that such a provision sets the basis for democratic society as children learn to interact freely, find challenges and solve conflict.

Altogether, this book contains a synopsis of essential readings that every environmental psychologist must read. It is highly recommended for those just embarking on their careers as well as those who need a reminder of how and why environmental psychology moved from the margins of social thought to the centre of social analysis. The reflective themes provide a rich all-in-one-stop on articles dealing with common issues and an easy-to-use framework for finding common references. This book also presents an extremely rich collection of papers drawn from the best of writers in the social field. It contains a myriad of concepts generated by the articles and those inspired by different authors in the past century. It covers some of the (traditionally) most obtuse and difficult-to-grasp ideas that have influenced environmental psychologists. The fact that these are presented in an inclusive and accessible manner is a key strength. However, the reading of the book proves to be a formidable adventure since the book lacks a glossary to reflect the terms that are either newly introduced, uncommon, or specialized. An inclusion of a glossary would have been valuable to match the richness of the readings.

On balance, this book contains chapter outlines and further reading lists signifying that this is the textbook to take you through your studies in environmental psychology. It will show students how to master the concepts at work in analysing and understanding interactions and interrelationships across disciplinary boundaries. Many of the articles will find themselves at the top of many hand-outs for modules. Students of the built environment and the social sciences will also find the book an accessible and enjoyable reference to this new landscape of environmental psychology, but not as a book to be read at once. Like Proshansky’s edition, “To read through this anthology (at once) is to risk mental indigestion, both because of the sheer mass of material and because of its heterogeneity: the pieces are nuggets of distinctly different substance and flavour.”[2]

This book will sit next to Key Concepts in Geography, by Nicholas Clifford, Sarah Holloway, Stephen P Rice, Gill Valentine 2008; People and Place: The Extraordinary Geographies of Everyday Life by Lewis Holloway, Phil Hubbard; Key Thinkers on Space and Place by Phil Hubbard, Rob Kitchin (2010); and, Spaces of Geographical Thought: Deconstructing Human Geography’s Binaries by Paul Cloke, Ron Johnston (2005) amongst others. While this certainly gives it the rank, the points of disciplinary intersections, common subject matter, author overlap and conceptual resonances with some of these books may discourage seasoned and mature readers from buying the book. With a cursory look, one can identify Bourdieu, Deleuze, Foucault, Harvey, Lefebvre, Said, and Sibley as some of the works that are common between them and this book. The authors could have done better by highlighting the distinct contribution of this volume from the other books in the same or similar disciplines.

One possible way of enhancing distinction about the book could have been drawing more of articles from the developing world (especially from BRICS countries) in works pertaining to protests (invented spaces), gender (African gender spaces), culture (Feng shui) and spirituality (witchcraft). While a huge effort was made to provide a representative scope by drawing articles from around the world and making passing references to histories of the other, e.g. Chinese, African Americans, women, and children, the under representation of the theory or conception of the South sustains a particular western hegemony of thought. Therefore, from where I stand this book leaves me with a sense of satisfaction and disgruntlement. Satisfaction comes from its encyclopaedic stature as a book that will be a source of reference for a long time to come amongst the professions of the built environment and social science. Disgruntlement emanates from its coloniality of power, whereby once again the over representation of the North/West leaves the South/rest with the image of underdevelopment.

Nevertheless, the book is no doubt produced by well engaged scholars that are intimately exploring and questioning the world as we know it and exploring better ways in which we look, experience, and understand differently. They are worried about an old fashioned world, and seek to inspire and restore faith on new democratic ways of conceiving the relationship between people, place and space. They share a deep and progressive belief in social justice and equality. The book therefore challenges the conventional standards of conceiving space and opens up diverse possibilities. Consequently, what emerges is a portrait of academic campaigning that is more like pointing the way for what we should work towards in creating a new and better world. From what seems like a canonical selection of articles that are meticulously aligned and exhaustively researched, the book is unleashing sharp jabs that rally momentum for change towards an emancipatory vision of environmental psychology.


Mfaniseni Fana Sihlongonyane is an associate professor in the Planning Programme of the School of Architecture & Planning and a Hall Coordinator at Ernest Oppenheimer Hall, Parktown. He lectures in development economics, planning theory and Local Economic Development.



[1] See title, Environmental Psychology: People and Their Physical Settings.

[2] Yi-Fu Tuan. Geographical Review, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Apr., 1972), pp. 245-256., p.245.





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