Space vs. place

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In the humanistic geography space and place are important concepts. Concepts that in this approach doesn’t mean the same. Space is something abstract, without any substantial meaning. While place refers to how people are aware of/attracted to a certain piece of space. A place can be seen as space that has a meaning. The underlying theory for this way of thinking is the phenomenology, which tries to find the essential features of experiences in the direct and indirect experiences.

Space and place according to Yi-Fu Tuan and Relph

Two important thinkers who give a contribution in defining space, place and the differences between these concepts are philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan and geographer Edward Relph. They have almost the same ideas about the distinction between space an place.

Yi-Fu Tuan searched for the meaning of place, space and environment. According to Tuan the difference between ‘space’ and ‘place can be described in the extent to which human beings have given meaning to a specific area. Meaning can be given or derived from in area in two different ways, namely:

  • In an direct and intimate way, for example through the senses such as vision, smell, sense and hearing.
  • An in an indirect and conceptual way mediated by symbols, arts etc. (Tuan, 1977, p. 6).

'Space' can be described as a location which has no social connections for a human being. No value has been added to this space. According to Tuan (1977, p.164-165) it is an open space, but may marked off and defended against intruders (Tuan, 1977, p. 4). It does not invite or encourage people to fill the space by being creative. No meaning has been described to it. It is more or less abstract (Tuan, 1977, p. 6).

'Place' is in contrary more than just a location and can be described as a location created by human experiences. The size of this location does not matter and is unlimited. It can be a city, neighborhood, a region or even a classroom et cetera. In fact ‘place’ exists of ‘space’ that is filled with meanings and objectives by human experiences in this particular space. Places are centers where people can satisfy there biological needs such as food, water etc. (Tuan, 1977, p. 4). According to Tuan (1977, p. 6) a ‘place’ does not exist of observable boundaries and is besides a visible expression of a specific time period. Examples are arts, monuments and architecture.

Tuan was convinced that people give or derive meaning from the world's geography and organise the world around themselves (Cloke, Philo & Sadler, 1991, p. 76-77). This also explains that the meaning we give to ‘space’ correlates with the distance from the human to this ‘place’ (Cloke , P., Philo, et. al., 1991, p. 79).As Tuan (1977, p. 3) says: "space is freedom, place is security".

Edward Relph broadly has the same ideas as Tuan. An addition that can be made is that Relph describe the relationship between people and their places as detached and at distance, through which people are able to reflect on this relationship (Cloke, Philo, et al., 1992). In his work Relph tries to maintain the relation between space and place and not present them as seperated concepts. Because the quality of place is that it has the power to order and to focus human intentions, experiences and actions spatially (Seamon & Sowers, 2008). "So space and place are dialectically structured in human environmental experience, since our understanding of space is related to the places we inhabit, which in turn derive meaning from their spatial context" (Seamon & Sowers, 2008, p.44).


Cloke, P., Philo, C. & Sadler, D. (1991). Approaching Human Geography. Chapman, London.

Seamon, D., & Sowers, J. (2008) Place, and Placelessness, Edward Relph. Key texts in Human Geography. London: Sage. p43-51.

Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: the persepective of experience. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Published by Marjolein Selten and Fleur van der Zandt.

Enhanced by User:BoudewijnIdema, 18 September 2011, 19:13 (UTC)

Enhanced by Lars Paardekooper, 19 September 2012

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