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  As well as being a common-sense term, place is a key idea in geography, and one which has proved hard to pin down. As a result, it has occurred in different forms at different times and has close links to other geographic ideas. Although it may seem anodyne at first sight, the way people behave in relation to place is linked with many bitter conflicts. The initial question is how a place differs from a location or an area. The answers suggest that a place has a distinctive character as a result of the interaction of many factors, from landforms and climate to politics and economics, over time and in relation to surrounding places. The distinct character may be apparent in the landscape as well as in the culture of the inhabitants. It is usually apparent to outsiders as well as to insiders, though they may well emphasize different aspects. One geographer attempted to clarify what was entailed by arguing that places had authentic local character and that mass processes were producing ‘non-places’ in our high streets and holiday resorts. Subsequently, it has been argued both that these non-places are made into places by their inhabitants, and that the arbitrary and adventitious nature of development has given the idea of place a whole new set of meanings in the postmodern era.

One strand of the debate about place has focused on the subjective aspect, on the way that people perceive and experience places, especially as insiders. Some have speculated that humans are territorial in the same way that biologists have shown animals to defend territory, either as entitlement to food supply or as a requirement in establishing precedence in mating or for rearing young. Conflict over territory does occur, from the ‘turf’ of a street gang to the boundaries of states or empires, but for most people affiliation to place is looser and divided between a hierarchy of places, from local to national. Much literature assumes that people relate first to their neighbourhood, and this idea was built into the design of many new towns. Detailed studies have given only qualified support as it seems that people disagree about the boundaries of a given neighbourhood, except where railways or major roads create uniformity, and many people feel at home in a variety of scattered places rather than a distinct area. As mobility has increased, so the old idea of a mosaic of distinct neighbourhoods has seemed less persuasive. More recently a good deal of research effort has been given to studies of localities. These are larger places than neighbourhoods, with populations of tens or hundreds of thousands, and they are seen as held together by contacts between people, most of whom spend most of their time in the locality. Again there are arguments about definition: is it enough to be a labour market area or is it necessary to have a degree of political organization?

At the larger scale that people relate to, the same change has occurred from concepts emphasizing homogeneity to concepts stressing organization. Traditional geographers stressed the importance of regions, sometimes seen as natural regions deriving from a similar environment and sometimes seen as unified by a shared culture. This idea lives on in the practice of collecting official statistics by region, but the subsequent discussion of regions has been contentious in theory and practice. In the UK in the 1970s a Royal Commission was set up to reorganize local government areas and became the focus of bitter dispute. Many people objected to any change to the historic counties, others to the idea of larger areas, others to the idea of moving to city regions areas held together by interaction rather than similarity. The result was a political compromise which pleased few. In many parts of the world, peoples\' identification with a region has proved problematic in defining and maintaining the most powerfully entrenched sort of place—the nation state.

The concept of the nation state, which has played such a central role in the history of the last few centuries, matches a nation, a people with shared history, culture and aspirations, with a territory in which they live. At best, for example for Portugal, this is an effective way of administering medium-scale societies, and a shared régime builds up a sense of community over time. Unfortunately, groups of people are often much more mixed and it is often difficult or impossible to match the ideal in reality. This has led to countless conflicts and is currently (1993) causing tragedy in Bosnia and elsewhere in eastern Europe. The dominance of the nation state as the place many people are willing to die for is also a problem for attempts to create new supranational organizations, notably the EC. The contrasts between the global economy, in which we make our living, and the smaller scale places, to which we feel we belong, seem to be becoming stronger rather than weaker as time passes. PS



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