Skip to content
Site search
Power lines with blue sky background

The History and Future of Places – Part 16: The end of business as usual

Edward Relph is an Emeritus Professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Place and Placelessness (Pion 1975), along with numerous other books, articles and chapters on place, sense of place and landscape. In this, the concluding chapter of The History and Future of Places he argues that a new basis for thinking about places is emerging.

Professor Edward Relph
30 July 2020

Any hopes of mitigating the severe outcomes of the combined effects of climate change, ageing populations, uneven growth and shrinking places will depend on a widespread change in attitude. The current business-as-usual, rationalistic, economic growth model will not suffice. In the past, changes in places and ways of placemaking have often been preceded by a shift in how the world is viewed. There is, I think, evidence that a different set of attitudes is emerging. It could have implications for the future of places.

First, rationalist interpretations of reality and truth, which have prevailed for several centuries and lie at the base of many modern institutions and practices, are being challenged. They are no longer universally accepted as objective standards, but have to be understood as products of white, patriarchal, European and North American elites. They may have some value but they also reflect significant biases. There are cracks in the foundations of conventional assumptions about how the world works and should work. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has expressed this eloquently: “Abandonment of rational thinking leads to a collapse in which fear and joy, ignorance and wisdom, all blow in the wind.”

The History and Future of Places series

Secondly, knowledge about natural processes has come to challenge age-old convictions that nature needs to be controlled. This began in the late 19th century both with the emergence of the idea of ecology and with the creation of national parks to protect wildernesses. It has more recently been reinforced by the environmental movement, ecosystem planning and widespread acceptance of the importance of sustainable practices. It may not yet be a truth universally acknowledged, but it is widely accepted that it is better to work with natural processes than to ignore or suppress them.

Thirdly, the incredibly rapid adoption of electronic communications and international travel have shrunk the world and made universal, rapid global connectivity a fact of everyday life. There are no isolated places: everywhere is connected. Growing cities are ever more diverse. Our food, as with most other things, depends on a worldwide supply chain. A viral mutation originating in Wuhan has had consequences that have swirled around the globe.

Connectivity has reorganized how people relate to places. It has demonstrated that what happens here, in this particular place, can contribute to broad effects that move onto other places and rebound back again. Connectivity has practical significance. The IPCC Special Report notes that: “local knowledge, the understanding and skills developed by individuals and communities specific to the places where they live, is necessary to inform decisions about adaptations to climate warming.”

Connectivity has reorganized how people relate to places. It has demonstrated that what happens here, in this particular place, can contribute to broad effects that move onto other places and rebound back again.

What this suggests to me is that a new basis for ways of making and relating to places could be emerging. It is informed by environmental contexts and ecological implications and is socially inclusive. It understands that there really are limits to growth. This developing worldview might affect how future places will look and function, but that is mostly a matter of speculation. In the meantime, it can offer valuable insights into how we deal with peak population, ageing communities, shrinking cities and the exigencies of climate warming. Its diffusion will continue to be challenged by vested interests and illusions of perpetual economic growth. There will continue to be electronically connected non-place communities promoting discrimination and exclusion. There will continue to be inequalities between places that grow and others that stagnate or shrink. But the realities of climate change and slowing growth will become increasingly difficult to ignore because they will play out in the places of everyday life. As this happens, connectivity will ensure that local experiences and knowledge are widely shared.

In the future, places will be – as they have been through history – simultaneously open to the world and openings to the world.