Urbanie & Urbanus

Issue 2019 Sep

Place Identity

Editor’s Note

‘Space is a material product, in relationship to other material products—including people who engage in historically determined social relationships that provide space with a form, a function, and a social meaning.’ (Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 1996, pp 152)

What does it take to shape our cities, and what are the key drivers in forming their place identity? How does this constitute my social identity?

In ‘The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age’ (2011, pp xi), Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit argue that In the twentieth-century, the nation became the main source of political identity and site of collective selfdetermination. A patriot takes pride in her own country because it expresses a particular way of life in its history, politics, and institutions. But states find it increasingly difficult to provide this sense of uniqueness because they have to comply with the demands of the market and international agreements.

Since cities work at a national level and so can be considered less burdened by these responsibilities, metropolitan governing bodies and related stakeholders can direct how the place identity of the city can develop, and steer in this direction. In recent years, our cities have undergone rapid transformation as the result of a range of different factors, including an economic slump, terror threats, and cost reduction measures, as well as other structural changes within society. Societal development, a globalized monotonisation of culture, deindustrialization, and the growing importance of service-sectors and commercial development—challenges local identity and a sense of place.

Place identity is deeply related to the social, economic, and political pressures influencing the power and control of decision makers within urban development and urban settings. The multi-dimensional concept includes historical, geographical and cultural experiences over varying time periods. The characteristics of place making within many cities reflect the urban transformation from centres of production to centres of consumption. This has led to an alignment towards architectural and commercial uniformity in many cities. A move towards sameness of place is further underlined by a strong conjunction between development planning and real estate development, which increasingly exists in the hands of international developers rather than as a local initiative. In this sense, localities and identity in a given urban context should be an issue that demands our attention and focus.

To this end, it is important to understand the historical and current forces shaping the built environment and give a community a unique identity, such as social and cultural traditions. There is an emerging architectural form of regionalism that references a contemporary local identity in Hong Kong, rooted in vernacular and traditional styles. This regionalism includes a new architectural built form and cultural modernization that is based on a mixed social history and acknowledges the colonial period of Hong Kong’s heritage.

As Hong Kong seeks to assert its identity, both on the streets and the world stage, it is a pertinent moment to discuss the emerging issues of place identity within urban space, from the perspectives of different stakeholders and the local community. Can we within the urban design community help to lead our city towards a new kind of space, that we can all love and feel a strong sense of belonging to?