Space vs. Place [and why it’s important to know the difference]

coffee shop barby Kirsten Kosik

Today we’re thrilled to have a guest post by one of our favorite twentysomethings, Kirsten Kosik. Kirsten hails from the Detroit area, is a student at Taylor University, and was a student in one of our vocation classes.

“Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other” –Yi-Fu Tuan 

Where are you?

I am currently sitting on a worn wooden barstool, looking out of the large glass windows of the coffeehouse and bar, Thirsty Scholar, in downtown Indianapolis. I’ve never been here before. It is unfamiliar. I do not recognize the bartenders, and I awkwardly circled the place twice before deciding upon this particular seat. Perhaps one day I will know the name of the young woman behind the bar, I’ll have the menu memorized, or have a favorite place to sit, but for now, I am a stranger here. I am merely passing through, unknown by customers and employees alike. For me, Thirsty Scholar is a space. It may become a place, but for now, it is mere space.

What’s the difference?

The terms space and place tend to be used interchangeably. Defined properly, however, the two terms represent separate concepts, interacting in a dynamic relationship. In The Space Between (Cultural Exegesis)—A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, Eric O. Jacobsen explores the realms of space and place.

According to Jacobsen, place is a “context-specific, meaning-rich concept”. It is a context that inhabits personal memories, experiences, and associations for the one within it. My home in Birmingham, Michigan, for example, is a place—I spent eighteen years of my life developing memories and experiences in, and associations with, that community. I cannot enter it without acknowledging my familiarity with it.

Space, however, is a more abstract concept than place. A space is a blank slate—a physical location that has yet to be colored with personal experience. For me, hotels are the greatest example of space. No matter how many nights I’ve spent in Holiday Inn’s, Best Western’s, or Hampton Inn’s, each moment there feels unseasoned.

While places are constantly creating and molding our identities, spaces allow us to examine the identities which have been made. No hotel experience thus far has left a significant impact on my identity; I have no specific memories related to any. However, my youthful days spent in Southeastern Michigan have countless memories, and have made a monumental impact on my character.

“As a person lives life, one’s narrative begins to etch meanings on a particular space, causing it to become a place”–Eric O. Jacobsen

Why We Need Both

According to Jacobsen, our culture suffers from the rise of “placelessness”. Placelessness, or the inability to cultivate space as a place, has increased exponentially with the faster modes of transportation and information available. Our generation has become disconnected from the concept of place—we no longer easily identify ourselves by our places. With a plethora of identical department stores and fast food chains popping up across America, it has become difficult to distinguish space from place. The issue: we need places in order to cultivate our individual identities.

The reality of our identities may be overwhelming at times, in which case space is necessary. We need a healthy dosage of the detachment and solitude space provides. Without space, we may become consumed by our places. However, without place, we are subject to a sense of disillusion that comes from an excessive amount of space.

Jacobsen refers to our lives as narratives. Our narratives require both the construction and unraveling of our identities. The flourishing of our lives require both spaces and places. As we begin to etch meaning onto the spaces of our lives, those spaces will be gradually transformed into places. Vice versa, places may unravel into mere space as time passes. Regardless of the ebb and flow of spaces and places in your life, both are essential to your narrative.

Discussion question

  • With this in mind, ask yourself, “Where am I?”
  • “Is my time consumed with more spaces or places?”

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