The soul of place – what really matters?


Cosmologists have enlightened us to events that occurred just 10-34 seconds after the big bang – the birth of our universe, with its billions of galaxies, each comprising billions of planets, including at least one that we know of that has the perfect conditions for rich, diverse life to flourish – our planet Earth.


We find ourselves here 13.8 billion years later, having evolved the necessary intellect to better understand our beginnings, to ponder our purpose and predict various aspects of our future. Yet, arguably, we haven’t evolved the moral maturity or shared ethical compass to sustain ourselves in this wondrous place.


Our global culture, economic and political constructs and behaviours are failing to protect our environment; our only life source, as well as each other.


Meanwhile, back at the lab, neurologists, biologist, philosophers and others have enlightened us to some of the workings of the mind and although much remains a mystery, we at least understand that the mind and our consciousness emerges from the brain.


But, regardless of how hard we look at the brain and its component parts; the brain cells/neurones, no matter how magnified the image – we cannot understand the phenomena of the mind, virtue, our spirit, our soul or consciousness.


Yet, we know they exist and that they somehow arise from our brain and inform and influence all that we see, hear, smell, sense, think and do. We accept that the mind and consciousness are very real and vital aspects of being human.


During a recent visit to Adelaide, neuroscientist Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield presented evidence that indicates that although each of us are born with a set number of neurones – the connections between the neurones flourish in enriched environments and it is these connections that personalise the mind – that make us who we are.


Neuroscientists describe the mind and consciousness as emergent properties of the brain.


So how does this play our on a collective level, a community level in a city, a town or place?

It’s widely accepted that culture, the collective spirit, the soul, the essence, ‘the vibe’ informs and influences everything we do – how we govern, what we grow, what we protect, what we build, destroy, mine and manufacture, how we treat each other, what we celebrate and the things we grieve.


However, just like neurones and the brain fail to adequately explain the mind and consciousness, so too do the individual elements that make up a city, a town, a country or a place – such as the natural environment and gardens, the bricks and mortar, the architecture, the local industry, the individuals, the public and their stories, fail to fully communicate the collective spirit of a place.


I propose that culture, the collective spirit, the soul, the essence, ‘the vibe’ are emergent properties of place – a city, a region, our planet. It emerges from the local environment and has a collective force; more than the sum of the parts.


All of us have experienced the spirit of place. We know instinctively when we are in a ‘good place’ because it ‘feels’ like we are connected to each other and the surroundings. We belong there, it has meaning for us.


We also know when a place feels bad – it doesn’t reflect our values and who we are, we can’t relate or connect.


Despite our cleverness, the mind and consciousness remain astonishing and mysterious miracles. Similarly, the soul of place is astounding – but subjective, ambiguous, qualitative and very challenging to measure. It is a complex system.


Complex systems have memory – the past matters and it influences the future of a place.

Success and failure cascade in complex systems – someone clever once summed it up in saying “Creativity begets creativity, decay begets decay”. Relationships are non-linear in complex systems – everything is connected, like the neurones of the nervous system. So what is the full impact of an egoist leader, a cruel decision or policy, poor quality urban design, acts of crime, alternatively acts of kindness, excellent public art, abundant green infrastructure or an amazing piece of architecture? Complex systems also have feedback loops – both negative and positive – for that reason it makes sense for cities and regions ask themselves what’s feeding our spirit, our thinking, our ideas, our future?


So how do we better understand the spirit of place and what really matters – and then how do we measure it?

“Not everything that counts can be counted, not everything that can be counted counts”

Albert Einstein

Niel DeGrasse Tyson – a ‘rock star’ Astrophysicist, admits to lying awake at night worried that humans will never have the cognitive capacity to understand the world that we inhabit. So why are we so reluctant to give value to the ambiguous – isn’t that the smart thing to do amid our continuing, tenacious endeavour to gather the scientific evidence?


A few years ago an Adelaide neighbourhood held a gate festival and using a blackboard stuck to a fence, asked the community ‘What really matters?’ It turns out that freedom, hope, beauty, love, truth, family, experiences and LEGO are what really matters.



In 2008, the US based Knight Foundation and Gallup partnered to undertake a survey; Soul of the Community, to explore what makes people happy in their community. Over 40,000 people from 26 communities across the country contributed and indicated that ‘resident attachment’ was the key. Residents reported three elements that most greatly influenced their sense of attachment to their community including openness or welcoming to different types of people, how pretty it is – the aesthetic, and the types of opportunities available for people to interact with one another – the social offerings.


So, what is the role of art, architecture, design and design thinking in relation to spirit and place?


Quality art makes us think, Deepens our sense of meaning. It’s disruptive – it exposes the unknowns, helps transform our understanding of complex matters and provokes our imagination and new ideas. Art reflects the soul of the community.


In relation to creativity, making things and solving problems is good for us and it makes us happy – we release the ‘happy hormones’ serotonin and dopamine. We are essentially wired for creativity.


Design also provokes our imagination and transforms new ideas into solutions; it’s the engine for innovation and doing things differently – whether it is the design of a place, a system, a process, a project, an object, a widget or a website.


In the words of Professor Baroness Greenfield “the book is better than the film because you’re using your imagination”.


Economists are beginning to value the imagination and ideas. The recent work of MIT Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee The Second Machine Age, predicts that the future skills for employment will be in jobs requiring perception, creativity, imagination, social and emotional intelligence including engineering, science the creative industries, education, management , business and healthcare.


Design thinking embeds empathy, morals and ethics and helps us make better decisions. Restricted decisions making processes in many aspects of life, often limit the potential outcomes – subsequent decisions are ill-informed and at worst waste of money and effort.

Design thinking offers an alternative approach whether we are trying to improve a service, planning a new service, trying to solve a gritty, intractable problem or designing an object. It requires that all of those likely to be impacted by the decisions to be involved. Design thinking can also be great fun and very hopeful – it’s optimistic. It could be argued that anything less is arrogant, self-indulgent, short-sighted, reductionist, unsustainable and ultimately a waste of money.


If a flourishing future requires us to connect with a deeper level of our humanity – let’s just add art and design. Embed quality art, design and design thinking into our systems, our education mechanisms, processes and life to contribute to evolving our moral maturity and ethical compass – so we might sustain ourselves in this wondrous place.


As practitioners contributing to shaping our future places, I urge you to ask yourself and each other – is there a role here for art – a film maker, a writer, a performer the musician, a visual artist – as a provocateur, a storyteller or a lens to the unknown?


If we want an irrepressibly creative and sustainable society, we need ideas and imagination to flourish. Until we’ve worked it all out – let there be creativity. Let there be art.


Trish Hansen is the Manager of Public Art and Design with Arts SA, within the Department of State Development and volunteers as both the Deputy President for the Australian Institute of Urban Studies – SA, Founder and Chair – Place SA. The views are the author’s own.


Reproduced from PLACE magazine – January 2015.