Creating a ‘Sense of Place’ in a Homogenized World

Designers often use the phrase ‘sense of place,’ to describe the combination of characteristics that make a place unique. We use certain cues including building architecture, local clothing, and even vegetation to make sense of where we are physically in the world. Picture a cactus, and your mind will evoke a very different environment than if you picture an oak tree or a water lily. Unfortunately, as a result of globalization, much of our landscape has lost its sense of place. Strip mall after strip mall has the same big box architecture, and a house in New England is likely to use the same ten landscape plants as a house on the West Coast. While globalized landscapes reflect the convenience that has become so important in our fast-paced world, this homogenization affects us in ways we don’t even realize. In the words of writer Wendell Berry, 'If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are'.

Native plants have an important role to play in creating landscapes that are full of local character and uniqueness. Fortunately, as native plants rise in popularity, they are becoming more available and can compete with the traditional landscape standards. We are no longer pressured to use water-intensive plants in the desert or exotic invasive vines in the Northeast. New cultivars chosen for their size or flower color are made available all the time. We have more options than ever before to create landscapes that celebrate local history and culture. Native plantings have the added benefit of providing local wildlife with food and shelter. As much as a building’s architecture, or a passerby’s regional accent, a landscape can reveal what is special about the Mid-Atlantic Piedmont, the Southeast coast, or the deserts of the West. Native landscapes have the power to tell us much about who we are.