Operationalising place for land system science

Related GLP Member: Adrienne Grêt-Regamey


This paper introduces the concept of place for land system science to better understand how the transformation of place, as place-making, can be operationalised. The aim is to operationalise place with the motivation that a deeper understanding of people–place interactions can advance knowledge of land systems towards practicable solutions to current sustainability challenges. An overview of place studies spanning a wide range of research disciplines is presented to form a clear and concise theoretical foundation, necessary when operationalising place beyond its traditional research domains and applications. The limitations and potential of place in the context of land systems science are then explored through examples and the importance of operationalising place as both a product and process is demonstrated. Place and place-making are presented as a conceptual model, which allows for expansion and substantiation when deployed to relevant land system research tasks. In closing, the directions and key themes for further development of people–place interactions in land system science are discussed.

Why place?

Out of the numerous challenges currently connected to achieving sustainable development, most can be associated with population growth and urbanisation (Crutzen 2002; Zalasiewicz et al. 2011), which in turn are responsible for sprawl and landscape degradation on an ever accelerating scale (Meeus and Gulinck 2008; Seto et al. 2013; La Rosa et al. 2018). These challenges are perhaps best illustrated by peri-urbanisation, which is the transformation of rural and natural areas into landscapes that are neither urban nor rural and which “may be the dominant urban form and spatial planning challenge of the twenty-first century” (Ravetz et al. 2013). Negative consequences of peri-urban areas include environmental as well as socio-cultural aspects (Nilsson et al. 2013), but most importantly, they present us with increasingly complex landscape configurations and demands placed upon them (Verhagen et al. 2018). Land system science (Verburg et al. 2013; Wu 2019) has made advancements in explaining, quantifying and predicting changes of such complex landscapes, yet landscape degradation and sprawl continues with no signs of slowing down (Seto et al. 2012; Zasada et al. 2013; Verburg et al. 2015).

Further advancements of the land system science research agenda have been put forward to tackle these negative aspects and address critical knowledge gaps (Verburg et al. 20132015), such as the representation and inclusion of human behaviour in land use change modelling (Filatova et al. 2013; Arneth et al. 2014; Verburg et al. 2016; Schlüter et al. 2017), the ability to make nuanced and evaluative judgements on measurements and predictions (Nielsen et al. 2019) and most importantly the call for the land system community to transform its knowledge into practicable solutions (Childers et al. 2015; Verburg et al. 2015; Nielsen et al. 2019; United Nations 2019).

Integrating the concept of place has been proposed as a way of bridging the above knowledge gaps and as an essential aspect of landscape change (Burgess 1979; Buchecker et al. 2003; Hunziker et al. 2007; Williams 2014; von Wirth et al. 2016; Raymond et al. 2017; Kienast et al. 2018). The inclusion of specific local contexts has been advocated and practiced within land system science through place-based research (Balvanera et al. 2017; Masterson et al. 2017). This type of research has shown that including place can make landscape degradation more visible, help in understanding the role of behaviour and motivation in place change, or show how local qualities affect people's stewardship of their landscapes (Williams et al. 1992; Buchecker et al. 2003; Hunziker et al. 2008; Chapin et al. 2010). The degradation of local qualities and lack of effective solutions are particularly evident and challenging in the context of peri-urban areas (Seto et al. 20122013; Geneletti et al. 2017), so that shifting the focus from quantities to qualities is suggested as a way of improving natural and urban landscapes (UN-Habitat 2013; Childers et al. 2015; van Vliet et al. 2019).

Moving beyond place-based research, a more universal conception of place applicable to diverse research tasks is not easily definable and hence remains overlooked (Lewicka 2011). The aim of this paper is to untangle the concept of place and suggest how it can be integrated within land system science. This aim is pursued to better understand the meaning behind the results of socio-ecological system (Ostrom 2009; Stauffacher and Krütli 2016) and land use/land cover change analyses and predictions and, from this understanding, derive better solutions. In other words, we contribute herein our supposition that if place is considered as being more than “a location”, it can be understood as the emergent interaction between people and their environment—thus giving place the potential to be operationalised as a result of socio-ecological systems.

The above-postulated aims are closely aligned with one of the many facets of sustainability science research, which “is seeking to support the integrative task of managing particular places where multiple efforts to meet multiple human needs interact with multiple life-support systems in highly complex and often unexpected ways” (Clark 2007). Particularly in the context of landscape sustainability and its six Es (Musacchio 2009), the aim of this paper is meant to expand our understanding of the aesthetics, experience and ethics when studying or developing socio-ecological systems.

This text is organised into two main sections, with the first section focusing on the past and current state of place research. An overview of place studies is presented in order to form a base for connecting the concepts and recommendations presented in the sections thereafter. We then outline the challenges of place studies by referring to methodologies which incorporate place within land use change research. Out of this follows the second section, which presents a possible future for place in the context of land system science. In this final section, we first propose a description of place and place-making, closing with a discussion of how to apply it to possible research tasks in land system science.