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Every place has an identity, with people

The pandemic outbreak which has been shaping our lives for over a year has greatly reduced the use of the spaces we enjoy and live in, including homes and the domestic dimension of living, a verb which has become even more central in recent months. The multiple restrictions have generated a new coexistence with empty cities, without crowds and gatherings, especially during the first wave, narrated and portrayed in various visual and documentary forms . We talked about a ‘new normality’, a return to rurality , 15 minutes cities, and we studied possible solutions for coexistence with the new coronavirus, which also resulted in adaptation strategies strongly oriented towards an urban dimension of transformation of habits in a logic of proximity. We are committed to getting to know cities and living contexts that are different from those we’re used to. On the other hand, the urban mechanisms themselves had to be redefined among new forms of work, regulations on the access to different places, and a limited use of public spaces. It can be argued that places, whether related to our daily routines (such as the street leading to our workplace) or to less ordinary routines (like a stadium or a restaurant) have acquired new forms and identities during the last year.

contexts serves as a plot device for a reflection on the uses and functions of spaces, which are inevitably beginning to be missed, at least compared to how we knew and enjoyed them until March 2020. When faced with such restrictions, we have learned that places ‘matter’, regardless of their geographical location, their centrality in an economic system of accumulation, and whether they are highly urbanised or not. A theatre, a stadium, a concert area, ‘matter’ because seeing them empty generates a sort of collective sadness. A rural, non-metropolitan context – which in recent years was considered a ‘place that does not matter’ in global development networks (where such economic development is strongly related to an urban dimension) – also ‘matters’ because of its lower population density, which can make life partially more difficult for the new coronavirus . Finally, an urban machine operating at half capacity is quite different from the one that has attracted new populations for over a half century.

If the pandemic has considerably changed the identity of places, we need to reflect on how we have built and interpreted this identity up to now. In scientific research, the theme is articulated and complex. The twenty-first Quaderno di Urbanistica Tre, edited by Caramaschi, Marconcini and Marinaro , represents one of the most recent contributions in Italy, and takes a multi-disciplinary path for a critical reflection on the practical and empirical repercussions deriving from the concept of identity, which does not come without confusion and conflicts in the disciplines of planning and design. In this sense, addressing the nature of the identity of places implies a theoretical reflection that is difficult to develop comprehensively within this framework. In response, we can start by re-discussing the identity connotations of the antithesis of a place; what Marc Augè calls a non-place . In his theory on the late twentieth-century surmodernity, Augè defines as non-places all those spaces – as opposed to anthropological places – that have the peculiarity of not being identitary, relational and historical, exemplified by motorways, airports, transport infrastructures, and large shopping centres. Interpreted as a space devoid of functional interactions, a non-place “does not create either individual or relational identity, […] it only authorises, […] the coexistence of distinct individualities, similar and indifferent to one another” . According to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, we can say that in non-places the interaction between people – to be distinguished from a ‘society’ that is organised in space – takes shape with the ‘sole delimiting criterion of physical presence’ . However, in the 21st century we are experiencing the complex relevance of global networks and the frameworks they generate: global urban forms and configurations; persistent polarisations and gaps in access to primary resources, albeit different from precisely a century ago; trans-national networks at different scales that have fostered conditions for the spread of numerous epidemics. In these complexity, non-places have a particular autonomous significance. All urban and non-urban spaces, when empty they appear incomplete. Without minimal and even weak interactions, they are a source of wonder. Think of an airport, emptied after a global collapse of 60% of passengers in 2020 compared to the previous year, and an estimated -43% to -51% between 2021 and 2019 . We consider airports as spaces with functions that go beyond their primary purpose. This set of uses is made possible by people with whom the passenger interacts: from the airport assistant who does the check-in (before automation takes over), to the bartender, the duty-free clerks, and the person responsible for the final check of the identity document, which – according to the traditional view – is the only way to identify a person in an airport, the object that legitimises his/her temporary use of the airport itself. However, the images of spaces suspended by an unprecedented event suggest that it is people – in their heterogeneity – who ‘give rise’ to a well-defined identity of non-places. Since the airport – as well as many other infrastructures – is a catalyst for contemporary urban expansion and economic development, it has relational, identity-based and existing characteristics in a historical and contextual perspective. In its contemporary form, with different dimensions that determine its attractiveness not only as an airport for civil air traffic but also for commercial offerings, the airport possesses distinct identities that have been cancelled out by the effects of the pandemic.

Like any other place, a non-place is the result of a social construction, which goes hand in hand with development trajectories, however uneven these may be. The social construction of places (including – at this point – the non-places of Augè too) implies strong identity references, involving identifying elements in a concrete way. In this case, think of a stadium, and the recent design trend of multi-coloured seats, also with the aim of mitigating increasingly empty bleachers (as in the case of the Udine stadium, renovated in 2016). This choice is driven by the fact that it evokes a key element with which the stadium is identified in addition to its purely sporting role: the public; the crowded bleachers. Once more, people. The title of this contribution derives from this questioning, which could unwittingly nod to a nostalgic progressive discourse. On the contrary, the experience of places emptied and redefined in their identities invites us to an important reconsideration of interactions. It should simply invite us to reflect before calling for a return to the previous situation.

Every place has its own identity, with people, as an interweaving of actions, representations and specificities. This kind of theoretical effort reminds me of one of the first lectures of the course of sociology of the territory that I had the opportunity to teach at the University of Trieste. In introducing the main cognitive elements of the ‘territory in itself’, that is, the dimension of the environmental, economic, cultural and identity specificities of a territory, I stressed the importance of the processes of ‘social construction’ – to use a term dear to the sociology of knowledge – which strongly determine our knowledge of the places we inhabit and visit. This knowledge counterposes ‘formal’ identity features (the airport as a transport infrastructure, the stadium as a structure used for sporting events and concerts, etc.) and identity constructions resulting from interactions between spaces and individuals, between spaces and the society, which we can commonly call ‘representations’. In other words, the representations of any place generate an identity, or at least help to define some of its distinctive features. If the pandemic has deprived many places, such as airports, of their identity characteristics, it has not stopped the exercise of representation and the attribution of identity to many other spaces, through an effort that approaches the difficult concept of ‘heterotopia’, to use the Foucauldian term, also used in the previous issue of this magazine in relation to the transformations that have redefined the use – and, consequently, the identity – of Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin, an emblematic case among recent urban studies.

Timo Newton-Syms, Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, Finland, 2020.

During the pandemic, new representations led to new forms of identities. Consider the Darsena in Milan, which, from a well-known nightlife location, was quickly recognised and identified as a place representing poorly disciplined behaviours in compliance with restrictions. The commonly positive connotation – for various reasons – of a centre of attraction for young people has been reconfigured into a place of risk and lack of compliance with the rules through the now proverbial gathering. The identities of places, and in particular of non-places, are constantly being constructed and reconstructed on the basis of the use people make of them, or even by virtue of the mere presence of individuals. As the urban planner Pierluigi Crosta says, “the territory is the use made of it”, and this use finds a fundamental medium in people. Obviously, we must avoid overlapping the concept of territory and that of place, which should not be seen as interchangeable. However, if territory is the use that is made of it, places become somehow a product of this use of territory, and it is in this perspective that I intend to emphasise and claim the identity of any place and non-place that we cannot reach or have not been able to reach during these long months of pandemic. In other words, it is a matter of giving depth and importance to any kind of social interaction and the space in which it takes shape, even and especially in those places that apparently lack identity and that we have come to know as non-places. On the contrary, attributing old and new identities moves away from any denial, which has become superficial at times in reading the complexities of the contemporary urban world. Acknowledging a theoretical-analytical character that is only partially elaborated and at times emancipatory, this discussion interprets the theme of identity, attributing it a fundamental role in the social construction of places.

Pom’, London Heathrow International Airport, Uk, 2018.


This paper sought to investigate the meaning of the word identity by reflecting on the identity configurations of places and non-places, in order to overcome this dichotomy. As an introductory key, a brief reflection was undertaken on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on urban spaces, in particular on the new perceptions and identifications imposed by restrictions. The following discussion on the identity characters of non-places, as well as Augè’s anthropological places, aimed at underlining the centrality of the system of social constructions and representations of places that contribute to shaping the ‘territory itself’, composed of a variety of places, made tangible by identity characters subject to constant re-constructions, as in the case of an airport that in its entirely includes infrastructural roles and commercial offers, or of a stadium subjected to new design experiments aimed at giving the impression of a permanent crowd through the multi-coloured bleachers, or even – to switch back to the images of urban spaces affected by the pandemic – in the new identities and new representations attributed to places of nightlife, considered ‘off limits’ by virtue of restrictions and curfews. From these considerations and examples, the message that emerges is that any place we inhabit has its own identity at the time when it is enjoyed by individuals, whether its use is supported by strong or weak ties, and that this identity applies to any type of place, including non-places. Finally, this set of reflections invites further reasonings on the empirical and conceptual evidence featured by the twenty-first century: the complexity, which is also exacerbated by the chain reactions and urgent interventions required to contrast the new coronavirus. Cities are arenas of governance and places of life that are increasingly complex and heterogeneous. The places we inhabit, live and cross are the scene of heterogeneous interactions that are anything but simple to observe. The elements that make a non-place par excellence like an airport work are part of a complex mechanism that includes uses and functions that are very different from each other, such as the airstrip and a large duty-free shop. The complexity provides a background and increasingly challenges the use of dichotomies and oppositions in describing our surroundings. In this complexity, each place will never be lacking in its own changing identity.

Translated into English by Luna Lebang.

Cover: Patrick Vierthaler, Kansa International Airport, 2020.

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Lorenzo De Vidovich is research fellow at the University of Trieste, and PhD in urban studies at the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies at Politecnico di Milano. His main fields of interest are welfare and urban policies, suburbs, urban regeneration and urban political ecology, with a particular focus on suburbs, peripheries and socio-spatial inequalities. He is currently dealing with energy transition and energy poverty.
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