The term sense of place has been used in many different ways. It is a multidimensional, complex construct used to characterize the relationship between people and spatial settings. It is a characteristic that some geographic places have and some do not, while to others it is a feeling or perception held by people. It is often used in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging. Others, such as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, have pointed to senses of place that are not "positive," such as fear. Some students and educators engage in "place-based education" in order to improve their "sense of place," as well as to use various aspects of place as educational tools in general. The term is used in urban and rural studies in relation to place-making and place-attachment of communities to their environment or homeland.
, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or animals. Places said to have a strong "sense of place" have a strong identity that is deeply felt by inhabitants and visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon. Codes aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing places felt to be of value include "World Heritage Site" designations, the British "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" controls and the American "National Historic Landmark" designation.
Places that lack a "sense of place" are sometimes referred to as "placeless" or "inauthentic”; cultural geographer, Edward Relph investigates the "placelessness" of these locations anthropologist Marc Augécalls these "non-places." Stepping against the kind of reductive thinking that placelessness can lead to, in his book, The Practice of Everyday Life, Jesuit philosopher Michel de Certeau argues that another way of seeing placelessness is to see it as space. For de Certeau,"space is merely composed of intersections of mobile elements" that are not in stasis. Place, on the other hand, is space that has been ordered in some way to serve some human need". A park, for instance, is a place that has been constructed "in accord with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence" and therefore "implies an indication of stability". de Certeau's ideas became instrumental in understanding the intersections of power and social relations in the construction of place. For de Certeau, placelessness, or "space" was a site for freedom or at least it is the site for what Timotheus Vermeulen sees as "potentially anarchic movement" Outside of de Certeau's ideas, Placeless landscapes are seen as those that have no special relationship to the places in which they are located—they could be anywhere; roadside strip shopping malls, gas/petrol stations and convenience stores, fast food chains, and chain department stores have been cited as examples of placeless landscape elements. Some historic sites or districts that have been heavily commercialized for tourism and new housing estates are defined as having lost their sense of place. Gertrude Stein's "there is no there there" has been used as a description of such places. Human geographers and social psychologists have studied how a sense of place develops, including the importance of comparisons between places, learning from elders and observing natural disasters and other events. Of particular note is the importance of childhood experiences. Environmental psychologists have quantified links between exposure to natural environments in childhood and environmental preferences later in life. Learning about surrounding environments during childhood is strongly influenced by the direct experience of playing, as well as through the role of family, culture, and community. The special bond which develops between children and their childhood environments has been called a "primal landscape" by human geographers. This childhood landscape forms part of an individual's identity and constitutes a key point of comparison for considering subsequent places later in life. As people move around as adults, they tend to consider new places in relation to this baseline landscape experienced during childhood. Sense of place is used as a model for community-based psychosocial support programs.