Studying “place” – and all its powers

6a0105369e3ea1970b0148c6df7627970c 320wi - Studying "place" - and all its powers Where you are can effect what you do.  We just don’t know why.

A University of Georgia study (PDF) of more than 10,000 fifth-graders in 71 elementary schools showed that students who could see gardens, mountains and other natural elements from their classrooms scored significantly higher on tests in vocabulary and math than students whose classrooms had views of roads and parking lots.

We just don’t know why.

According to a different study (PDF), students who have access to classrooms with more natural light advance 20 percent faster in math, and score 7 to 18 percent higher, than students with little daylight in their classes.

We’re just not sure why.

The nature of the places we work, live, and play have a significant impact on the way we go about our lives and what we want to accomplish.  So much so that international negotiator William Ury (author of Getting to Yes) deliberately chooses places that have histories of successful peace negotiations as the settings for mediations he leads.  He says it helps. 

In fact, there are many different occupations that work with “place” and “settings”:  architects, urban planners, farmers, eco-psychologists, to name just a few, and all of them have sets of evolving “best practices” about how to make places come alive for the people who live and work there. 

As Saybrook alumna Renee Levi discovered, each professional and academic field knows a great deal about the relationship between people and place, but they rarely have opportunities to share what they know and learn from each other.  

Two years ago Levi, who received her Saybrook PhD in Organizational Systems and is principal of an organizational development firm, Resonance Consulting, teamed up with Sheryl Erickson, the Founding Director of the Collective Wisdom Initiative, to study the nature of place from an interdisciplinary approach.  They received a grant from the Fetzer Institute for an 18 month project. 

Today the Powers of Place Initiative has brought a community of hundreds together for dialogue, inquiry, education, partnership, and practical application of how place can be an active participant in human efforts toward social transformation.

Together they’ve studied “place” including:  nature and the natural environment; buildings, cities, and the constructed environment; and the human cultural environment. They’ve also tried to find ways to practice what they teach, and to learn experientially.

They sent a researcher to a sustainable K-12 school in Bali to study how the physical environment and commitment to indoor/outdoor education affects children’s learning; students with learning disabilities and attention disorders seem to function better there than in traditional classrooms. They have also forged an affiliation with world-renowned architect Christopher Alexander and his wife, Maggie Moore Alexander, to bring life, healing and beauty to everyday life, for lay persons and architects alike.

They sponsored a forum in partnership with Leadership Development at the Banff Centre, in Alberta, Canada to begin to determine how place influences leaders and the practice of leadership. Another gathering in Zimbabwe brought together people who manage retreat centers that host important conversations.

“This gathering was truly international, a coming together of people who own and/or steward land to share their experiences of being in right relationship with the needs and voice of the land and the people who live and visit there. It was a great example of collaborative commitment and an international learning network was activated”, said Sheryl.

Although the activities of the Powers of Place Initiative are diverse, ranging from international gatherings to free web classes on the Terrapsychology of Craig Chalquist, Renee and Sheryl say the work generally focuses on a few areas: 

–          Identifying individuals and organizations doing significant work and giving them visibility

–          Providing opportunities for connection such as an interactive web space, teleconferencing, teleseminars and webinars, and in-person gatherings

–          Providing resources such as a bibliography and access to writing and research, visual media, interviews, tools and techniques for practice, and a database of transformative meeting places

–          Sponsoring seminal research

–          Supporting and promoting grassroots efforts such as sustainable farming

Being consciously aware of the places in our lives, Renee says, applies to all of our experiences as human beings “from international peace negotiations to the everyday choices we make such as where to hold important family conversations.” She goes on to say, “Place matters. There is so much more we can achieve toward improving our world if we consider places as allies and friends and treat them accordingly. It’s a shift from an I-It relationship to an I-Thou one, to reference Martin Buber.”

These are questions and issues that get to the heart of a variety of practices – as well as a basic human experience.  Perhaps that’s why, two years in, the Powers of Place initiative is gathering such momentum, and continuing to find and attract new participants and partners.

To get involved or to find the resources you need, visit, or contact Renee Levi or Sheryl Erickson.

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