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What time is this place?

When was the last time you connected with your place? In this post, we describe a learning and reflection exercise that encourages us to connect more deeply with our sources of knowing and understanding the world and our place in it.

See, smell, sound, touch, taste. When we spend time in nature our senses come alive. Wherever we are, there are opportunities to connect with our environment and to know and understand much more than five senses tell us. Photo: Yurruunn.Ga, Gumbaynggirr country (Uranga, NSW).

When I first started teaching environmental planning, one of the first activities I would do with the students is to ask them to explore a place using their five senses. Slowly. Deliberately. Intentionally. I have been using this exercise ever since and it remains one of my favourites.

From higher education to community workshops, from environmental planning and design to tourism stakeholder engagement, this exercise works to build deep listening, connection and deeper dialogue. It also brings us closer to ways of understanding that link both tangible and intangible knowledge. It ignites curiosity, understanding and opens the capacity to see the world differently.

What time is this place?

This reflection exercise, described below, can become a habit of mind if we practice it regularly in individual and collective ways. Taking the time to find nature, to sit in the environment (whether its urban, natural or rural) is a powerful exercise in centring, reflection and mindfulness. Share it with your kids, your colleagues, your next professional workshop.

The reflective task

Aim: Using each of the five senses, the task is to build a sensory map that explores and interprets a place.

1. Participants are asked to choose one sense, and working individually, map the place using that sense. Take steps to mask or de-centre other senses if possible (e.g. blindfolds, noise-cancelling earbuds) heightens the experience.

2. Working collectively, participants are asked to discuss what the place means by combining their reflections on their sensory maps. Participants are asked to consider how these five senses merge, fuse and overwhelm. What sense dominates? What sense creates meaning? How do the senses jointly contribute to understanding a place? What sense (or combination) triggers a sense of time? And what individual and collective meaning is created through the experience of working through this process? In essence, participants make sense of their 'sensed' experience of place.

3. The final step is to ask participants to describe the meaning of that place and build a shared answer to the question "What time is this place?" This is where the gaps between the 5 senses start to be filled in, and many participants encounter the visceral experience of the three brains (head, heart and gut) working together to 'know' the place. Explanation: The objective of the exercise is an awakening of an inner sixth sense - a sense of being, feeling and acting in the world. A sense of connection and responsibility beyond the individual and beyond the present moment is a key theme that often emerges. Participants awaken to a sense of knowing a place before we introduce any scientific knowledge that might be relevant to their learning journey.

In the process, participants consider the gaps between how we make sense of the world, our feelings, our intuition, our emotions, our values, and how these influence our behaviour. Later in the learning journey, we take the opportunity to compare scientific knowledge and language with our initial exploration of the experience of place. When I originally designed and implemented this exercise in 2002, the original inspiration came from "What time is this place? by Kevin Lynch, and from a deeply embedded intuition that to understand our place, to care more deeply, and to make better decisions, we needed more than textbooks and lectures. Looking back, citing white, western men as the authority was the norm in those days, but I could well have used Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Knowledge and understanding place

But there is so so much more to this! Life is a learning journey if we allow it to be and reflection is a key component of change. Over the last decades, we have become more acutely aware of the limitations of white western knowledge, the narrowness of scientific methods, and the power of Indigenous wisdom. The above exercise in thinking was designed to prompt students and workshop participants to think differently and tap into a deeper way of knowing. Some participants become uncomfortable and resist the exercise. To others, it makes perfect sense and opens up the opportunity to listen to their intuition, deepen the conversation, and grapple with concepts like responsibility, respect, care, reciprocity and so on.

Comfortable and uncomfortable ways of exploring an issue

In the workshops, to justify this unusual approach, I would use literature from environmental psychology, landscape ecology and environmental planning, but it was never quite enough. Using scientific literature ensured I stayed in the comfortable place. However, how to describe and validate the energy of place, of nature, of community, and of connection that students and workshop participants experienced remained an incomplete part of the learning experience.

But it's only when we are ready, we can step over those liminal boundaries and understand differently! Liminal spaces of new understanding and action emerge when we confront and grapple with truly troublesome knowledge that upends the way we have previously thought. But to do this also requires that we take risks in the way we think and act. It also requires a new relationship with how we think about certainty and control. It requires courage to move back and forth and use different ways of knowing and understanding.

Over time, reflective practices help move us beyond the ‘stuck places’ of our old ways of knowing and, as we do, barriers to new alternative understandings in our own disciplines or fields of study fall away (see Stories of Practice: Tourism Policy and Planning). Crossing these boundaries is central to stepping beyond our 'bounded ways' of thinking and tapping into intangible and embodied and intuitive understandings of what is really going on in our complex world.

In this light, knowledge of place was one thing, but truly understanding place (and by corollary understanding and being comfortable with the limits of what we can know) and is a very different pursuit.

So what has this all got to do with tourism? It's all about the systems and mindset change that we need in tourism. We are often asked how we can change mindsets, how we can drive systems change, and how can we encourage people (visitors, communities, businesses) to care more. It starts with reflection and the courage to admit that the current system has not worked. Reflection, connection and deep conversations are an important step in this journey, and the above small exercise- an hour of your day, can help to shift the tone and candour of the conversation.

But wait, there is more!

Indigenous wisdom breaking through

Indigenous knowledge provides a window into just how scientific thinking has kept us in a narrow and bounded way of thinking. In Design: Building on Country, Alison Page and Paul Memmott have opened up a conversation about Indigenous Australian culture and knowledge and intentional design. It's a mind-expanding exploration that places the currently fashionable 'human-centred design' conversation in its place! Of course, it's not the only source, but the book is certainly an easy entry point to considering a range of concepts that can be useful in tourism.

Exploring different sources and kinds of knowledge has fuelled a passion we have in the Tourism Colab for digging deeper into the intentional design of tourism with nature and communities. The above reflective activity may help start the journey. It may help to open up and identify the troublesome knowledge that is keeping you, your destination, your community or your organisation from changing direction, shifting mindsets or identifying the liminal space you need to step into.

Our next course is Design Thinking for tourism. Join us!


About The Tourism CoLab

At the Tourism CoLab, we believe in a future that is regenerative, purpose-led and inclusive. To deliver the next tourism and visitor economy, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and re-invent our ways of working. We use an intentional design mindset to activate tourism for good, and we call this new way of working ‘Regenerative Tourism by Design’ and we’re pioneering it at The Tourism CoLab. If you would like to know more about what we do, how we work, and how we might be able to help you, contact us.

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1 Comment

jenny cave
jenny cave
Jul 25, 2021

Thank you for this insightful post Dianne. I would add "What is time" to the reflection points of what is home and what is place... especially given indigenous points of view.

I carry my past on my shoulder - my past and forebears shape my present, and will shape my view of the future. Perhaps this is because of my deep sense of heritage, my culture and affinity with the past - reflected in my choice of study [Anthropology] and my first career as an Oceanic archeologist, seated within Pacific's patterns of migration. This worldview also relates to years of immersion in indigenous cultures (Canada, New Zealand, the South Pacific, Wales), research and development partnerships. I can only speak fro…

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