Walking down a path lined with greens and browns of trees and leaves; sitting in a comfy seat, snug and cozy in our space; or sitting in a crowded room feeling uncomfortable, distracted, or alone. These experiences and others revolve around the feelings of places–how we come to love some places, feel an attachment for places, and come to prefer some places over others. Places influence how we feel, from the noises around us that soothe or distract us, to the presence or absence of light, to the shape of chairs that we are required to sit in. We also influence the shape and form of places around us. Conversations about these emotional experiences in place open up opportunities to explore ideas such as health and wellness in a particular landscape.
These types of attachments to place were the focus of a project as part of the Landscapes and Healing module, a spring 2016 class that I took as an MA Geography student at Maynooth University. On a Friday morning, we set up a table with large maps of the university campus in the lobby of the university’s library. We were a group of postgrad geographers and Dr. Ronan Foley, a health geographer at Maynooth University, curious about how people on campus relate to place.
We asked passers-by to engage in a short but unique activity: mapping a piece of their emotional landscape of the university campus. People who stopped to engage were offered red and yellow pins to place on large maps of the university campus, and asked to indicate their favourite and least favourite places on campus. This activity was a beginning to a larger goal. We were trying to learn about how people experience health in different places on the Maynooth campus, and the multitude of ways that people connect to their surroundings to find wellness.
Figure 1. The John Paul II Library at Maynooth University.
Source: Maynooth University, 2016.
Maynooth University is a university of approximately 11,000 students in the small town of Maynooth, Co. Kildare, about an hour’s journey to the centre of Dublin. The John Paul II university library is probably the heart of the campus. Students go there to study and read; faculty are engaged in research there; visitors are sitting down at the tables or on the comfortable chairs in the open lobby; and almost everyone comes to the café for a coffee or tea, or just for a break from the computer screen to sit and chat with friends and look out onto the square. It was in the lobby next to the cafe that we set up our tables. People walking by participated in short conversations while they placed their pins, and afterwards we asked if they would like to write a short statement about their favourite or least-favourite place. These short statements were put on sticky-notes and stuck on a white board easel and created a big word map of the experiences of many people on the university campus. A few people even agreed to a participatory walk, and brought one of our group to their favourite place (note about this). On the walk, the participant told us about why they chose that place, and how they experienced getting there.
Conversations and methods such as the mapping used in this project give us direct ways to consider the health and wellness in the shared landscape. This project builds on work in health geography that explores how people experience health and wellness in relation to their surroundings and their places. Conradson’s work on “Landscape, care and the relations self: Therapeutic encounters in rural England” (2005) and Duff’s work “Exploring the role of ‘enabling places’ in promoting recovery from mental illness: A qualitative test of a relational model” (2012) are just two examples of the work being done in health geography on relational ideas and experiences of place. Both work to show that how people experience health and healing are shaped and formed by places, and places are changed by these experiences.
The stories, experiences, and relationships to place that we heard during our time in the Maynooth library lobby provided valuable information about how people relate to and change the landscape of the Maynooth University campus. Because emotional feedback is often difficult to represent in any form, we used a number of different ways to represent the responses, to see how people construct a landscape of feeling in place. This process can lead to understandings of the health value that different types of places within a landscape might provide.
In designing the methods for this project, we looked at the mutually constitutive ways that people engage with place: how we are both defined by and define places around us. This process is connected to relational notions of self and moments of being-in-place, when the self and place are co-constituted, so that individuals may actually find themselves different in different places and landscapes. We can see how we define places with these feelings, just as we are defined ourselves by the places and the feelings we have in them. Different kinds of health and well being are indicated in this spatial and personal relationship of the landscape. We observed some of these ways that people engage with place, as individuals negotiated the process of picking and placing a pin in a place and talking about how they felt in that place, and also how they made it their own.
Figure 2: Map of participant’s pins favourite and least-favourite places on Maynooth University campus. Source: Brown, Sasha 2016
Orange – Students’ Favourite Places
Blue – Students’ least-favourite places
White – Non-students favourite places
Red – Non-students’ least-favourite places
There were 174 pins placed indicating individuals’ favourite places on the university campus. 154 of these were placed by self-identified students (yellow pins) and 20 by non-students (white pins). There were also fifty-nine notes written by participants reflecting on their favourite places. This doesn’t correlate to the number of participants, as many participants placed two or more pins. There was a wide range of responses. Often in the same place there would be very different responses, and why people liked those spots:
- Library – All my friends are always here
- Library – I love the ambience of the library to the ‘relax’ chaos – just a beautiful space
- Behind John Hume Building in front of the Student Health Center – There are a few trees and some benches to sit on. Just look around and relax
- The Student Union –Happy – SU. Why? Where I go to have a nice time with my m8s #MUHappyCampus
- Pugin Dining Hall – Favourite place on campus is Pugin Hall – warm, nice food, always meet someone to chat to
- By a tree – My favourite tree in the world
- South Campus green space – The green space on south campus is lovely for a lunchtime run.
- The Orchard – Peaceful changing with the seasons. Lots of unique things to see on the way – beehive, tiles on exposed wall…
- Mary’s Square – Place of Reflection lovely when it’s sunny, like from lord of the rings!
- Walled Garden – The walled garden on south campus is a really nice place to relax and just take a nap.
- Gym – It’s free and the equipment is good.
- The Chapel – Sometimes we just don’t stop and do nothing.
- The Chapel – Most peaceful I have been to!
- Saint Joseph Square – I love the pink cherry blossom trees!
- Graveyard – Graveyard is quiet and relaxing.
- Lyren River – On the way home, walking to the train, I feel happy and calm when I hear the river.
- Flower Garden – Aesthetically pleasing 🙂
- Buildings and garden near Humanity House – Good to have some space. Be nice to have more garden area
- The Junior Garden – I like the junior garden very much. Need more spaces like this – with benches
- The Junior Garden – A beautiful place – Probably should not share my favourite place, oh too late.
- The Bunker – Great atmosphere, cheap coffee, sofas
- The Bunker –
- Gardens and walks on campus are fantastic.
- John Paul Statue – Nice place to relax in the sunshine with coffee
- The book shop is brilliant!
There are many stories from this experience to tell. As seen from the maps and the notes, there was a large concentration of ‘favourite places’ in the library, the student union, and outdoor green spaces.
Least Favourite Places
There were 93 pins placed indicating individuals’ least favourite places on the university campus. 77 of these were placed by self-identified students and 16 by non-students. There were also thirty-seven notes about negative experiences in places on campus, and two notes about both good and bad experiences, or ambivalent experiences. Many of the comments in this category are critiquing a design element of the campus, or a suggestion on how to improve on these places:
- Student Union – SU is Dark and too noisy to relax away from the PC
- Pugin Hall – My least favourite place – Pugin Hall and the corridor we have to walk along to get there – it’s oppressive and male
- Callan Hall (Lectures) – I don’t like Callan Hall – it hurts my butt
- Ventilate Callan Hall!!
- John Hume Building – Jh has no social area and it’s like the main building
- #Placetoavoid – South Campus car parking spaces in the dark never feel safe
- Auxilia Bld (B) – very difficult to navigate. Seminar rooms are not clearly defined.
- Please get rid of the seats in arts building (HA, HB, HC etc.) that have the small writing desk attached to the arms of the chair, and replace them with proper desks. It is incredibly difficult to take notes in these rooms.
- Aula Maxima too cold
- This campus needs more benches
- An unhappy pin in the corridors of St. Patrick’s House. The Cardinals staring down from the walls is very ominous and gives me a sense of discomfort and unease. The opposite of what they would like me to think I guess!
There were many comments on lecture halls being physically uncomfortable—the ergonomics of seating are an embodied part of education. This project would certainly suggest that this should be an important part of classroom design.
When designing our project, we thought it was important to recognize that in the pleasant experiences of places there are also places that bring about feelings of un-healthiness, qualities that detract from a place’s health value. Sometimes people were generally in agreement about where these places were, such as in Callan Hall. But there were some places, such as the library, ,the Arts Building, and the Pugin Dining Hall, that people identify as their least favourite and others their most favourite.
The almost playful act of placing pins on a map was an interesting examination of participants’ viewpoints on places on campus. The experience was also an invitation for participants to share memories and experiences. It was clear during the process that the pins provided stationary points that allowed participants to look at their relationships to place in a more leisurely way than were usual for them. By involving ourselves in mapping projects like these, we can begin to foster the important conversations of the health-value of places on the university campus, while recognizing and respecting each individual’s placing of themselves, and foster a more comfortable settling into the landscape
Conradson, D. 2005. “Landscape, care and the relational self: Therapeutic encounters in rural England”. Health and Place vol. 11 iss. 4 pp. 337-348
Duff, C., 2012. “Exploring the role of ‘enabling places’ in promoting recovery from mental illness: A qualitative test of a relational model”. Health & Place vol. 18 pp.1388-1395.