Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Place-Building Theory: A Framework for Assessing and Advancing Community Engagement in Higher Education

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Place-Building Theory: A Framework for Assessing and Advancing Community Engagement in Higher Education

Article excerpt

Place-building theory, originally developed to assess corporate social responsibility, explains to what degree an organization values and invests in its geographical and social location. Different lines of inquiry descriptive, evaluative, and prescriptive--lucidate how the organization values place, which in turn suggests its type, its strategies for building place, and recommendations for how it might move in a desired direction between the ends of a place-building continuum that includes four organizational prototypes--exploitive, contingent, contributive, and transformational. In this paper, we introduce place-building theory, the notion of the placekeeper (place-based stakeholder), and apply the theory to assessing a university's community engagement. We then demonstrate how a university course can use the place-building method to discover perceptions of the university's place-building role held by students, staff, administrators, faculty, and community partners as a way to engage students and other placekeepers in assessing, advancing, and critically examining community engagement in institutions of higher education.


What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. Architects talk about the spatial qualities of place; they can equally well speak of the locational (place) qualities of space. The ideas "space" and "place" require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (Tuan, 1977, p. 6)

Place-building theory, originally developed to assess corporate social responsibility (Thomas, 2004), explains the degree to which an organization values and invests in its social and geographical location, its "local community"--i.e., how it actively creates place from space (Tuan, 1977). In a sense, all community engagement, whether it be participatory and reciprocal or technocratic and linear, represents a kind of place-building practice whose outcomes-economic and social relations, ethical conduct, construction and treatment of built and natural environments--embody a set of intrinsic beliefs and values motivating engagement strategies.

Discovering these motivating factors affords opportunities to clarify, debate, and transform them as well as to assess, enhance, and realign their concomitant strategies. Place-building theory's origins are situated in the desire not only to identify and define motivating factors and strategies, but also to engage place-keepers (place-based stakeholders) as participants in an evaluative and proactive process. It is with this in mind that we have applied place-building theory to community engagement in higher education.

In this paper, we show how we have expanded place-building's focus on corporate social responsibility to include a broader scope of institutional social responsibility through a new orientation that explores how universities build place and how place-building researchers, including student researchers, in partnership with other placekeepers (i.e., community partners, staff, faculty, students, and administrators) can initiate and facilitate intentional and potentially transformative place-building work.

In the following pages, we introduce place-building theory by discussing its interdisciplinary origins; two perspectives on place held by organizations; and Thomas's research defining a continuum of place-building by organizations ranging from exploitive to transformational. Further, we describe how the place-building framework possesses descriptive, prescriptive, and evaluative lines of inquiry for assessing and improving higher education institutions' community engagement work. Next we briefly discuss relations between place-building and corporate social responsibility and how these two concepts speak to a new focus for place-building research and application--the university. …

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