Susan Gilbertz, Montana State University Billings – Sense of Place

Our physical environment affects us in many ways.

Susan Gilbertz, professor of geography at Montana State University Billings, looks into how our favorite places can determine how we think of the world.

Susan grew up on a cattle and bison ranch in northeastern Wyoming. She attended small, rural schools through the 8th grade.

She earned bachelors and master’s degrees in communication from the University of Wyoming. Later she earned her Ph.D. in Geography from Texas A&M University, and in 2003 she joined the faculty at Montana State University Billings.

She studies how individuals become attached to particular places and how those attachments influence environmental philosophies and actions. As the principle investigator for the project, “The Yellowstone River Cultural Inventory” she oversaw scores of interviews with people living near the Yellowstone River. Two hundred of those recorded interviews are now archived with the Western Heritage Center of Billings, MT, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

Now, as a senior research professor, she is working with colleagues who study the interfaces between water availability, water quality, public participation in governing shared resources and risk perceptions.

Her teaching and research interests have taken her to China, Indonesia, Italy, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Oman.

Sense of Place



Here’s a question: Where would you go if you were told, “Go, have some fun.” Would you go to your favorite beach, the ballpark, or maybe a neighborhood pub? Would you choose a place you know and love, or a place you know you will love?

If you can imagine where to go, then you have just engaged one of your many “senses of place.” A sense of place is an understanding of a locality in terms of its physical, social, and emotional possibilities. A sense of place both reflects and frames your experience.

Our senses of place are often stable, but they can also be revised. For instance, childhood neighborhoods tend to “shrink” sometime between being a kid and being an adult. A new trail is at first an adventure; whereas later, familiarity with the terrain allows one to anticipate the ups and downs. 

Senses of place are seldom singular. We know places that are beautiful and dangerous, quaint and boring, rowdy and weird. The busy-ness of a popular restaurant will make some people feel lonely. The quietude of a remote cabin might be unsettling to others. Perhaps you know of a place that is both friendly and mean—a place where some are welcomed, but not everyone. Where privilege allows some to sense comfort while others sense oppression.

Perhaps you know of a destabilized place. Where the physical, social and emotional possibilities are in flux. An empty lot that is a playground by day, a cardboard box camp at night, and a developer’s dream.

Have you actively engaged in “making” a sense of place: perhaps you volunteered to mow the lawn for an elderly neighbor, perhaps you took cookies to the school program, or maybe you decided to “leave no trace.”

Our senses of place are many: part tradition and part innovation—part luck and part pluck.

So, have some fun today—wherever you go.   

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