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Defining and sustaining the place-identity of a traditional, yet rapidly developing city: Denpasar

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

By Nyoman Gede Maha Putra


The rapid development of contemporary cities across the globe, which is showing a tendency to adopt similar patterns, creates fear because it wipes out the more traditional character and dilutes the rooted meanings of local places. This phenomenon has worried many cities in the Global South because they are starting to lose their original character. However, life goes on and the city should adopt new ways of living, in line with the needs of its inhabitants. This research neither aims to fixate on the past, nor to uncritically follow new ideas; instead, it aims to find a solution that bridges the gap between the external powers of modernism and the internal forces of tradition, in order to define and sustain the place-identity of a traditional, yet rapidly developing city. In the contemporary context, Denpasar was selected as a case study, to carry out a rigorous and in-depth evaluation.


The aim of the research is to develop a conceptual framework for understanding and analysing the concept of place-identity in Denpasar, Bali and to develop appropriate theoretical concepts and urban design principles to manage and sustain its place-identity implementation.


The conceptual framework reviews theories and observes social phenomena in real settings to link existing universal knowledge with local context. A mix of qualitative research strategies is adopted, integrating ethnography, urban morphology and qualitative interviews. The research strategy is utilised to analyse the historical development of the city and identify key socio-spatial invariants of its place-identity. Data collection techniques include archival and map analysis, building and photographic surveys and semi-structured interviews. The data supported the development of initial proposals for improving the place-identity of the city. Employing an Inquiry by Design method, the proposals were tested with local inhabitants in order to formulate final recommendations that inform the theories in a cyclical loop.

The physical characteristics of the contemporary Denpasar consist of a mix of new and traditional buildings. It shows a contested landscape where people of different social groups and ages are developing and defending their identities on a shared landscape.

From the empirical data analysis, this research reveals that the place-identity of the city of Denpasar could be thought of as a negotiation between meaningful traditional values that have been nurtured since the traditional period and the modern activities that have brought practical and economic benefits to the local people. This negotiation has occurred on four dimensions, namely: cosmological, socio-political and economic, spatial and physical and socio-cultural. However, different negotiation has occurred at a neighbourhood level. Therefore the place-identity of the city represents a collage of different neighbourhoods’ identities.


The research provides two major new contributions to knowledge in the theoretical context.

Firstly, by seeing the place-identity of the city as a negotiation between traditional values and modern activities, the research reveals that the place-identity of a traditional, yet rapidly developing city is a collage of different local neighbourhood place-identities. This is a result of the dynamic urban transformation processes, where different socio-cultural, political, economic, spatial and physical transformations influence the construction and reconstruction of the place-identity of different neighbourhoods within the city. This pattern is consistent with the view that place-identity in the city, which draws on the individual’s and/or group’s perception, is rarely single, but multiple (Butina-Watson & Bentley, 2007; Carmona, Heath, & Tiesdell, 2010; Southworth & Rugerri, 2010; Sepe, 2013).


The study also reveals that, in the contemporary context, place-identity of a traditional, yet rapidly developing city is influenced by external powers, because the city is nowadays becoming part of the modern governance system and is linked nationally and internationally with other places (Massey, Space, Place, Gender, 1994). This supports Massey's (1994) argument that the place-identity of a city in the contemporary context is part of a global sense of place. However, it does not mean that the rooted traditional value is less important, since it is still appreciated by the local inhabitants. Therefore, the finding of the study contrasts the idea of non-place, that suggests a city should not be seen as relational, historical and concerned with emotional attachment (Auge, 1995). Moreover, in developing the urban design principle and implementation strategy, the study also finds that place-identity should not be seen as an effort to fixate on the past, but should be seen as a continuous negotiation between different and multidimensional values in the society. Negotiation between different values in different morphological periods presented dynamic construction and re-construction of the place-identity of a traditional, yet rapidly developing city.


Therefore, the second contribution this research made to the new knowledge is a conceptual framework that could be used to analyse and define the place-identity of such city.

The findings reveal that internalised socio-political and economic transformations, as well as spatial and physical changes negotiate the construction and re-construction of the place-identity of the city, where the indigenous people sustain the operation of traditional cosmology and belief. It is also revealed that dynamic socio-political and economic transformation in different areas in the city makes the place-identity of the city as a collage of different neighbourhood’s identities. However, the traditional invariants that convey meanings and define the sense of rootedness of the place-identity are slowly diminishing. While the inhabitants lack the access to facilitate change, key urban actors are not working collaboratively in the place-making process. In the local context, the appropriation of local planning frameworks is considered an important socio-political aspect that will contribute to the better management of the place-identity of the city.


This research also developed a methodology for negotiating the place-identity of a rapidly developing city in the contemporary context, by providing a comprehensive and systematic approach.


About the Author:

Nyoman Gede Maha Putra graduated from IHS MSc Urban Management and Development.

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