Place Attachment & Meaning

Place attachment and meaning are particularly relevant when considering issues of urban development and community-building. Attachment and meaning emerge from a variety of experiences and situations, and are often related to parks, green spaces, and natural areas. Attachment may serve to promote and encourage environmentally responsible behavior using appeals to individuals’ self-identity and dependence.

Fast Facts

  • Place attachment and meaning are the person-to-place bonds that evolve through emotional connection, meaning, and understandings of a specific place and/or features of a place.9
  • The attachment and meaning of a green place can encourage individuals to actively protect and engage in pro-environmental behavior.74
  • Many people who work on behalf of the environment cite their childhood experiences in nature as the foundations for their work.65
  • An individual’s attachment to a green place increases in proportion to its proximity to one’s home and frequency of use.29,48
  • Greener neighborhoods, especially those with green common areas, encourage social bonding between neighbors and improve the social setting.42,44
  • Research reveals that people feel more at ease in the type of landscape they grew up in, and that individuals experience a reduction in stress when they recreate in settings where they feel most at home.37

cite: Wolf, K.L., S. Krueger, and K. Flora. 2014. Place Attachment and Meaning - A Literature Review. In: Green Cities: Good Health (www.greenhealth.washington.edu). College of the Environment, University of Washington.

Understanding Place Attachment

There are two general approaches to the social science research that focuses on how people respond to nature – quantitative and qualitative. Many of the other summaries at this web site are report-outs of mostly quantitative methods. This summary about place attachment includes many studies that used qualitative research.

Quantitative research designs employ numeric measures of response, and may include objective measures (such as heart rate, test scores, and days absent from work) or self-report measures (such as scales describing emotions, visual preference, and happiness). Such measures are often intended to assess the degree of a response across a large population, such as survey or epidemiology research.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, is an effort to gain in-depth understandings and explore the richer themes, patterns, and meanings of human and social situations. Studies ask about the why and how of behavior, using more intensive response methods such as interviews, observations, immersion in situations, and expressive modes (such as art or maps). Smaller and more focused respondent samples are typically used for qualitative research. The concept of place attachment is usually approached using qualitative methods, as personal connections to nature are often not readily expressed with numeric instruments.

Theory and Definitions of “Place”

The term topophilia is a starting point for this presentation. It is the affective bond between people and place or setting. It may be expressed as strong sense of place, which often becomes mixed with the sense of cultural identity for certain groups, but may simply be an individual’s love of certain aspects of a place. As Tuan1 described, ‘diffuse as concept, vivid and concrete as personal experience’, the emotional human relationship to landscape is elusive.

Space and Place

Space is transformed into “place” when humans give it bounds and believe it has value. Place is constructed and reconstructed over time by different groups of people.2,3,4 Construction of place is dynamic and influenced by human perception, cognition, self-concept, social dynamics, economies, cultures, and histories.5 Perceptions of place are ever-changing, depending on social interactions, context, and time. In cities, for example, changing patterns of social communication can make and unmake places, elevating or diminishing the appeal of a site or business.6 This process has perhaps been accelerated by internet communications and crowdsourced inputs.

The Metro Nature Concept

We use metro nature as a general term for the nearby nature that may have meaning for individuals and communities. Within cities, nature in various expressions is interspersed within the places where people live, work, learn and play, the backdrop for the daily routines of millions of people.

The term metropolis, from which ‘metro’ is derived refers to an urbanized area made up of multiple settlements and political jurisdictions. In the same way metro nature is a unifying concept that acknowledges both cultural and ecological landscapes that are governed by diverse entities such as parks, natural resource, engineering, and health organizations.

Metro nature includes naturalistic patches, such as urban forests, greenbelts, conserved open spaces, and riparian corridors. Metro nature also includes culturally constructed nature such as parks, streetscapes, community gardens, pocket parks, and recreation paths. Finally, metro nature includes functional spaces that are integrated within built form to provide specific services or functions, such as green roofs, green walls, or green infrastructure facilities.

Definitions of Attachment

Theories concerning place use these key concepts:

Place attachment is sometimes used interchangeably with “sense of place” - a personal identification with a location or landscape on an emotional level as an individual or as a member of a community.7,8 Place attachment is a “person-place bond that evolves from specifiable conditions of place and characteristics of people.”9

Place identity is attachment in terms of emotional or symbolic meanings that are assigned by an individual. The physical landscape or place becomes part of a person’s self-identity.10,11

Place dependence is an attachment based on function. The value of a specific place depends on its ability to satisfy the needs or behavioral goals of an individual or group as compared to other place alternatives.12

Place meaning is a relationship to place based on cognitions, as a person associates significance, purpose, symbolic role, or value with a physical setting.13,14

How Does Attachment Form?

Some localities project a certain indefinable sense of well-being and become places we want to return to, time and again.15 Other settings, especially dramatic landscapes or locations of intense experiences, cause an almost-immediate, intimate, and emotional association.3 Individuals may not even need to see some places first-hand to feel connection or attachment, such as Americans' feeling toward the the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park.16

Is attachment to place specific or general? From a biological perspective, attachments are likely to form, at least initially, to places exhibiting attractive, calming, or safe features. An individualistic view assumes that attachment forms to specific locations based on first-hand experiences. The sociocultural perspective predicts that attachment forms via the shared cultural ideologies of groups and shared interactions with place.17 All three perspectives are relevant to a discussion of place. Further, neuroscience research provides evidence that sense of place constitutes a distinct dimension in mental processing.18

What are the Sources of Place Attachment?

The majority of research on place attachment and meaning has focused on rural, scenic, and residential settings.19 More recent studies investigate place attachment and meaning in connection to urban green spaces at individual and community scales. Several factors make urban green spaces preferred and meaningful places (and are explained in the following sections): restorative effects and escape, active use and value, similarity to the familiar, community and public significance, and emotional importance.

Restorative Process and Escape

People become attached to peaceful, restorative green spaces that offer mental and physical respite and may come to depend on them to fulfill health needs, and so incorporate them into their self-identity. People seek natural environments as places to process personal circumstances, think about goals and priorities, and to find solitude and inner peace.20,21 Urban forests and parks are suited as places of refuge, where one can find privacy and escape and recover from urban-associated mental fatigue.22,23 Natural settings are favored in part as places to reflect on and regulate one’s emotional state and self-concept.24,25,26 In one study, New York residents preferred natural environments when seeking privacy.27 In another study female park users appreciated the sense of separation and moments of escape from the city scene, including positive experiences of the specific sights, sounds, and smells of nature, especially during the change of seasons.28

Active Use and Value

Individuals may form attachments to particular parks that they identify as the best place for their favorite recreational activities.29 Repeated interaction with a place may lead to a more intense place dependence, as can increased specialization of use, both of which entail repeated visitations and, thereby, greater appreciation for a particular setting or facility.30,31,32Studies find that proximity to personal residence, frequency of use, and personal commitment (active involvement) are positively correlated with place attachment towards an exercise trail in particular, and an entire park in general.17 In a study in Helsinki, Finland, 80% of residents claimed that green areas made a very important contribution to the quality of their environment and that the most important benefit was outdoor recreation.33

Similarity to the Familiar

Familiarity with a place can increase the strength of attachment.34,35,36 Research reveals that people feel more at ease in the type of landscape they grew up in, and that individuals experience a reduction in stress when they recreate in settings where they feel most at home.37 Elderly residents often become more attached to their respective neighborhood as their sense of identity is linked to that place; their neighborhood has become a part of them.38 Place of origin can also yield strong attachment and meaning even when a person is at a distance from it. When a person is displaced or voluntarily moves to a new environment, their attachment to their previous environment and home territory may continue or even grow stronger in response to their new, comparatively alien setting.39 Nostalgia is an understandable response when an urban green space reminds one of a childhood place or a previous home; similarity to the familiar stirs an emotional bond and the new place inherits the meaning of the old.

Social Interactions

Many studies describe how nature improves communities, findings that may contribute to place attachment and meaning (Table 1). The presence of urban nature contributes to greater neighborhood satisfaction.40 People who live in public housing settings having common areas containing trees tend to congregate more, meet in bigger groups, and socially interact with a wider range of people of different ages than those who do not.41 Natural elements encourage people to spend more time outside, creating stronger social ties and friendships with neighbors through spontaneous face-to-face encounters.42 Active outdoor involvement by individuals and groups provides many benefits: a sense of accomplishment, community development, and strengthened intergenerational ties.43,44,45 As places gain more social significance, the interdependence between social and physical components is likely to increase, binding groups to particular places.46

Table1_nature benefits & attachment

Emotional Importance

Emotion is central to the formation of place attachment and reinforces relationships between individuals and their environment.2,47 Emotional attachment can be particularly difficult to study, yet researchers detect some patterns in emotional response.48 Adult remembrance of childhood place can invoke intense memories and emotional connection, including feelings of love, grief, pleasure (including play, sensory, mastery, adventure, and freedom), security, and identity.48 Memories that are fixed in childhood may be particularly intense due to more vivid sensory content.48 Sites of loss or tragedy also can be places of attachment and self-identity, such as former battlefields or other sites associated with personal injury and pain.49 A study of community-based memorials created by victims of the 9/11 (2001) terrorist attack found that memorial locations served three core social functions – a place to remember and honor victims, a location for special tribute events, and a sacred space.50

Mixed Meanings

The meaning and value of nature is expressed in different ways (see Table 2 as one example51), and develop in relation to the contexts of geography, culture, economy, and other factors. The values associated with nature can be quite complex. For example, community gardens not only provide food resources (utilitarian value), but also emotional support (humanistic value). In a study of urban community gardens in Loisaida, a neighborhood of New York City, gardeners often were recorded as expressing “how gardening and socializing in the gardens make us feel as though we are a part of the community and a part of the land, even in the midst of the dirty, crime-ridden streets of Loisaida”.52

Table 2: a range of human values for nature

Public Spaces and Neighborhoods

Bonds to neighborhood green places can be both individual and personal, as well as more collective and social.53 Outdoor public spaces provide opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to come together for mutual enjoyment; public spaces can carry positive communal meaning.54 Residents who are more attached to their community create higher levels of social cohesion and social control, express less fear of crime, and contribute to the vitality of the neighborhood.35

Public places may also be valued as they offer an opportunity to observe others: social and spatial monitoring can contribute to personal satisfaction.54 The elderly often use plazas to observe daily life and meet with friends, developing attachments not only to a plaza as a whole, but also to features within it, such as specific vegetation and benches.54 Walkable, mixed-use developments that incorporate outdoor spaces are more likely to foster a sense of community and attachment as they promote social interaction.55,56

Neighborhood attachment also results from more personal interactions. Place attachment is directly linked to length or residence in or near a place. The amount of time, energy, and investment put into a place also affects the degree of attachment.34,57,58 For instance, frequent use and prolonged occupation—as when people sit under a specific tree or on a particular park bench—promote an attachment or sense of temporary ownership.46 Further, residents report greater attachment to their neighborhoods when they perceive that parks and recreation areas are abundant, attractive and uncrowded.59

Local residents are usually more attached than visitors to components of the local environment, feel that they have a privileged sense of place there, and may insist that others should be educated on the meaning and values of the local landscape.60,61 While long-term residents may become attached to a place through social-cultural interactions, a person can also become attached in a short period of time when using the physical landscape as a personal frame of reference, such as when visiting as a tourist.62

Attachment Formation in Childhood

Childhood, particularly middle childhood, appears to be a particularly formative time for place attachment.63,64 Feelings of connection or belonging initiated at an early age tend to become stronger in later years.48 Attachments formed in childhood, if a person lives in one place, are often stronger than those formed with new environments later in life.48 Environmentalists recalling their career motivation “described childhood as the foundation of their relationship with the environment.”65

Children form place attachments and meaning based on actual activities within in a place or environment, as well as potential experiences. Playground and parks are joyful places to roam and explore, and childhood attachments develop accordingly.66,67,68 Children often prefer green, natural settings rather than man-made environments.69 In one study, children who lived in urban areas were asked to draw or map their favorite places, and 96% of them sketched an outdoor scene.70 Other responses related to nature have been noted: encounters of the senses (touch, smell sound)64,71; exploration and place-play as inherently pleasurable, self-directed learning activities; and children’s use of place for emotional self-regulation.24,72,73

Place and Sustainability

Place attachment may lead to a heightened sense of environmental responsibility.74 Incorporating meaningful natural environments into cities can make environmental stewardship by residents more instinctive and associated with personal benefit.75 For example, people who experience an emotional affinity with nature and perceive natural environments as restorative are more likely to protect natural spaces and engage in pro-environment activities.76 Frequency of visitation to a natural area may increase place identity as well as sense of environmental responsibility.77 Working to restore an environment through volunteerism and activism can create a can-do attitude and sense of self in individuals, which can engender environmentally responsible behavior.78

Among many diverse users, meaning is not solely intrinsic to a place; it may be socially constructed based on a variety of circumstances. Citizens that hold a variety of perspectives on environmental and developmental issues can identify themselves as collective stakeholders,53 and attachment may lead to collective action to protect cherished places.3 Crime, forced relocation, and environmental disasters (such as hurricanes along the U.S. Gulf Coast) can disrupt both sense of place and sense of community.79 Subsequent feelings of loss and alienation may help to mobilize citizen participation in rebuilding communities, physically and emotionally.80

Designing Meaningful Places

Public green spaces, such as parks and plazas, are significant elements of livable cities. Might place attachment be an important process in city life? If so, how do we create places that have meaning and that people value?

Because visitation patterns contribute to attachment, the distribution of open space in a community is important. Urban rail-to-trail users in Dubuque, Tallahassee, and San Francisco who frequently used trails near their homes expressed a stronger attachment than more distant residents.81 In a study in Michigan, people who used a park for walking, biking, or other recreation showed stronger attachment to it than those who were not physically active there.19,82

Biophilic design is the use of nature to create places that are imbued with positive emotional experiences. They contain the essentials of human attachment to and caring for a place: enjoyment, pleasure, interest, fascination, and wonder.84,85 Generally, design features that encourage park attachment include: a variety of seating options, comfortable microclimates, water features, food vendors, stewardship opportunities, and features meeting the needs of a diverse range of users, in both activities and ages.29,86

 

Project support was provided by 1) the national Urban and Community Forestry program of the USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry, and 2) the Pacific Northwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service. Summary completed August 1, 2014.

 

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print summary

Topophilia is the affective bond between people and place or setting

 

 

 

Memories, time, and thoughts experienced while in a park can encourage attachment to the park. People become attached to peaceful, restorative green spaces that offer mental and physical respite and may come to depend on them to fulfill health needs, and so incorporate them into their self-identity.

 

Several factors make urban green spaces preferred and meaningful places: restorative effects and escape, active use and value, similarity to the familiar, community and public significance, and emotional importance.

 

 

 

Perceptions of place (particularly in cities) are ever-changing, depending on social interactions, context, and time. Central Park in New York City is a good example.

 


A daycare group enjoys the shade of a large tree. Childhood, particularly middle childhood, may be a particularly formative time for place attachment. Feelings of connection or belonging initiated at an early age tend to become stronger in later years.

 

 

 

Many people who work on behalf of the environment cite their childhood experiences in nature as the foundations for their work.

 

Greener neighborhoods, especially those with green common areas, encourage social bonding between neighbors and improve the social setting.

 

 

 

Green areas can develop as a social space, gaining meaning, where people gather, meet, interact, and share memories.

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