How do we define our relationships with ‘place’?

In this article, I will discuss how ’sense of place’ is actually a broad and encompassing term that consists of four interconnected dimensions: (a) place attachment, (b) place dependence, (c) place identity, and (d) psychological sense of community.

Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will see danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you. Apache man Dudley, in conversation with Keith Basso

I have been fascinated by ‘place’ theory for a long time. For many years I used the accepted understanding that ‘sense of place’ refers to the feeling of attachment or belonging to a physical environment, such as a place or neighbourhood, and the sense of personal and collective identity that comes from this sense of belonging. In his 1995 article in Australian Planner called ‘Sustainability and community: Environment, economic rationalism and sense of place’, Michael Jacobs argued that sense of place is a deep human trait:

People do not simply look out over a landscape and say, ‘this belongs to me’. They say, ‘I belong to this’. Concern for familiar topography, for the places one knows, is not about the loss of a commodity, but about the loss of identity. People belong in the world: it gives them a home[1]

Nearly 20 years ago, as I began to explore how to document the impacts of urban planning policy on health and wellbeing, I began to understand that these definitions contained multiple threads that needed unpicking. Researchers began to critique broad definitions of ‘sense of place’ and identified that it was a constellation of other, related terms. These included:

  • place attachment (emotional bonding and behavioural commitment);
  • sense of community (affiliation and belonging to place and people);
  • place identity (identification of oneself and one’s ‘tribe’ with a place);
  • place satisfaction; and
  • place dependence (staying somewhere because the quality and quality of activities and services available there was better than in comparable locations).

Writing in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2003, Grace Pretty and colleagues described a “theoretical quagmire reflected in this blurring of conceptual boundaries”[2]. In their view, this problem was exacerbated because of our ‘hard’ scientific tradition of trying to slice and dice ‘sense of place’ phenomena into small, unique building blocks that could be measured quantitatively. I agree that human conceptions of, and relationships with place are complex and metaphysical, and shouldn’t be dismembered mechanistically. However, I do think that unpacking the term into smaller components has helped us better understand the complex ways in which people interact with our environments cognitively, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

Researchers such as Jorgensen and Stedman have suggested that ’sense of place’ is a broad and encompassing attitudinal construct consisting of three dimensions: (a) place attachment, (b) place dependence, and (c) place identity[3]. I have attempted to unpack these terms in the summary Table included as an attachment below.

Grace Pretty’s (2002) interviews with young people in Toowoomba showed the difference between place identity, dependence, and attachment: I feel like I belong here (identity), and there are things for people my age to do in my neighbourhood (dependence). I don’t necessarily like or enjoy Toowoomba (attachment) … but it is where I consider home (identity) [4].

People’s relationships with places must be seen in their socio-political context: ‘place attachment’ is an interaction between what a person brings to a place (in terms of their own psychosocial development, socio-political consciousness, memories, history…) and the power relations and other semiotic clues that are embedded in that place (history of ownership/ inclusion/exclusion, territoriality, class/gender/racial signifiers, barriers/openings, surveillance, cost of entry, aesthetics, symbols of dominant class / occupiers). “Our relationship to place is inextricably linked to the “sociocultural context in which we find ourselves … Who we are can have a real impact on where we find ourselves and where we feel we belong”[5].

In my next posting, I will argue that despite the depth of this research, our urban planning, land use and environmental policies typically fail to reflect the richness and complexity of our relationships with rich and complex places.

My question for you: Where do you personally have a strong relationship to place, and how do you define it?

Attachment: Definitions and examples of various conceptions of ‘place’

Place concept Examples of definitions from the literature
Place identity “The process whereby people living in or otherwise associated with a place take up that place as a significant part of their world, [and also their] personal and community identity and self-worth”[6]. Some researchers argue that places have their ‘own’ identity, with which people interact and form their own relationships[7]. For Indigenous peoples, their very identity and purpose for existence may derive from — and be merged with — an ancestral place. “We were born to look after this country”[8].
Place dependence A person’s evaluation of how well a setting helps them to achieve their goals in comparison to an existing range of alternatives[9]. I need to be here because of work and family commitments. It has the services that I need close by. I can’t afford to live anywhere else. For Traditional Owners, how well they live depends on how well they can fulfil their custodial obligations to an ancestral place: We were born to look after this country. Forced removal from place — or limited decision-making power — carries deep distress of being prevented from caring for country, as well as an existential crisis linked to place identity.
Place attachment Place attachment refers to emotional bonds between people and a particular place or environment. Place attachment involves subjective (even unconscious) feelings towards a place, and the associated behaviours that arise that can include neighbouring, social engagement and investing one’s personal through behavioural commitment [10]. Indigenous custodianship of place embodies deep emotional attachment. It occurs to me that the term, “caring for country” includes both the emotional and behavioural connotations of ‘caring’.
Sense of community A feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together[11]. The meaning of place common amongst its inhabitants, including affective, cognitive and behavioural components of shared experiences[12]. A person feels part of a readily available, supportive and dependable structure; that one belongs somewhere[13].

 

[1] Jacobs, M. (1995). Sustainability and community: Environment, economic rationalism and sense of place. Australian Planner, 32 (2), 109 – 115. Quote p. 109.

[2] Pretty, G. H., Chipuer, H. M., & Bramston, P. (2003). Sense of place amongst adolescents and adults in two rural Australian towns: The discriminating features of place attachment, sense of community and place dependence in relation to place identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, 273–287. Quotation from p. 274.

[3] Jorgensen, B., & Stedman, R. (2001). Sense of place as an attitude: Lakeshore owners’ attitudes toward their properties. Journal of Environmental Psychology 21. (3), 233–248.

[4] Pretty, G. (2002). Young people’s development of the community-minded self. In A. T. Fisher, C. C. Sonn, & B. J. Bishop (Eds.), Psychological sense of community: Research, applications, and implications (pp. 183-203). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. Quoted p. 192.

[5] Manzo, L. C. (2003). Beyond house and haven: toward a revisioning of emotional relationships with places. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 47-61. Cited p. 54.

[6] Seamon, D. (2021). Place attachment and phenomenology: The dynamic complexity of place, in L. Manzo & P. Devine-Wright (Eds.), Place attachment: Advances in theory, methods and applications (2nd ed.), pp. 29-44. London: Routledge. Cited p. 37.

[7] Williams, D. R., & Miller, B. A. (2021), Metatheoretical moments in place attachment research: Seeking clarity in diversity, in L. Manzo & P. Devine-Wright, Place attachment: Advances in theory, methods and applications (2nd ed.), pp. 13-28. London: Routledge.

[8] Yawuru Traditional Owner, Micklo Corpus. Quoted in https://www.theage.com.au/national/the-distance-from-perth-to-london-how-a-gas-company-cleared-the-kimberley-20210428-p57n7p.html

[9] Pretty, G. H., Chipuer, H. M., & Bramston, P. (2003). Sense of place amongst adolescents and adults in two rural Australian towns: The discriminating features of place attachment, sense of community and place dependence in relation to place identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, 273–287. Quotation from p. 274.

[10] Pretty, G. H., Chipuer, H. M., & Bramston, P. (2003). Sense of place amongst adolescents and adults in two rural Australian towns: The discriminating features of place attachment, sense of community and place dependence in relation to place identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, 273–287. Quotation from p. 274.

[11] McMillan, D, & Chavis, D. (1986) Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology 14.1, 6–23.

[12] Pretty, G. H., Chipuer, H. M., & Bramston, P. (2003). Sense of place amongst adolescents and adults in two rural Australian towns: The discriminating features of place attachment, sense of community and place dependence in relation to place identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, 273–287. Quotation from p. 274.

[13] Sarason, S. B. (1974). The psychological sense of community: Prospects for a community psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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