A new study pushes for more attention to the meanings we associate with places. This can help clarify opportunities and obstacles for collaborations between different interests which in turn affect stewardship and transformative capacity. Photo: V. Masterson

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Scientific development

A better sense of place

Emerging research on people’s attachment to places can unlock capacity to better deal with change

Story highlights

  • Sense of place refers to both the meanings and attachments individuals or groups hold for a specific place
  • The tools and assumptions from sense of place research offer the opportunity to gain a more nuanced understanding of how people respond to environmental changes in a place
  • A focus on both attachment and place meaning can help clarify opportunities and obstacles for collaborations between different interests which in turn affect stewardship and transformative capacity

There is no place like home, but connections to other places can be equally strong. This means that changes to them, good or bad, often have a strong effect on us. Amid rapid environmental change the extent to which we engage in the stewardship of these places is put to the test.

In a study recently published in Ecology and Society, centre researcher Vanessa Masterson with colleagues push for a stronger focus on what people care about and what motivates them to engage in solving sustainability issues. It may sound obvious but efforts to include it in scientific work have rarely gone beyond the acknowledgement that this is important.

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Increasingly, researchers are looking at a concept called sense of place. It refers to both the attachments and the meanings that individuals or groups hold for a specific place.

Place attachment refers to an emotional connection with a place. More specifically place attachment includes the degree of dependence on a place and contributes to the fundamental question, ”Who am I?”

While there has been a lot of focus on attachment, Masterson and colleagues push for more attention to the meanings that we associate with places.

The rich methodology and insights drawn from sense of place theory have much to offer sustainability science and research on social-ecological systems, according to the authors.

To develop towards future sustainability where people steward ecosystems, we must consider what people care about and what motivates them to engage in solving sustainability issues

Vanessa Masterson, co-author

Four assumptions for further research

The study is a collaboration between visiting researcher Richard Stedman (Cornell University) and centre researchers Masterson, Johan Enqvist, Maria Tengö, Matteo Giusti and Uno Svedin.

The article presents “a user-friendly approach” to sense of place constructs to scholars within social-ecological research. The approach is based on four assumptions about sense of place that the authors argue fit well with social-ecological research.

The first states that how you regard a landscape, depends on how you interact with it. But, sense of place forms through social experiences as much as individual ones. This means that strong connections to a place develop through roles and expectations. For example, a hunter looks at the landscape differently from a real estate developer. Power is exerted in subtle ways here: how we look at a landscape is also influenced by what other people tell us about it. That means education and external perspectives influence our own opinions about a place.

The second assumption is that sense of place is not only a social construct but also something created through our interactions with landscapes. In other words, the environment affects our sense of place by constraining or enabling our experiences. For example, it is easier to create meanings of “wilderness” in a place where we encounter old-growth trees than in a polluted landscape where trees have been logged.

The third assumption is that although attachments and meanings to a place are subjective, they vary in patterned ways. Methods from sense of place help reveal how groups of people share the same attachment to a place.

Connected to this is the fourth assumption which states that these patterns in attachment and meanings can help to predict specific types of behaviour, especially during times of change or crises. This means that attachment to a place does not automatically ensure that people work to improve that place in the same ways. Strong attachment to a place can even be a barrier to change.

"Because there can be a range of meanings associated with the same place, people respond to change differently depending on whether the meaning they hold dear is affected by this change," Vanessa Masterson explains. This insight has led researchers to include sense of place as an important foundation when looking at community resilience because it helps us understand what exactly people are attached to and how specific changes may affect individual and group identity and actions.

At Coney Island Creek, NY, local schools help to clean up the beach during a ‘Creek Cleanup day'. Sense of place is connected to the experiences we have in a place. How can sense of place motivate stewardship of local landscapes? Photo: J. Enqvist

The user-friendly approach

So what can this approach to sense of place offer to future social-ecological research? Masterson and her colleagues believe that these sense-of-place assumptions and tools offer a more nuanced understanding of how people react to environmental changes. For instance, debates about the future of a place are rarely between people who care vs people who do not, but rather between holders of different meanings.

Secondly, better knowledge about the patterns of how people relate to a place can help clarify opportunities and obstacles for collaborations between different interests.

For instance, in Masterson’s PhD work in South Africa, conflicts in a rural development intervention stemmed from the different place meanings held dear by state actors (who viewed the landscape in question as a threatened wilderness to be protected from human use) and communities (who saw the landscape as a sacred site).

Crucial when trying to engage people

Masterson and colleagues argue that this approach helps to unpack some of the human variables that constrain or enable stewardship and transformative capacity.

"Sustainability is about defining and working toward creating a tenable place for humanity to live with changing ecosystems. Understanding how people relate to places is crucial for understanding how to engage people in sustainable development," she says.

"One of the major challenges and opportunities is to develop integrated methods and indicators that could make these relationships to place tangible and measurable without neglecting the subjective, qualitative nature of sense of place."

AmaXhosa women carry wood from the forest for a sacred ritual. Their sense of place is strongly connected to the experience of the forest as a sacred site where rituals are performed. This is in conflict with others who consider the forest to be degraded or threatened by extraction of wood. Photo: V. Masterson

Published: 2017-05-30


Masterson, V. A., R. C. Stedman, J. Enqvist, M. Tengö, M. Giusti, D. Wahl, and U. Svedin. 2017. The contribution of sense of place to social-ecological systems research: a review and research agenda. Ecology and Society 22(1):49. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-08872-220149

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Vanessa Masterson's PhD focuses on understanding aspects of stewardship of ecosystem services (such as local knowledge, institutions and bio-cultural diversity) in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Johan Enqvist is a PhD candidate researching how people collaborate to reach their goals, and what role local people play in relation to public agencies and other actors in an urban context, specifically cities.

Maria Tengö's research focuses on how positive connections between people and nature matter for moving towards trajectories of ecosystem-based management for human well-being.

Uno Svedin is a Senior Research Fellow at the centre. His field of interest lies in the interface between science and policy.

Matteo Giusti’s research aims at defining principles of urban design that nurture strong human-nature connection in children.


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