Attachment to a Special Place

I was curious about “place attachment.”  My understanding of the concept, born of my studies in recreation, was that (as the term suggests) people become especially attached to a particular place.  It comes to hold unusual significance for them.  This topic could be linked with recreation insofar as people might want to return to their special place in their free time – driving around that area; walking through its woods and fields, or down its streets, or along its waterfront; or perhaps just being within a particular house or other building there.  As one might guess, I was interested in this because I had my own attachment to at least one such place, namely, the place where I grew up.

It seemed that a good scholarly approach to the concept of place attachment could be quite complex.  I have developed that thought in a separate post.  For reasons described there, in the interests of time, I decided to settle for just one approach to the subject of place attachment.  That approach was provided by Lewicka (2011).

Lewicka’s article suggested that research on the subject of place attachment could be divided into the subtopics of Research, Methods, and Theory.  I did not entirely understand that distinction.  For one thing, her Research subtopic seemed to be a grab-bag of significant research findings on place attachment.  The Methods subtopic divided certain research findings into those that were achieved by qualitative versus quantitative methods; I wasn’t sure whether this section was going to analyze the same Research items from that different perspective.  The Theory subtopic was oriented toward subsets of factors influencing place attachment:  person, place, and process.

I quickly saw that it would not be possible, within a post of reasonable length, to summarize the many research findings that Lewicka cited.  The best I could do would seemingly be to pick a few high points.  For example, it seemed that rurality might facilitate place attachment; neighborhood relations and length of residence appeared to be factors influencing attachment; and socioeconomic diversity within communities seemed to inhibit attachment to those communities.  Her discussion of diversity invoked potentially related concepts, such as interpersonal trust and social capital.

Lewicka said, “There is an almost unanimous opinion that the prototypical place is home” (p. 211, emphasis in original).  On this particular topic, she quoted others for the proposition that home was a major point of reference, affecting how people constructed their views of their worlds.  And yet, oddly, it sounded like researchers preferred to concentrate on neighborhoods instead.  Other research extended the thought:  people seemed to be more strongly attached to their homes (i.e., small-scale) or cities (larger-scale, especially where the cities are attractive places to live) than to their neighborhoods (intermediate scale).  Such differences disappeared in small towns and rural areas, however.

According to Lewicka, numerous studies found that social dimensions of place were important in attachment formation.  Sense of community or belonging, and a potentially related sense of security, supplied a potentially important part of the social dimension.  It appeared that people who were not socially established in a place might nonetheless be attached to it, but for physical rather than social reasons, and that people with greater wealth might simultaneously have higher place attachment by some measures, due to their ability to buy rather than rent their residence, and yet lower attachment by other measures, due to their mobility and potentially less developed local social bonds.  Physical aspects of place were also important in some studies.  Examples included “quiet areas, presence of aesthetically pleasant buildings, presence of green areas, and lack of perceived incivilities” (p. 217).  Others, equally oriented toward a neighborhood level of analysis, included building size (e.g., single-family house versus high-rise apartment building), neighborhood stability, and “a lack of pollution and disorder.”

As these examples may suggest, I was not finding, in the first half of Lewicka’s article, much of an orientation to the topic of my attachment to my own childhood home.  Certainly she was touching on relevant bits and pieces:  my sense of security and my enjoyment of the outdoors surely did contribute to my positive feelings about that place.  I didn’t precisely know whether I was attached merely to the house.  I thought probably not:  the neighbors and community center buildings nearby were important too, as were the surrounding woods and fields.  But what, really, were we up to here, for my purposes:  was my understanding of place attachment going to be a sterile matter of listing a bunch of things that I liked?  I didn’t need an academic article for that.

I decided to skim quickly over the “consequences and correlates” section of her article.  Place attachment was apparently associated with bonding, trust, and having more friends (p. 218).  There was an intriguing reference to “the meaning attached to places” (p. 219); I was not sure whether that was going to become a topic of importance in her article, but if not I would perhaps investigate it elsewhere.

The Method section (p. 219) stated that research in place attachment was split between “qualitative” and “quantitative” traditions, where the former focused on “geographical analyses of sense of place” while the latter grew out of community studies.  Among the variety of quantitative tools for measuring place attachment, “by far the most popular across different countries” was one that distinguished place attachment (involving affection) from place dependence (involving practical ties) (p. 220).  But there were seemingly dozens of others, prompting Lewicka to borrow a quote from scholars of community attachment:  “The community attachment literature is difficult to summarize, partly because it does not adequately define what constitutes community attachment or how it is best measured.”

On the qualitative side, Lewicka (p. 221) offered the expected view that “A place is a qualitative, total phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its properties, such as spatial relationships, without losing its concrete nature” (citation omitted; punctuation abridged).  Among the various verbal and nonverbal ways of doing qualitative research cited by Lewicka, examples included soliciting responses to photos, questions, or maps (e.g., mark the spots you consider safe, pleasant, or boring).

While Lewicka’s brief coverage of methodological material was interesting, I found myself looking ahead to her Theory section.  There, she borrowed a person-place-process distinction from Scannell and Gifford (2009).  That is, apparently some theoretical approaches to place attachment focused on people (e.g., what is it about individuals that affects their experience of place attachment); others focused on the places themselves (e.g., the extent to which the structure and arrangement of places contribute to attachment); and still others emphasized the processes by which people became attached to places (e.g., amount of time spent in a place).

The interaction between theory and research became visible in, for example, the question of why people would tend to become more attached to smaller residential buildings.  Lewicka (p. 225) mentioned a line of work linking place attachment and human development – citing, for example, research demonstrating a strong association between place attachment and outdoor exploration in children.  Physical movement has also apparently been identified as providing, in theory, a key vector for place attachment.

Upon finishing the article, I paused to consider what I had learned.  Certainly I had picked up some concepts and connections of interest.  I agreed with Alexander et al. (1977, pp. 3-4), whom Lewicka (p. 223) quoted as saying, “Human feeling is mostly the same from person to person.”  That is, it seemed likely that my home attachment was probably similar to that of other people.  There would surely be variations in specifics – being attached to this room or that tree, feeling that one place was especially safe, and so forth – but I doubted that my interest in place attachment was terribly different from that of others.  So what I was looking for would presumably be something of interest to others as well.

It occurred to me that my interest in place attachment was especially oriented toward personal experience, and as such might be better explored through less scholarly literature.  Were there more accessible nonfiction discussions or, indeed, fictional accounts in which similarly minded authors would explore and develop feelings, behaviors, structures, activities, and other components of place attachment?  That seemed like an appropriate question for subsequent inquiry.

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