Research Summary

Place attachment: How far have we come in the last 40 years?

What Have 40 Years of Place Attachment Research Taught Us?

Journal of Environmental Psychology

The connections that people have to places are rich and multi-faceted. These connections are mediated by a multitude of factors such as social context (e.g., relations between neighbors) and physical infrastructure (e.g., high-rises vs. single-family homes), among others. The ways that people connect with places have been studied for over 40 years in disciplines as diverse as geography, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. This wide-ranging field of study of people-place connections is most referred to as “place attachment” or “sense of place” research.

In an effort to bring sense to this diverse and often divergent field, this paper’s author reviews more than 400 academic articles addressing concepts that fall under the sense of place/place attachment umbrella. The author summarizes the state of knowledge in three main areas (research, method, and theory) and then suggests fruitful areas for future work.

Some of this research review’s findings most relevant to environmental education are that:
• Place appears to remain important to people despite increased mobility and globalization.
• Social diversity in most studies decreased attachment (i.e., people were less attached to more ethnically diverse neighborhoods).
• “Home” plays a prominent role; people are strongly attached to the locations of their homes.
• There may be a “curvy” pattern of attachment to different scales: Attachment may be highest to home and to city, and lowest at neighborhood level (although these differences disappear in small towns and rural areas--places where ‘neighborhood’ is less meaningful).
• Experiences in or attachment to larger spatial scales (such as a feeling of global identity) does not seem to erode attachment to local places.
• When given the choice to report attachment to both social and biophysical components of places, people rate the biophysical features as highly as or more highly than social features.
• The amount of time a person has lived in a place and the strength of local community ties are the strongest predictors of attachment to that place, when compared with a variety of other demographic variables such as age, education, or mobility.
• The relationship between mobility and connection to place is unclear. There are different forms of mobility (for example, commuting and vacationing), and it seems that these different forms of mobility affect place attachment differently.
• People report higher levels of attachment in places with single-family homes than in places with high-rise apartment homes.
• There is little solid support for the suggested link between attachment to place and place-related behaviors or action.
• People report stronger levels of place attachment also report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives.

The author also summarizes the methods that have been used to explore place attachment, with the principal distinction being between methods that produce qualitative and quantitative data. To generalize, qualitative methods are those based on verbal or visual analysis, while quantitative methods are those based on analysis of people’s ratings of survey questions. Place studies began as largely qualitative and descriptive; within the last 15 years, the field has shifted toward quantitative measurement. The author suggests that a combination of these two types of methods allows the fullest understanding of peoples’ relationship with place. Quantitative methods lend insight into differences between people and the strength of ties to places, and qualitative methods help to answer questions of how and why people are attached to places.

The author organizes the discussion of theory using a three-part categorization of studies of place attachment: Person—Place—Process. As may surprise some environmental educators, academic place research has thus far focused more on the social and psychological aspects of place attachment (“Person”) than on the physical (“Place”). That is, the contributions of the biophysical environment have been less studied overall. Similarly, the reasons, or mechanisms, behind place attachment (“Process”) have received less attention. The author suggests that these two areas—“Place” and “Process”—should receive more study.

The Bottom Line

A wide variety of researchers have studied people-place connections, and many interesting insights have resulted from this work. The body of research, however, could be described as lacking a singular and unifying underlying theory, so drawing conclusions is difficult. Going forward, place studies would benefit from (1) a better organized the work more coherently and (2) dramatically increase focus on both the ways that the biophysical environment (as opposed to the social environment) contributes to those connections, and the reasons behind the connections.