Heightening Environmental Responsibility through Place Attachment

This is a post by Kamala Varma. See her bio at the bottom of this post.

Place attachment is defined as an emotionally-grounded person-to-place bond that causes a place to become a part of a person’s self-identity.  With respect to sustainability, place attachment can function as motivation for people to engage in pro-environmental behavior by using appeals to a person’s self-identity.  Someone is more likely to care about environmental issues surrounding a place that they feel connected to. This idea is similar to that mentioned in Selina Chen’s blog post, Making it Local.  She describes the power that “bringing the issues home” has to incentivize people to contribute to computational sustainability efforts.  Places that are local and close to home are likely those that people have a strong place attachment to. In this blog post, I will discuss strategies for building an attachment, and therefore a heightened sense of environmental responsibility, for places that are not necessarily close to home.

Knowledge acquisition

In order for someone to form a personal connection to a place, they need to be familiar with it.  This paper describes the degree of familiarity as something that can be increased by frequent encounters with a place, having a large body of knowledge about a place, or even by being able to recognize a place’s similarity to some familiar place in our memory.  One study expands on the idea of knowledge increasing place attachment.  Students were observed before, during, and after a geologic field trip, and the study found that learning performance was increased when students were taught a preparatory unit that allowed them to enter the field trip with prior knowledge of the subject.  The preparatory unit reduced the common field trip anxiety of entering new environments and not knowing what to expect, which inhibits learning performance. Therefore, having background knowledge of a place before experiencing it is beneficial in building place attachment because it increases a person’s capacity to become familiar with it through learning.


A similar study compared two distinct models of learning through geological field work.  A roadside module had students visiting up to two sites each day, which required more driving time and less extensive, but more collaborative assignments.  A situated module focused on a single area across the entire two weeks to conduct the field work in, while requiring more detailed assignments that were less collaborative.  The findings indicated that students formed a stronger attachment to the situated field area because of student autonomy (their ability to explore the space through their own agency) and the immersiveness of the landscape.  This supports the idea that forming place attachment is more effective when it happens on site, but further asserts that having agency in the exploration of a site increases effectiveness.


Participants in an Andean Bear camera-trap study from the Computational Sustainability Network, are described to have been, on “…the last field day taking in the beauty and expanse of the study area and proudly pointing out the different areas where cameras would be placed, demonstrating not only their commitment to the project, but also to each other as a collective team with a common goal.”  In addition to forming an attachment to a place while being physically immersed in it, the fact that they were becoming actively involved in the landscape further increased participants’ commitment to the place. This suggests that not only can place attachment encourage involvement in positive environmental behaviors, but also that involvement in these behaviors can encourage place attachment!

RegionRadio:  Place attachment through storytelling

The new project that Emily Market introduced in her blog post, RegionRadio, highlights the ability that storytelling has to “…[immerse] people in the history of a place, increase the connection they feel to it, and therefore increase the likelihood that they would act to protect it.”  RegionRadio is using methods of building knowledge and of establishing a close physical proximity in order to form or strengthen place attachment.  It also introduces a interesting storytelling angle worth exploring, as the project will potentially start to incorporate stories written and read by users.  Similar to the Andean Bear study, writing and telling a story is a form of involvement that would strengthen place attachment. However, in this case the involvement is with a person’s memories, so the question arises of whether or not attachment can be strengthened without any new knowledge or experience, but by exercising past knowledge and experience alone.  With respect to the study of roadside vs. situated field work, having a RegionRadio user listen to a story told from someone else’s perception eliminates the agency of the learning and therefore decreases the potential for building an attachment.  However, one motivation for RegionRadio’s incorporation of user-authored stories is the assumption that they will be more compelling than most stories extracted from a Google search. Therefore, a possible new relationship to explore would be the effect that the interestingness of a story has on the formation of place attachment.

Agency in web exploration

Another relationship to further explore is the effect that the agency involved in web exploration around a place has on an individual’s attachment to the place.  This is applicable to RegionRadio’s process of automatically selecting stories from the Google search results, which is aimed to make the selection through filters of (among others) user preferences, but does not give the user direct authority in the choice.  Futurist Paul Saffo describes an individual’s ability to select information from a vast cyber-sea of media as a way to reinforce their pre-existing world views.  Information that conflicts with their perspectives is uncomfortable and therefore shut out, which Saffo claims to be detrimental to the growth of empathy.  Saffo’s perspective suggests that agency of web exploration can enhance place attachment because it is increasing a person’s knowledge and familiarity with select places.  However, the ability to form attachment to new places would be lessened because people will lose the capacity to understand and connect to unfamiliar places.

Kamala Varma is a Computer Science  undergraduate at Vanderbilt University supported by NSF Grant 1521672. The opinions expressed herein are Kamala’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University or NSF. You can reach Kamala at kamala.m.varma@vanderbilt.edu