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Place attachment

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Finally, a book linking psychological and sociological study of place to the building profession, says Robert Adam

Architects take on a huge responsibility when they make and change places and, if there is one thing architects should care about, it is how people feel about the places where they live. Unless architecture is just a selfish medium for artistic egos, architects must be trying to create places that make a positive contribution to the everyday lives of the people that live in them. Design should encourage and support the way people are attached to the places where they act out their lives.

But how do architects know what makes people more or less attached to places? They might ask them in a staged public consultation, usually designed to turn up a positive result. More often, however, they just rely on intuition and personal design ideals to justify whatever inspires them.

How do architects know what makes people more or less attached to places?

All this passes through the clumsy bureaucracies of the planning system, rife with private empires and vested interests, which often act as nothing more than a filter to any comments made by the people who will be affected. And, as the planners put their personal spin on vague policies, how do they know what makes people attached to the places they control? 

Given the significance of the question ‘How are people attached to the places they know?’ and how can places be enhanced and destroyed, it is surprising that there is practically no link between the burgeoning psychological and sociological study of place attachment and the planning, urban design and architectural professions. Reading Lynne Manzo and Patrick Devine-Wright’s collection of essays, Place Attachment: Advances in Theory, Methods and Applications, the relevance of the subject to the designers and controllers of the built environment is immediately obvious. 

Place attachment is defined as ‘an affective bond that connects people to places’. Its importance for our wellbeing is outlined by David Seamon of Kansas State University: ‘[each of us] unselfconsciously and self-consciously accepts and recognises the place as integral to his or her personal and community identity and self-worth’. The point is reinforced by one of the leading figures in the discipline, Maria Lewicka, professor of psychology at the University of Warsaw, who links place attachment ‘with higher life satisfaction, better social capital, and higher overall adjustment’. 

Fifteen short essays cover a variety of aspects of place attachment. Per Gustafson of Uppsala University has studied the relationship between place attachment, traditionally positively associated with permanent residence, and the mobility of modern life. He finds that ‘people often identify themselves with a type of settlement … and .… tend to choose new home places that match their previous residential experience’.

Leila Scannell and Robert Gifford from the University of Victoria in Canada explore the links between the much more widely researched phenomenon of interpersonal attachment and place attachment.

Most of these and other essays are about theory and techniques and less about results, which are referenced, but often not described. The content is academic and there is a consistent plea for either the usefulness of the techniques promoted by the essay’s author – such as photo research or research tested over longer time periods – or more consistency in research techniques across the discipline. Among the summaries of the various authors’ work and analysis of the components of place attachment important findings do, however, shine through. For example, work on the displacement of ‘severely distressed’ residential areas in the US reveals that, contrary to the views of politicians and bureaucrats, residents enjoy strong place attachment that requires mending, rather than redevelopment. 

This psychological and sociological field of study barely touches the disciplines responsible for designing spaces

Yet, with the exception of a rather ill-fitting and emotive final chapter by a community landscape architect from North Carolina, this introduction to the current state of this psychological and sociological field of study barely touches the disciplines responsible for designing the most significant changes in the physical form of places. This should not put off readers from the architectural and urban design professions. How can those who re-form places ignore work such as that of Nikolay Mihaylov and Douglas Perkins of Vanderbilt University, which seeks to understand the ‘powerful motivators for action to preserve and improve our communities for ourselves, our neighbours and future generations’.

Leaving the final words to one of the editors, Patrick Devine-Wright writes: ‘A sense of alienation from a place may be the outcome of change for individuals who formerly felt strong attachment to that place.’ But architects and urban designers should take heart from the fact that: ‘Place change … is not necessarily disruptive or threatening and can have place-enhancing outcomes, depending on how it is interpreted and evaluated by those experiencing change.’ This is something architects and urban designers need to understand.

  • Robert Adam is a director of ADAM Architecture and author of The Globalisation of Modern Architecture (CSP, 2011)


Place Attachment: Advances in Theory, Methods and Applications, by Lynne Manzo and Patrick Devine-Wright Routledge, 2013, 232pp, £29.99


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