Feature: What Do Humans Find Special about Places?


Social science confirms that people like certain kinds of places better than others. But why? Is it natural beauty? Adventure? Culture? Such questions have implications for how we preserve our special places and build into our environment.

There’s a large and growing body of social research on what makes environments special (and others not so special). Much of it has to do with how we relate such environments.

In one study, Baylor’s Chris Wynveen examined visitors’ attitudes at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

He found that the levels of attachment to a place are strongly affected by the meanings people give to it.

“People become attached to the meanings they ascribe to a place,” said Wynveen. “The kinds of meanings, the greater number of meanings and the greater importance of those meanings will all affect the level of attachment an individual has.”

Wynveen and colleagues gathered 10 self-reported meanings from reef-goers in Australia:

  • Aesthetic beauty
  • Lack of built infrastructure/”pristine” environment
  • Diversity and/or abundance of wildlife
  • Unique natural resources/distinct from most other natural places
  • Facilitation of recreational activities
  • Safety and accessibility
  • Curiosity/exploration
  • Connection to the natural world
  • Solitude, an escape from the everyday
  • Positive experiences with family and friends

Are there meanings that lead to different amounts of attachment? Yes, Wynveen said. Which ones do, however, will differ by context. Aesthetics is a more common meaning, but what’s beautiful can also change by context.

“Meanings are very subjective, they’re socially constructed,” Wynveen said. “You gain them from your friends and family, where you work, the culture around you. So because of that, it’s hard to say ‘These meanings found in Australia are going to be the same in the Great Lakes,’ but there are some (relatively) common meanings.”

Along with natural beauty, the “escape from the everyday,” the “diversity of wildlife” and “experiences with family and friends” are the kinds that tend to cross cultures. Other meanings may be very particular.

Studies also suggest people grow a settlement identity, associate place with community, and bond with physical areas almost like they do with people.

Homesickness can be as real as missing a person.

Image: Wind turbines in Searsburg, Vermont. Image: Environmental Protection Agency.

Image: Wind turbines in Searsburg, Vermont. Image: Environmental Protection Agency.

Where things get trickier is where humans have added their own mark to the environment. An overabundance of man-made structures is often a no-no.

Take offshore wind turbines, for example. Studies show that the greatest resistance to wind farms comes from folks who just don’t like how they look in their environment.

The “lack of built infrastructure” was found to be meaningful in Wynveen’s study, suggesting that wind farms could disrupt a person’s attachment. But it’s also possible that man-made objects could add new meaning.

“If you grow up with a wind farm out your back door, that’s going to be your ‘normal,’” Wynveen said. “It might even represent ‘home’ to you, so it might become meaningful. In Australia, and I know this is true in places like Minnesota too, is that some of these wind farms become tourist attractions because they’re unique and novel. Ten years from now, with wind farms popping up, they may not be unique and novel anymore.”

If wind turbines disrupt one’s relationship with their special place, they can appear ugly, like a desecration of sacred territory. But if they represent something different – the relationship can be different.

It’s possible that renewable developments are distinct from other man-made objects in this regard. In a 2011 study, Patrick Devine-Wright examined responses to a tidal energy installation in two Northern Irish villages to see if it would disrupt attachment in those communities.

To the contrary, both villages accepted them and attachment in one was enhanced.

Although previous studies show that acceptance of development goes down as attachment goes up, this one showed that, when it came to the renewable energy development, a change to the place doesn’t necessarily mean a disruption.

In the enhanced village, there were strong meanings associated with “local vitality,” a concern that a place is too quiet and needs to “liven up.” The other village was more concerned about the preservation of the community and its economy.

For Devine-Wright, the study demonstrates that it is not the form of place change per se that is important, but how it is interpreted and evaluated.

Differences in interpretation may be vaster the more different cultures are.

The U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature and Fort Christian in the capital Charlotte Amalie. Image: Smallbones.

The capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Charlotte Amalie. Image: Smallbones.

In a classic 1981 study, Ervine Zube compared perceptions of Americans, Yugoslavians and Virgin Islanders, showing all three groups pictures of Virgin Island landscapes with and without man-made structures.

He found that those from a more “Western” culture – Americans and Yugoslavians – thought man-made structures take away from scenic quality. But structures made no difference to the Islanders’ opinions.

“Virgin Islanders…do not perceive hotels or apartment buildings as necessarily detracting from that scenic quality,” the study said. “A possible explanation for these divergent perceptions suggests that Virgin Islanders are influenced by the economic symbolism of such structures, that perceptions of quality are intertwined with perceived opportunities for employment and the contributions of such facilities to the Island’s economics.”

Since other data dispute that claim, the authors suggest another explanation: that the islanders, unlike Westerners, have not been taught to believe that scenic beauty is mainly about unmodified landscapes.

Either way, researchers say, it seems the human attachment to place depends as much on the human as the place itself.

Featured Image: Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes was voted the most beautiful place in America in 2011. Credit: Environmental Protection Agency.